You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger baseball guy than German Duran, who you can meet and watch pass along baseball tips Feb 17-18 at The Rio Rancho Sports Complex on High Resort Blvd.
Duran, 33, says he owes everything he has to America’s pastime, which he learned growing up in Zacatecas, Mexico.
Here it is in a nutshell: Wrapping a rock with cotton for a baseball, using a branch from a mesquite tree as a bat, using rocks as bases and playing shoeless — and gloveless; getting a college scholarship to play the game he loved; being a sixth-round pick of the Texas Rangers in the 2005 draft; tearing up the Texas League with Frisco in 2007 (.300, 22 HRs, 184 hits, 84 RBIs); making "The Show" in 2008; and, sadly, having his back broken in an automobile accident a few years later.
"In 2012, I was with the Marlins (organization); I got hit (by another car) from behind, hit the median … It broke my back, took away my movement — I had a concussion and vertigo. (After surgery), I tried to play, even when I was hurt. The doctor said there was a 70-30 chance of that — to me, a 30 percent chance of walking was a very high chance.
"After the car accident, I wasn’t able to play anymore," he said, although he did make a comeback and play a couple more seasons. "I had never been without it. I didn’t know what to do with my life… allow yourself to share the game with others — for kids who don’t have the opportunities."
Hence, his current involvement with camps and training others.
"That was a hard hit," he said. "I had to become a full-time husband. It was heartbreaking at the time, but now I’m thankful for it because it was for a reason — it was another lesson I was learning, and I’m still learning."
A humble man
Now, Duran’s "paying it forward," thanks to his long friendship with Rio Rancho newcomer and Sunset Little League parent Isaac DeLeon.
"We grew up a few houses down, his family and my family," DeLeon said of their days in Burlison, Texas. "I was 19; he was 8,9 when he played in the Ft. Worth Optimists League."
It hadn’t been easy for the Duran family, even after they came to the U.S. People still treated them badly, but baseball became an equalizer of sorts.
"Here (in the U.S.) we’d get made fun of for having the wrong shoes or the way we dressed; on the field, we could compete — talk back through the baseball field," Duran said, not caring who he was playing with or against, just wanting to play. "I’d search the neighborhoods and see who wanted to play."
That was a lot different than the haphazard games they’d played in Mexico, where Duran didn’t have a TV to watch big-league games and didn’t even realize that someday not only could he play the game in high school, but also in college (TCU for one season) and even get paid to play it.
"Once we came to the states at 6 years old, we saw they had baseball teams — we didn’t know that (there was such a thing)," he said in a recent lengthy telephone conversation. "It was eye-opening.
"For me, it was hard to get accustomed to being here because I was so afraid to leave home; (my father) gave me a glove and a ball, that’s what ‘brought’ me back to Mexico, on the ranch and being safe and it allowed us to be kids.
"We were homeless for the first 3-4 years, moving from garage to garage," he said, but once he could find a ballgame, "I was the happiest kid in the world — you work hard for what you want and it was baseball."
He learned a lot about life while playing the game.
"We didn’t have toys," he said. "That was the one game our dad taught us to play when we were 3 years old.
"I didn’t know the opportunity was that big," he said, and when he was playing professionally, "It kept my hometown in my heart … I felt like a kid when I was out there."
Along the way, Duran learned "how to respect the game, how to respect others, but make sure you do everything you can together to win. Never compete against a person, you compete against the ball — do anything in your power to catch the ball. When you’re hitting, do whatever you can to hit it. And touch every base.
"We had never used a glove — that’s when we met Isaac DeLeon — they lived about three blocks from us, and I started playing at an elementary school. It was a different kind of game; it made us feel the same," Duran said. "We were sort of vagabonds — it gave me a way of getting hope, (baseball was) something to look forward to every day; go to the field. I would be at the field every day, playing for three or four teams.
"It was a huge part of our lives — and it still is."
Paying it forward to an old friend
Flash ahead to a phone call from DeLeon last year, with Duran responding by coming to Rio Rancho last fall for a meet-and-greet.
"When he called, I wanted to help," he said. "You may see me as a hero for you, but I was 10 years old and you went into the Navy, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world — helping the world — ‘Oh, man, I’m seeing a superhero.’ (The DeLeons) played a big part in our lives, because we were with them so much. I grew up with his younger brother (Adam) – they were people who accepted us for who we were. ... My parents still live down the street from them (his parents)."
Duran will probably always be giving back to the game he loves, whether it’s helping out at youth camps in Texas with some of his former Rangers teammates — Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez — or here at the Rio Rancho Sports Complex with his old buddy, DeLeon.
The one-time "Shoeless German" who grew up hitting rocks with a stick has come a long way.
"It’s amazing euphoria, this joy; every new season was just like Christmas all over again," he said. "I didn’t even know you could have a career; they drafted me out of high school. (Baseball) was a passage to help me grow as a man, be the kind of person God wanted me to be.
"Now, I give this joy back to the kids."
Those interested in this youth clinic, organized by DeLeon for Sunset and Cibola Little Leaguers and anyone else ages 5-18 wanting to improve their skills on the diamond, can register for the camp (noon to 4 both days) this weekend at ballcharts.com/sunsetll. Call DeLeon at 1-855-33-HOMER for more information.
"Everybody says, ‘When you teach it, you teach it with such passion,’" Duran said. "I want people to see when I teach it, it’s part of my home, where it began. Every time I teach it, it’s like I’m sharing my home. (God) taught me how to appreciate those little moments."
Maybe there’ll be a youngster like Duran or Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart showing up.
"Hold that dream on tight, never let it go; do whatever you can to help people in need," Duran concluded. "When you play the game, play with love and respect — show everybody how hard you play. Don’t ever take it for granted."