CARY, N.C. -- Cody Ponce stood on the mound here Sunday with nowhere to hide from the heckler’s bellow.
Cheering is as much a part of enjoying a baseball game as peanuts and Cracker Jacks, but this person’s intent seemed to be something far more than just being a fan. He was inserting himself into the game, almost as if he had a jersey on his back and a bat in his hands. If his team couldn’t win it on the field, he was going to do it for them from the grandstands.
There was never any cursing, but it was nevertheless ugly. Fact is, the guy seemed to have a personal vendetta against the Cal Poly Pomona star right hander.
And then Ponce did a truly remarkable thing as the venom came down upon him.
He smiled.Oh, Ponce could hear the guy. It was quite impossible to miss his rants. But what he could also hear was his dad, Joseph, yell right back for him to ignore the “knucklehead.” After that, things settled down into a more normal ballpark atmosphere, if not exactly cordial.
“I hear my dad loud and clear and I hear my grandmother and obviously my family members loud and clear,” Ponce said a couple of days later. “Those are the only people who really matter to me. Everybody else was just up there just spectating.
“[The heckler] was yelling at me. I’m not going to say I didn’t hear him, because obviously, how could you not hear that guy? So, yeah, I heard him and I was smiling because that means I’m getting into everybody’s heads.”
Ponce is one of the lucky ones, in that he has the support of his family and teammates. The team’s chemistry is forged in all sorts of places – during preseason workouts, in the dugout while the game’s in progress, on the bus and in the outfield grass just before game time.
It’s an impressive thing just before game time to see virtually the entire Cal Poly Pomona team gather in the outfield for prayer, led by former Broncos player and current assistant coach Bo Walter.
The gathering is interdenominational to be sure, with mostly Catholics, Protestants and at least one Mormon in the mix. Walter doesn’t pray for the team to win that day, but instead gives thanks and asks that both teams be free from injury.
“We know that we’ll face adversity, but we just ask God to give us His confidence, determination and perseverance,” Walter said. “We also ask for Him to put His hedge of protection over both team. Actually, we’re just thanking Him for the gifts and talents He’s given us. We all believe He’s the reason we’re able to play this game. Honestly, it’s just so nice to see everyone buy in.”
Ponce’s own faith began to fade away his freshman year of college, but he came back to it when he began praying with a teammate while playing summer baseball in Alaska. Today, he writes his favorite Bible verse – Philippians 4:13 – on the back of the mound prior to every start.
He has the passage written under the bill of his cap, and includes it when he signs autographs as well. He’s not perfect, doesn’t pretend to be … but his beliefs do help when faced with the kind of adversity he saw here Sunday.
What it also helps with is not worrying about what the future holds. As a successful right-handed college pitcher who throws somewhere in the neighborhood of the mid-90s or so, he is projected to be a fairly high pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft.
His focus instead is right here this week, on Cal Poly Pomona and the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship. The draft can wait.
“I’ve been with these guys for three years now and I’ve been with them since Day One last fall,” Ponce said. “My focus is with these guys. They’re my brothers. There’s nobody else I’d rather be playing with right now. When it comes to the draft, it’s just a day, one day out of my entire life.
“It’s a big day for a lot of people, but the big day for me would be winning the championship with these guys and be able to bring it back to Pomona. I don’t want anything else more than that right now. The draft doesn’t worry me all that much right now. What’s going to happen is going to happen.”