CASA GRANDE — Even the metal plate in his face can’t stop Emilio Barreras from smiling.

Many wouldn’t be so quick to show happiness if they had been through what he has.

Despite the hardships he and his family have endured, Barreras finds the joy in things. Nothing brings him more joy than baseball and his family. His goal is for his baseball talent to be the ticket to giving his family a better life.

To see him on the field is to see that joy in motion. The long, curly hair flowing out the sides of his baseball cap, the smile, the passion, the style.

For Barreras, playing hard while having fun and being flashy is the way the game should be played. That’s why shortstop Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs is his favorite player.

The Vista Grande shortstop is already a hot prospect and sought-after recruit. He’s had major interest from programs such as Arizona, Oregon, Nevada and Grand Canyon University.

But Barreras already has his mind made up on where he’s headed after high school. He is verbally committed to play baseball at Cal State Fullerton.

Those who follow college and pro baseball know that the university based in Fullerton, California — about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles — is synonymous with the sport.

The Cal State Fullerton baseball program carries a prestige that is the envy of many college baseball teams across the nation.

“It’s a place where I know I’ll fit in well,” said Barreras, a 16-year-old entering his junior year. “It’s a baseball school, for sure. Something with Fullerton just was attached to me.”

Barreras has aspirations of being a successful MLB player someday, and he said Cal State Fullerton’s winning tradition and its track record of producing MLB players was very attractive to him.

The Titans have 18 College World Series appearances and four national championships, even though they have only been a Division I program since 1975.

Perhaps even more importantly for Barreras, the program has produced 67 MLB players, 13 of whom are currently playing in the majors. That includes MLB stars such as Justin Turner of the Dodgers and Matt Chapman of the Athletics.

The man who helped bring Barreras to the California powerhouse, however, began his relationship with Barreras when he was an assistant coach at the University of Arizona.

Sergio Brown was a coach and recruiting coordinator with UA from 2015-19. Casa Grande Union alum Gil Luna, a pitcher at UA and a good friend of Barreras, told Barreras to give the coach a call because he was on Brown’s radar.

Brown had seen Barreras perform against Tucson Salpointe Catholic in the state playoffs in 2019.

Barreras described the phone call as Brown saying, “I saw how you played, and damn ... Your ability’s insane. I did not know you were a freshman.”

The two kept in touch and forged a relationship, and a month after their first phone call, Brown left UA to take a position with Cal State Fullerton, where he played baseball and coached prior to his stint in Tucson.

Barreras loves tough coaching. He misses being chewed out on the baseball field. And he said Brown is a perfect fit who will definitely provide him that kind of coaching.

It’s understandable why Brown was impressed with how Barreras played as a freshman. But the story of how Barreras simply made it on the field for the state playoffs that year is even more impressive, and it explains much about his character.

Bloody Friday

It was a Friday — March 1, 2019. Vista Grande was playing its second game of the season — just the second high school game for Barreras — at home against Tucson Pusch Ridge. Barreras was playing shortstop when a Pusch Ridge baserunner broke from first to try and steal second base.

Vista Grande catcher Martin “Tank” Rodriquez threw the ball toward second base as Barreras moved in to catch it on the first base side of the bag while trying to apply the tag.

The runner dove headfirst into second, and as Barreras tried to tag him, the runner’s legs whipped up violently toward his back (Barreras described the move as scorpion-like).

One of the runner’s cleats smashed into Barreras’ face. Before he knew it, he was down on the ground. There was blood everywhere.

The injuries sustained included a broken jaw, broken cheekbone, broken nose and damage to his eye. Initially, Barreras wanted to stay in the game, but he didn’t know how bad it was. He was taken to the hospital. But his mind set was to return as quickly as possible.

“I had to recover because I wanted to come back,” he said. “I was on a liquid diet for almost two months, lost 20 pounds. They cleared me, and I came back. I came back for (the) playoffs, and I balled out.”

Barreras now laughs about the incident because he realizes how absurd it was that he acted tough at first, like the injury wasn’t so bad. In reality, “It was ugly,” said Harley Grigg, Vista Grande’s head coach. And the pain didn’t immediately hit its peak.

“Right when I got in the hospital it kicked in,” Barreras said. “It was probably the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Barreras had surgery to take care of his right eye, which the doctor said could go blind if not repaired. He had a metal plate inserted in his cheekbone. But none of that was going to keep Barreras from playing.

“That’s one of his unique qualities he does have, is his passion for the game, being a leader and just straight up a good teammate,” Grigg said. “He is all about what’s best for the team and what he can do for the team.”

Family ties

Many people have helped Barreras along his journey, including the baseball coaching staff at Central Arizona College. He’s also grateful to his parents, friends and God for helping him learn and grow as a person every day.

The 2020 season, the sophomore season for Barreras, started with him on fire. Eventually the remainder of the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the eight games he did play, Barreras was a man possessed.

His slash line was an outrageous .739/.812/1.217. He was 17 for 23 with two doubles, three triples, a home run, 12 RBIs and 20 runs scored.

Barreras’ motivation was off the charts. But that motivation was actually driven by a scary, unexpected event.

Several months earlier, at the start of his sophomore year, Barreras’ father was driving to work. Barreras said the vehicle his dad was driving had a small crack on the windshield, and he was pulled over by police.

“My parents don’t have documents,” Barreras said. “Right when the police pulled (him) over, ICE was right behind him.”

His father, an undocumented immigrant, was taken and detained for two months, even though Barreras said he is a good, hard-working man with a clean record who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years.

Barreras calls his dad his “absolute hero.”

The last message his father sent him before being detained told his son not to worry, that everything would be fine and that he loved him.

Barreras saved that message as the home screen on his phone. He thought he may never see his dad again.

“They took him, and it broke me,” said Barreras, who adores his father and loves his family intensely. “After that day, I knew that if I continue my success, none of this will ever happen again.”

The Barreras family comes from very modest means, which may be putting it kindly. The father is now home and back at work pending an immigration hearing, but Barreras said his job involves back-breaking labor. He said he’s tired of seeing his father “not even able to stand on his two feet” when he gets home from work.

There was already a fire in Barreras’ soul to play baseball at the highest level, and his father’s hardships have only poured gasoline on that fire.

Barreras is optimistic that his dad’s situation will come to a happy resolution, and that he won’t be deported to his birth country of Mexico. But the circumstance has burrowed itself into the son’s brain, and it still wears on him emotionally.

“To this day, I probably still don’t get the same sleep as I used to,” Barreras said. “I still wake up, go to sleep sometimes crying thinking about it. And the next day, you’ve just got to grind it out.”

Barreras’ dream is to eventually make it to the majors and pull his father, mother and sister out of a physically debilitating, low-income existence — one where his family doesn’t have to look over its shoulder and worry about the threat of deportation.

He’s fighting for his family, the same way he fights for his teammates.

“It’s a determination,” Grigg said. “He’s playing for not just himself; he has a bigger picture he’s playing for.”

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Brian Wright is the sports editor at PinalCentral. He can be reached at bwright@pinalcentral.com.

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