By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Michael Velasquez thought his baseball career was over in 2013.
When he was a sophomore at San Jacinto College in Texas, baseball became the furthest thing from his mind after his mother, Lupita, suffered a massive heart attack.
“I thought baseball was done for me. I never thought I’d play in between the lines again,” Velasquez said. “I sacrificed the game of baseball for my mother and at the end of the day it was all worth it.”
Velasquez quit baseball, and helped take care of his mother as she fought to recover from the cardiac arrest. It was a tough decision because teams like the Boston Red Sox, New York Mets and Detroit Tigers showed interest in him as a freshman.
The now-24-year-old helped Lupita get back to full health, all while staying in shape himself.
“I was overwhelmed with what was going on with my mother,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about baseball at that time. I was just thinking in my head that it was done.
“I stayed working out, though. I didn’t know much about dieting and eating right, but (I learned) for my mother. It was a sacrifice I did for her. It turned out great. She would walk and I would run.”
Once Lupita made a full recovery, baseball still wasn’t a thought for Velasquez until a friend mentioned the Tampa Bay Rays were having a tryout in Mercedes, Texas.
Velasquez hadn’t thrown a baseball in quite a while, and was just planning to go back to college to get an education. He decided to attend the tryout, and the way he describes it is almost straight out of the movie “The Rookie.”
That movie detailed the rise of former Tampa Bay relief pitcher Jim Morris, who was a high school teacher and coach when signed out of a tryout camp after flirting with 100 mph on the radar gun. Morris had been a prospect as a pitcher in junior college until hurting his arm.
“I threw maybe five pitches and they laughed at the radar gun,” Velasquez said. “I thought in my head ‘what’s going on back there?’ They made me throw a couple more pitches and it was 95 and 96. That was it. They told me to stick around, and I’m here now.”
A left-handed pitcher who can throw a 96 mph fastball is probably going to get a shot on any team he tries out for, and the Rays signed Velasquez in 2014.
It’s a moment he and his family will never forget.
“I could see this as a second chance. It was all in it for my mother. All my attention was on her, making sure she could see another day, Velasquez said. “Signing my pro contract and having my mom there and not on her death bed., if I could describe it in one word, it’d be unbelievable. Just seeing my mother, she let it out.”
The Rays announced their minor league rosters Monday morning and Velasquez was assigned to the Charlotte Stone Crabs, where he’ll be a starting pitcher.
In 24 starts for the Bowling Green Hot Rods last season, he pitched to a 8-9 record with a 4.86 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 113 innings pitched. He’s just one of two lefties on the Stone Crabs’ roster this season, so he will add versatility to the pitching rotation.
“He really stuck out to me this spring as a guy I think we’ll be able to lean on to get a bunch of innings and not tax our bullpen,” Stone Crabs manager Michael Johns said. “I love the kid’s stuff and his make up of just looking at him on the mound.”
Velasquez’s first start of the season will likely come Saturday against the Bradenton Marauders.