Opponent 'Pinch Hits' as Translator

May 9, 2016

By Butch Harmon
Special for Second Half

ALLENDALE – A few weeks after Forest Hills Northern second baseman Mitchell Gumbko “pinch hit” to help Allendale pitcher Javier Gonzalez bridge a language gap during a freshman baseball game, their story of sportsmanship continues to spread around the Grand Rapids area and beyond.

Pitching in his first high school game as a member of the Allendale freshman baseball team against Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern on April 18, Gonzalez was in a jam. Not only did he walk the first batter he faced, but he then committed a balk. With the umpire coming out to the mound to explain the situation, the jam only worsened as Gonzalez – who has been in the United States for only just over a year – speaks very little English.

In a society where winning is a major emphasis in sports, Gonzalez, however, picked up a major assist from the Northern batter who was due up soon.

Gumbko has been in the Forest Hills Northern school district’s Spanish Immersion program since he was in kindergarten. With Gonzalez continuing to struggle, Gumbko made his way to the mound with the coaches and umpires to give his opponent some help.

“I didn’t realize their pitcher was struggling so much,” Gumbko told Advance Newspapers/MLive last week, “but Coach (Joe) Payne asked if anyone speaks Spanish on our team. I have been in the Spanish Immersion program since kindergarten so I told Coach that I’m fluent in Spanish.”

Gonzalez’ coach Chad DeWeerd was happy for the help from the opposing dugout.

During Allendale practices, DeWeerd has been counting on freshman Cooper Tolson to give all the help he can. But explaining the balk rule required a little more explanation than the rest of the Falcons could offer their teammate.

“Before the game I let the Northern coach know that Javier speaks hardly any English,” DeWeerd also told Advance Newspapers/MLive. “My kids know a little Spanish, but not enough to help in that situation.”

DeWeerd had told Payne beforehand about Gonzalez and the language hurdle. “As I was walking to coach third base, the head coach from Allendale warned me that his pitcher does not speak English and that this is his first time pitching,” Payne said. “I told him not to worry.

“The Allendale pitcher looked nervous and uncomfortable, and you can tell he was unfamiliar with pitching. After walking our first batter, the next pitch he balked, which advanced our runner to second base. I saw the field umpire trying to explain to the pitcher what he was doing wrong, but the pitcher looked at him with a blank look.”

Payne informed the home plate umpire about the situation. After a few more pitches, and with Gonzalez continuing to struggle with the balk rule, Payne called on his player to step in and become a language pinch-hitter.

At Ada Vista Elementary, all subjects are taught in Spanish beginning in the first grade. Gumbko has become fluent in his second language.

“I needed Mitchell to become his coach instead of his opponent,” Payne said. “I asked the Allendale coach if I could call time out and have one my players translate to the pitcher.”

This time the conference on the mound became a lot more beneficial for Gonzalez, who had someone with whom he could communicate – even though he was wearing the opponent’s uniform.

“I think he was pretty surprised and also happy to be able to talk to someone he could understand,” Gumbko said. “The umpire told me what to say to him because he was balking, and he did not know he was doing it. It was pretty awesome to just know that I can use (Spanish) on a daily basis and was cool to realize I was helping him out.”

“You can tell Javier was nervous and did not know what was going on, until Mitchell started to translate instructions to him in Spanish,” Payne said. “Javier’s eyes just sparkled. Javier just kept nodding yes, ‘Si,’ and at the same time agreeing in Spanish back to Mitchell and understanding what Mitchell was saying.”

While Gonzalez’ teammates are not as familiar with the Spanish language as Gumbko, they have been trying their best to pick up as much as possible.

“The team has really embraced Javy,” DeWeerd said. “The first day of tryouts when they were stretching and loosening up they started counting in Spanish.”

“Cooper knows a little more Spanish than the rest of the guys,” DeWeerd added. “He has tried to help him as much as he can. The guys also have an app on their phone that helps with translation, and they have a lot of fun on the bus rides. This is a really special team and they have embraced Javy, and he really is one of the kids.”

Gonzales and his family of five, who are originally from the southern section of Mexico, have been in the United States for a year and a month. While he also enjoys soccer and was a member of Allendale’s junior varsity soccer team last fall, he has been playing baseball since he was a child and enjoys pitching the most. Along with pitching, Javy also plays right field for the Falcons.

Since the Northern game more people in the Allendale community have learned about Javy’s story – and offered assistance.

“Our 8th-grade Spanish teacher, Mrs. (Lynne) Burns, found out about Javy’s story and sent an e-mail to our athletic director offering to come and help,” DeWeerd said. “She is going to be at our next game. It’s not just the team that has helped out Javy, but the whole school is helping.”

Having Gumbko step up in that first game, however, was an act of sportsmanship that will be remembered for some time.

“I just stopped and realized this is why I am a teacher,” Payne also said in the Advance Newspapers/MLive report. “This is why I coach, for moments like this.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Allendale freshman baseball players Javier Gonzalez (left) and Cooper Tolson. (Middle) Gonzalez jogs on the field during a recent game. (Photos by Butch Harmon.) 

Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

May 24, 2023

Kenna Bommarito remembers how many people were in East Lansing a year ago to support her and her Algonac softball teammates at the Division 3 Semifinals.

Bay & ThumbSo, she has an idea of how many people from the town would show up if both the softball and baseball teams were there this time around.

“I think everyone would be,” the junior pitcher said.

