It was a routine phone call from a college coach to a high school recruit, one of hundreds of thousands made across the country each year.
First-year Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich was speaking last September to Detroit Western senior Hector Gutierrez Jr.
Bakich asked a simple question: “How are you doing?”
Gutierrez’s parents were in the room, eavesdropping on the conversation of the oldest of their four sons. They flipped out when they heard him say: “Coach, I want to play for you. I want to commit.”
Thousands of athletes make commitments each year and every one of them is special. But this one was extraordinary.
Gutierrez is the first PSL athlete to receive a baseball scholarship to U-M since Detroit Northwestern’s Kourtney Thompson signed a letter of intent in 1985.
The biggest factor is that PSL baseball is the polar opposite of PSL basketball. College basketball coaches flock to Detroit to ogle the talent. College baseball coaches? Not so much.
“I know how it is in basketball, but in baseball they say a lot of inner-city kids don’t have it anymore,” Gutierrez said. “But it’s starting to come around now.”
That’s thanks to coach Juan Sanchez and his cousin, Mike, who have turned Western into a program that can compete with the top teams in the state.
Last July 1, the first day college coaches could make phone calls to 2013 prospects, Gutierrez awoke to find six voice mails on his phone. The first was from Bakich — and came at the stroke of midnight.
Well before that, the outstanding shortstop and excellent pitcher had become a high-profile recruit.
As a sophomore, Gutierrez came within one inning of making Western the first Detroit Public School League to win a state quarterfinal game.
He also performed well at the East Coast Professional Showcase in New York, one of the top showcases in the country.
Making Gutierrez’s commitment and eventual signing of a letter of intent so spectacular was the reaction of his parents.
“You just committed!” his parents screamed. “You’re going to college!”
Gutierrez, an honor student with a 3.5 grade-point average, was always headed to college, even if he had never played baseball.
Baseball just made college more affordable for the family.
“I started thinking about college when I was a freshman,” he said. “I thought baseball would help me get into college. I’m going to be the first to go to college, so I want to make them proud.”
Gutierrez will be the first member on either side of his family to go to college. He also will be the first male in his immediate family to finish high school.
“I dropped out of high school,” said his father, Hector Sr. “I had my son, so at that point my priorities changed a little bit. Got my GED a few years later and here I am with four boys.”
The 6-foot, 170-pound eldest did not take the normal route to a college baseball scholarship, but he has made up for lost time.
This season he is hitting .532 with 24 runs scored, 20 RBIs, 10 doubles, two triples and three home runs. He also has a 3-1 record with two saves and a 2.32 earned-run average for the Cowboys (17-6).
Gutierrez did not play T-ball or Little League. His first experience on an organized team came as a 12-year-old.
He progressed quickly and his development was accelerated when he was a freshman, thanks to all-state senior catcher Nolan Wilson.
“Before my freshman year he called me and told me I was going to be his hitting partner,” Gutierrez recalled. “I’d hit with him every day. He’d come and pick me up after school and we’d go hit.”
Like virtually every other kid growing up in Detroit, Gutierrez first thought of himself as a basketball player — and he wasn’t bad. But a bout with Osgood-Schlatter disease in each knee made him look more seriously at baseball, and the harder he looked the more he fell in love.
“It’s one of the hardest sports to play,” he said. “Some people can shoot a basketball, but in baseball you’re trying to hit a 95 miles per hour baseball. It’s fun, but it’s very serious. There’s something about the game I love. I love playing it every day.”
So did his father, who hopes his son’s scholarship to U-M will help others follow in his footsteps, specifically his three younger brothers.
“This is big for us,” Hector Sr. said. “It’s huge for the school, the community, these coaches. There were some great ballplayers that came out of the school in the past years that I know could have played Division I ball, but they didn’t get a shot. Maybe they didn’t think academic-wise it would have been a good fit.”
Gutierrez’s father should know, because once upon a time Hector Sr. was one of those talented kids who grew up playing ball in Clark Park, where Western practices and plays its games.
Sanchez also grew up in the neighborhood, but he attended Detroit Catholic Central and Detroit Mercy, where he played baseball. And Sanchez knows firsthand how talented Gutierrez’s father was back in the day.
“His dad and I were on the same travel team together and his dad was actually better than me,” Sanchez said. “His dad had phenomenal skills. I can name two or three kids who were better than me, but ran into different circumstances.”
That is why Gutierrez’s father was adamant his son concentrate on more than just baseball in school.
“I know how hard it is out there,” said Hector Sr. “I need my check weekly. I told him: ‘You don’t want to be me. You don’t want to go through what I went through.’ I try to use me and his mom as examples.”
His father is a good example of perseverance. He is now a school advocate in Detroit and tries to change kids’ lives, one at a time.
He set the course for his son, who learned to work hard in everything he does, especially baseball. It isn’t unusual for Hector Jr. to call Sanchez at 9 p.m. to ask him to take him to the batting cage because he needs to get in more swings.
It has paid off as Gutierrez has become a well-rounded player. “He does everything well,” Sanchez said. “He hits with a little bit of power. His arm speed, his range, his agility his knowledge of the game — he’s got all five tools in my eyes.”
It turns out that Sanchez talks about two sets of five tools with his players. There are the baseball ones that fans see and then there are those he sells to his players, the ones that will make them successful long after they can no longer hit a curveball.
“Coach tells us: accept responsibility, empathy, know yourself and expect God’s favor and right justice,” Gutierrez said. “They don’t just teach us about the game, they teach us about life, how to be role model and leader.”
So does his father, who sees Hector Jr. as someone who can accomplish everything he hoped to and so much more.
“For me, this has always been my dream — my kid going to college and Division I and it’s Michigan!” Hector Sr. said as tears welled in his eyes. “I don’t want him to follow in my footsteps. I want him to be bigger than what I am. I tell him not to be a laborer, own a company.”
Right now Hector Jr. is happy to be living his father’s dream, one he hopes others from Detroit will be able to experience.
“I know there haven’t been many Detroit guys going to college to play baseball,” he said. “Nobody was prepared to go to college. I don’t think it was in their heads to go to college.
“Maybe it will be now.”