June 2, 2010
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
If you believe in destiny, then maybe the flashing message from Isotopes Park to Chris Juarez on his many treks from Colorado to Cochise College (and back again) was, "come into the light."
There is no question that Juarez had thoughts dancing in his head about playing baseball under the bright lights of Isotopes Park. In a way, it became his field of dreams. He dreamed about becoming a Lobo.
"Every time I drove past and saw the lights, that's what I would be thinking," said Juarez. "I would look at the lights at Isotopes Park and think how cool it would be to be a Lobo playing there."
It does seem like destiny, coincidence and good fortune joined hands in placing Juarez into a New Mexico uniform. He made the trek down I-25 because it was the best route linking Lakewood, Colo. (home) to Douglas, Ariz. (Cochise). He became a Lobo because of a link between UNM coach Ray Birmingham and the Director of Athletics at Cochise.
Maybe some bad luck became involved, too.
Juarez had committed to William & Mary in Virginia and it appeared that's where Juarez would finish out his college career. Then some bad luck hit. Not all Juarez's credits from Cochise were accepted at William & Mary. That put Juarez back on the streets looking for a new home.
"I called Bo Hall (Cochise AD) and he said, `OK, give me a week and I'll find something,'" said Juarez. "He called me back the next day and said it was either Sam Houston State or New Mexico."
Of course, New Mexico had the edge on Sam Houston. There were the bright lights of Isotopes Park dancing in Juarez's head. And he already knew how to get to Albuquerque from Lakewood. "Just jump on I-25 and head South," said Juarez, smiling.
Birmingham was cool with the Cochise kid, too. "Bo Hall called me and said I need to take this guy," said Birmingham. "When Bo tells you a guy can play, he can play."
But not always right away.
Juarez's problem in 2009 was the UNM lineup was loaded with hitters. The Cochise transfer came to UNM off a .341 hitting season, but he fell in line behind a couple of all-conference outfielders named Max Willett and Brian Cavazos-Galvez. Juarez did get in 42 at-bats in 2009 and did hit .333, but it was mostly a wait-your-turn season.
Juarez waited. He also worked.
"Anytime you are sitting on the bench, it's frustrating because you want to be out there," he said. "But when there are two .400 hitters out there, it's hard to argue."
This season probably is frustrating for some other Lobos, who are riding the pine and watching another .400 hitter trot into the outfield - Juarez, who is pounding the ball at a .406 clip.
"You hit .400 at the D-I level against our schedule and that's quite a feat," said Birmingham, whose Lobos are in the Los Angeles area this weekend in the NCAA playoffs. UNM opens at 5 p.m. (MT) vs. Stanford.
"But I still like to call him `Gork.' He gets a lot of Punch & Judy hits. He gets more grounders that slip between two diving infielders than anybody I have seen in my life."
Gork is a slang baseball term for a weak or lucky hit. Juarez doesn't deny being fortunate with a few seeing-eye grounders, but he says the harder you work, the luckier you are. Juarez also does a good job hitting pitches that other batters might miss. You put a ball into play, there is a chance something good might happen.
Good things have been happening for Juarez most of the season. He appeared to be a lock for All-Mountain West first team, but was placed on the second team. He is second on the Lobos in average behind Justin Howard.
Juarez said another reason he came to UNM, besides knowing which road to take, was because of Birmingham's reputation of developing hitters.
"I want to play at the next level and I knew Coach B could help me with that part of my game," said Juarez.
Juarez played high school ball at Green Mountain High in Lakewood, Colo. He played basketball, but steered away from football. "I was too little and too scared to play football," he said. "I was about 160 pounds when I graduated.
"I knew I wanted to play college baseball, but I didn't have the size coming out of high school. I need to get into the weight room and mature physically and mentally. I came to New Mexico with high expectations for myself and I'm proud of what I've done, but the best part is I know I can get better."
The Lobos are in a place this weekend where it would be nice if Juarez and every Lobo stepped up and played their best ball. It's not the light of Isotopes, but the NCAA playoffs definitely bring a spotlight.