NAPPANEE – NorthWood baseball head coach AJ Risedorph admitted earlier this year his program has had a lot of the same type of players. The program has never had a young man like Sergio Lira Ayala.
The road for Ayala to end up not just in the western dugout at NorthWood, but to Nappanee via Goshen from his homeland of Puerto Rico is remarkable.
On September 20, 2017, Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands were slammed into by Hurricane Maria. Depending on whom you ask, Puerto Rico experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history, and still continues to recover from it. So much so that Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora recently announced he is skipping a visit to the White House when the Sox are to be celebrated for winning the World Series, citing the Trump administration has done little to address the continued distress to which the country still toils.
Ayala’s story at home in Puerto Rico sounds like so many others that have filtered from the United States territory in the Caribbean. Coming from a working class family with little money, Ayala learned about hard work from a young age. Growing up like most children on the island, baseball is king. Without the resources so many in the states take for granted, Ayala actually did use whatever was available like handmade weights out of rocks and one baseball to share.
Sergio’s father, Sergio Lira Torres, and mother, Yolanda Ayala Rios, did what they could to keep the family moving. Often times, their hometown of Bayamón, didn’t, as Sergio Jr. described as full of drugs and gangs, forcing daily life in and out of school to be about choices and willpower.
“My life in Puerto Rico, we had to work hard,” Ayala stated. “My dad had to work three jobs to provide for us. We grew up that we learned to make it we had to work hard. It’s just in our blood. Coming from Puerto Rico, you play baseball. That’s what everyone plays. You see the working class, baseball gives you life.
“So many times in school, people would try to give you drugs, try to get you to join gangs. If you say no, they would laugh at you. You just had to remember to stay true to your team, not fall for the peer pressure. Remember what you work hard for.”
The actual damage Maria did to the island has been estimated at over $94 billion, at least that is what Puerto Rican authorities requested to cover damages. Power still isn’t fully restored nearly 18 months later, and the affects are still raw. Ayala’s description of Sept. 20, 2017, was chilling.
“When we got the notice the hurricane was coming, we’ve had hurricanes before and we thought it would just go away,” recalled Ayala. “But when it hit the island, many people were not prepared. Maybe 90 percent weren’t prepared. That’s what made it difficult.
“I remember that first night, it was like dragons were throwing fireballs at the house. It was really scary. Dragons around the whole island trying to destroy the whole island. It was really scary and boring. Boring. Really boring. But that kind of was a good thing for Puerto Rico in a way, a blessing. It was a trial for the people of Puerto Rico to get together.”
For Ayala and his family, there was a decision that would change their lives. Torres had a brother who lived in Goshen, and around Thanksgiving of 2017, Sergio Sr., Sergio Jr. and another brother, Brian, decided to move to Indiana. The choice to leave the island was hard, but necessary. With the move came a new school, where Ayala began attending Bethany Christian while they got on their feet. After Ayala finished out his freshman year, he found a new home in the NorthWood district.
“In Puerto Rico, we don’t have high school baseball, just organizations,” Ayala said. “I was used to playing the whole year, but here they play in the spring and summer, then nothing for six months. It was a big change for me. Also playing in the cold, I’m still not used to that.”
One of the biggest changes Ayala had to get used to other than the seasons has been the resources.
“The AC building is a blessing for me, we have nothing like this where I’m from,” Ayala said in reference to the AC building at NorthWood, often used for indoor training for NorthWood’s athletic programs. “What so many people don’t understand is they see that building and they think they deserve it. We don’t deserve anything. Us humans, we don’t deserve anything. We work hard for it, and it’s granted to us, but we don’t deserve it.”
Ayala has made the most of his new baseball opportunity. For Bethany as a freshman, Ayala hit .392 with 20 hits and 17 RBIs. After catching on and training with his new club team, Indiana Chargers under the direction of coach Joe Mishler, Ayala began to slowly impact with the Panthers this spring. Through Tuesday’s win against Bethany Christian, his old club, Ayala is batting just .227, but has a higher on-base percentage (.397) than three of the team’s five seniors. He also is second on the team in walks (10), and his flare for the dramatic has already appeared. His three-run homer against Bremen during the K Cancer Game helped the Panthers pull away for a win, and his steal of home and two runs scored helped NorthWood claim a key win over Northridge.
“His background and culture, family is all they have, and that’s who they fight for,” Risedorph said. “Once he showed up, our guys were all about it. They were very welcoming. I think he is teaching our guys a lot more than they realize. Especially with things that Sergio feels are absolute blessings. The AC, that is a blessing for him. For our guys, our football program has done this, basketball did this, baseball did this. It’s great that our programs have had success, but eventually the kids just expect it rather than how Sergio sees things as a blessing.”
Risedorph has moved Ayala around the order this season to find a comfort level. With teams wanting to attack NorthWood’s top of the order to avoid the big bats in the middle, Risedorph put Ayala in the eight hole to relieve some of Ayala’s self-appointed pressure. The move has been good for the lineup, where the sophomore has had five hits, six walks and four of his seven RBIs from the lower third. His quickness and big arm have given NorthWood a lot of options on offense and defense.
“Sergio is a sub-seven guy in the 60-yard dash, and that kind of speed gives him a lot of range defensively, and also on the basepaths,” Risedorph said. “He has a huge arm throwing, and we charted where a lot of the batted balls went off our pitchers, and it was left and left-center. In the last couple of years, we didn’t throw a lot of people out from center, it was from left and right field. His arm out there is a real asset for us.”
Ayala has really taken on this new start.
“Baseball is my language. Baseball is my life,” Ayala said, a glowing smile coming across his face. “I’ve played baseball my whole life. I’m still learning. I’m just 16. I have way more time to keep learning and keep growing. I’m just blessed to have this opportunity in my life.”