There’s a decent possibility that Bommarito’s theory could be tested. The Muskrats softball team is ranked No. 2 in Division 3, and Tuesday night clinched the first Blue Water Area Conference title in program history.

That came one night after the baseball team – ranked No. 1 in Division 3 – also won its first BWAC title. The BWAC was created in 2002, and Algonac was an original member.

“It’s amazing – this town loves it,” said senior baseball player Tyler Schultz. “We’ve got a small community, and everybody is tagging along. I remember last year, a couple of our final postseason games, that was the most people I’ve ever seen at a game. All of the sports here are starting to build up. We have athletes all around the school. I think as time goes on, I think each sport will get better and better.”

Bommarito’s imagined scenario nearly played out a year ago, as both teams made their deepest postseason run.

While the softball team was making its historic run to the Semifinal, the baseball team was making one of its own, advancing to the Quarterfinal for the first time in program history.

Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in.The baseball team’s movement toward this started with the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when the Muskrats won back-to-back District titles.

“We had a couple DI (college) players, and when you have those players come through, it generates excitement through the youth,” said Algonac baseball coach Scott Thaler, who took over the program in 2017. “It’s been a trickle-down effect from that initial first two years. That really set the bar. We’ve had some really good baseball players come through, and I have a great staff.”

Thaler had stressed back then that he wanted to build a program at Algonac and not have it be a flash in the pan. That certainly looks like it’s happening, and not just because his Muskrats are winning and sitting atop the state rankings.

Algonac – which has fewer than 500 students in the entire school – has junior varsity and freshman baseball teams. Thaler also said there are 25 eighth graders coming into the program next year.

“I think that when I was smaller in little league, we didn’t really have that where we went out on the field with the varsity players,” said junior pitcher Josh Kasner. “Now, that’s gotten a lot better. A lot of the smaller kids we see around town, they know who we are and about (the program).”

Of course, talent wasn’t enough to get there. Thaler needed to instill belief in his team in order to help the younger generation see what was possible.

“I was a (football assistant) coach under Scott Barnhart, and one of the things we preached to the kids back then is ‘To believe in the things you haven’t seen before,’” Thaler said. “That’s the mantra we brought to them last year, ‘Why not us?’ Just because it hasn’t happened before here doesn’t mean you can’t believe in that. We had to get them to believe.”

The Quarterfinal run provided proof beyond the belief for the Muskrats, and then the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association added to it all, naming Algonac the preseason No. 1 team in Division 3.

Luckily for Thaler, his team took it in stride.

The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield.“I mean, it was a great feeling, but part of me had some doubts,” Schultz said “We’ve got some younger kids on the team, and I thought that maybe they might look at that and might get complacent, but me and some of the other seniors have done a good job of keeping all of these guys looking forward. We’ve still got one goal, and that’s to finish (with a Finals title).”

While the softball team didn’t enter the season with a No. 1 ranking, the expectations were certainly there, as was a new target on its back.

But bigger than both was motivation following a walk-off loss to Millington in the Semifinal.

“I think it just shows us that in those big games with those types of teams, you can never say never,” said first-year softball coach Natalie Heim, who was an assistant on last year’s team. “You really have to bear down. That Millington team that beat us, they fought hard. But I definitely think it fuels us more to get back.”

The softball program’s rise may have seemed more sudden to those on the outside, but senior Ella Stephenson said it had been bubbling for a while.

“My sophomore year, we had some talent for sure,” she said. “We had a really good season, but not as good as junior and senior year. The class above me was really talented. But they kind of turned the program around in my eighth-grade year, and it kind of kept building from there.”

During Stephenson’s sophomore season, the Muskrats lost a tough District game against Richmond, which went on to win the Division 3 Finals title. Not only are the Blue Devils a common early postseason opponent for the Muskrats, they’re also a conference rival. As is Almont. And Croswell-Lexington. And … It’s a brutal conference.

The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo.So, much like the baseball team, even during the softball team’s historic 2022 season, winning the conference this spring proved to be tougher than making a deep postseason run.

That made Tuesday night’s sweep of North Branch to clinch the BWAC that much sweeter.

“Honestly, it’s a rush of just happiness,” Bommarito said. “We’re all so excited and just can’t believe we did it. We just played game-by-game today, and really took it one pitch, one out at a time.”

Not only has the BWAC prepared the Muskrats for the possibility of another deep postseason run, it helped keep them focused throughout the season.

“I think a lot of teams don’t have that luxury of facing the best competition during the season,” Heim said. “I think it keeps (the Muskrats) not looking too far ahead. We try to have that approach of one game at a time, one inning at a time, one pitch at a time. It helps with having goals that are a little tougher to achieve. Winning our league, it’s tough. It’s not an easy feat. Especially after last year’s success, it would have been easy to look ahead.”

Now, with league titles secured, both teams can focus on their ultimate goals and the postseason that is directly in front of them.

All with the hope that their similarities – on top of the league titles, both teams are 29-2 as of Wednesday, and both have a University of Michigan-bound player (Kasner and Stephenson) – continue through the third weekend of June with matching trips to East Lansing.

“That’d be unreal. That would be so cool,” Stephenson said. “We all have really good friendships on the baseball and softball teams. Our records are identical. We both won our conference. It’s just really cool. I’m really happy for their success, and ours, too.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Algonac pitcher Kenna Bommarito makes her move toward the plate during last season’s Division 3 Semifinal against Millington. (2) Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in. (3) The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield. (4) The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo. (Baseball photos and softball team photo courtesy of the Algonac athletic department.)