By Blake Spurney
Harvey County Now Staff
NEWTON – Adrian Lujano said he always was on the lookout for pitchers when he travels to tournaments with the Newton Mexican-American Athletic Club because “If you don’t have a pitcher, you don’t have a game.”
NMAAC is one of two local teams that will be competing in the 74th Annual Mexican-American Softball Tournament this weekend at three different parks in Newton. The other is Los Rayos.
Lujano said when he’s at tournaments like he was last weekend in San Antonio, he’s always networking with other teams to find younger players. He said they might compete hard against one another, but “at the end of the day, we’re all friends and family with one other.” The competition merely brings out the best among the players, which is why he said they continued to play.
“This is a club,” he said, “We just do it for pride and fun.”
Lujano said everyone on the team he manages was a former baseball player. Some of them played in college and some of those who will be on the diamonds this weekend played in the minor leagues. He said, as he and the others got older, they transitioned to playing fastpitch softball.
“It’s just a shorter game,” he said. “In fastpitch, you have to be locked in around the knee because that’s the release point. If you have baseball skills, it’s just a matter of repetition and practice.”
Lujano said he would like to think NMAAC had as good a chance as any team to claim the championship. The team finished third a couple of summers ago, but he said the players were coming in hungry this year because NMAAC didn’t perform up to its standards last year.
“With the amount of teams, you always want to get in the top four because then you have a chance to win it,” he said. ‘It’s going to be difficult because we have good teams here.”
NMAAC’s top two aces are Carlos Rodiles and Abelardo Garcia. Lujano said both pitchers hailed from Mexico. He was able to get them to play for Newton because he said the tournament had a lot of notoriety among the Hispanic community.
In addition to having a crack pitching staff, Lujano said it was important to have a bilingual catcher to accommodate a pitcher if a language barrier existed.
“Nobody needs to talk to the pitcher except the catcher during the game,” he said. “Some of the guys, it’s their first time coming to the states. As a manager, that’s one of my jobs is to make them feel comfortable to continue to play. They come to our community and we make them feel at home.”
Lujano said one of his duties also was to continue to field a team. He said it had been a struggle to field a team since the sport of fastpitch was dying. The team he manages dates back to the 1970s when it was known as Holy Name. He said the Texas teams had an advantage since they could play all year long. He said the game was very competitive there also because there are that many players from which to choose. He compared NMAAC to The Temptations in that no one is bigger than the band name itself. Players come and go.
Richard Martinez, with Los Rayos, said his team was the young one, with most of the players ranging between 18-20 years old. He used to play when he was younger, but the 58-year-old now devotes his time to trying to keep the tradition going.
“I’m just basically recruiting all these young kids in Newton and all those towns around to try to keep the fastpitch game alive,” he said.
Martinez said it was hard to find male pitchers who were willing to pitch underhanded and he’s got a couple in Nick Arumburu and Joseph Romero.
“It takes time, it takes practice and it takes dedication,” he said.
Martinez said he tried to stay optimistic about his team’s chances.
“It’s not about winning or losing,” he said. “It’s getting these kids involved and keeping them involved in the game.”
Martinez said a lot of Los Rayos’ players got a taste of playing fastpitch and many of them thought it was fun and not as boring as hardball. The pitcher is a lot closer and the batter has less time to decide on whether to swing. He said a batter couldn’t use a hardball swing and the first and third basemen have to position themselves closer to the plate because the bases are closer together.
Brayden Monares is one of the young converts to the game. He said he appreciated all the generations who played before him.
“My great-grandfather, Angel Monares, played a long time ago, and I think it’s really cool how many generations have played beforehand,” he said.
Monares said Los Rayos was just put together before the tournament last year and yet the team still won couple of games. He said he thought Los Rayos has chance to go farther in the tournament since the players had more experience under their belts. Meanwhile, Los Rayos and NMAAC players will continue the tradition of building bonds with players who come to Newton from far-flung places like Venezuela for the oldest tournament of its kind.
“Let’s just say things are different than what they were when the first tournament occurred in Newton,” Martinez said.