Born to Play
Eugenio Velez made one of the more spectacular plays of spring training so far – a lunging catch in left field Tuesday to preserve the Giants’ 7-6 victory over the Diamondbacks.
“I saw the ball so far from me,” Velez was quoted as saying afterward. “But if you never give up you’ve got a chance, and I never gave up.”
That’s been the story of his life. He wanted to play baseball for as long as he can remember. But he faced an almost insurmountable barrier: His mother.
Pura Eugenia Vancamper named her son after herself, and they always had a particularly close bond. She knew early on that baseball had a hold on him. When she let her three children choose a toy one day at a store, her older son chose a truck, her daughter a doll and Eugenio, still just a toddler, went straight for the plastic bat and ball. She tried to talk him into a tricycle but he insisted on the bat and ball.
Eugenio loved the game so much. He would skip school and spend the day at the park playing pick-up games with his friends. After his mother caught on to what was happening, Eugenio would secretly remove the schoolbooks from his backpack before leaving the house and replace them with his glove and baseballs.
“I wanted him to play, but I did not want him to stop going to school,” Vancamper said through an interpreter by phone from her father’s home in Washington Heights in New York. She moved there from her home in the Dominican Republic so her youngest son, now 19, could college there.
When Eugenio was 14, his mother said he had to start thinking about his future — and she told him it was not in baseball. She thought he should be an engineer. Eugenio tried to explain to her what baseball meant to him.
“I’m going to play no matter what,” he told her.
She rarely attended his games, holding onto her hopes of her son becoming an engineer. Plus, the few times she did watch him play, she was sure he was going to hurt himself the way he dove all over the place.
When Eugenio was 17, a scout for the Giants came to her with papers. They wanted to sign Eugenio to a contract. She refused. He was too young to leave, she thought. She had never been separated from any of her children.
“Mom, you have to sign,” Eugenio pleaded. “This is my life.”
She signed, then sat down and cried all night. “I knew that once he made it to the Big Leagues he would never come back,” she says. “It felt like he was being taken away from me. I was very sad, but at the same time I was happy for him because I knew that was what he wanted.”
Even now that he’s in the majors, Vancamper rarely watches her son play on television. “I get very sad; especially when he runs the bases with the speed he has,” she says. “I feel like something is going to happen to him. When he bats and I see how fast the ball is thrown, I begin to worry that he is going to get hit. I can’t stand to watch, so I go to another room.”
Vancamper had worked as a babysitter in Manhattan but now Eugenio supports her and his half-brother, Adrian. Adrian plays baseball on his college team – also second base and shortstop.
“I’m really proud of him,” Adrian said by phone from New York. “I never thought that I’d have a brother playing major-league baseball. I’m really surprised. It’s really unbelievable.”
Not to Eugenio.
Thanks to fireplacet and obsessivegiantscompulsive for pointing out my error about Velez signing with the Giants. Of course he signed with the Blue Jays then was selected by the Giants in the Rule 5 draft. And he was 19 not 17. Arrgghhh. Nothing I hate more than getting my facts wrong. But you both were so kind in the way you phrased your correction. Much different, I must say, from the indignant rants I got as a sports columnist at the Chronicle a decade ago. Either society is getting kinder or the Giants simply have considerate fans. I hope it’s both, but I’m putting my money on the latter.