May 23, 2017

Pitched on Softball, Texas Freshman Leaves Baseball Career Behind

Reporting Texas

Jade Gortarez, a freshman infielder for the University of Texas softball team, grew up playing baseball in California. She hit .246 in her first season for the Longhorns. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.

The University of Texas softball players spread across McCombs Field after the game against Oklahoma on April 9 to greet fans and sign souvenirs.

A woman with two little girls approached Jade Gortarez, 5-foot-6 freshman second basemen with brown hair pulled back in a low braid. As she noticed Gortarez’s baseball cap – it stands out among the visors and headbands her teammates wear – the mother’s face lit up.

“Hey, you’re that baseball player!” she said.

“That’s me,” Gortarez confirmed.

“My girls play baseball. We’ve heard about you.”

Gortarez is used to it. She played varsity baseball for four years at Hillcrest High School in Riverside, California, even though the school’s softball team begged her to join. Now she roams the infield for the Longhorns, learning a slightly different game.

Baseball was a family affair for Gortarez: the parents, siblings, grandparents and cousins all loved baseball. It was part of the culture growing up in southern California. They rooted for the Dodgers. Gortarez constantly begged her father, Gil Gortarez, to take her to a game.

He gave in and bought tickets. As her uncle carried her on his shoulders through the parking lot toward Dodger Stadium, 2-year-old Jade turned to her dad with wide eyes.

“She said, ‘Papa, that’s where they play,’” Gil Gortarez said. “Right there in her eyes, you could see it – that’s the moment she fell in love with baseball.”

At home, they’d play catch in the house. Gortarez practiced her throwing in the hallway, bouncing a baseball against the wall for hours. During commercials, her dad would throw her ground balls.

“Rice, beans and baseball,” the father said. “That’s what we always used to say when she was young. That was her life.”

On picture day at her older sister’s tee-ball practice, the coach asked if anyone knew a kid who wanted to play – they were short one player. Gortarez, only 3 at the time, raised her hand and started jumping up and down.

Gortarez fields a ball in a game against Baylor. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.

“The coach asked me if she could play,” Gil Gortarez said. “I said, ‘Yeah, she can play.’ He handed me a hat and a jersey and so, she played.”

She moved from tee-ball to coach pitch to fast-pitch. Her parents tried to convince her to play softball. She refused. The Dodgers played baseball, and so would she.

Gortarez heard the comments from other players:

“Is that a girl?”

“There’s a girl on the mound!”

“Why is she out there?”

But Gortarez never let them faze her. She wasn’t worried about proving herself.

“Once I stepped on the field and threw a pitch or made a good play, the comments would stop,” she said. “They’d be like oh, she can actually play. I just worried about playing the game I love.”

Gortarez’s travel coach, Ricardo Ordorica, has been by her side since she was 6 years old. He managed her the same as he did the boys.

“She has more guts to play baseball than most of the boys,” Ordorica said. “She’s tough, she’s a competitor. If you want to learn, I’ll teach you. I don’t treat anyone differently, boy or girl. If you listen and practice, you’re gonna be a ball player. And Jade is.”

Ordorica says he’s never seen a player with such a passion and drive for the game. He could always find Jade on the field, playing or practicing, even through birthdays – even her own.

“I can tell you her favorite cake: chocolate with strawberries,” Ordorica said. “I know because my wife made the cake for her birthday and shortly after, we ended up on the baseball field.”

When she was 9, Gortarez traveled to Puerto Rico with Ordorica’s team to play in a tournament. A year later, they traveled to Orlando, where they won the ESPN Wide World of Sports World Series. They soon traveled again to New York and Nebraska.

Before practice one day, a softball team was practicing in the backfield. Ordorica remembers seeing Gortarez watch the girls play and asked her if she was interested.

She said no, Ordorica said. “If you love something, just do it – go, fight for it. That’s what Jade did with baseball. She was a baseball girl.”

During baseball practice the summer before her junior year, Pam Newton approached Gortarez about playing for her club softball team in an upcoming tournament. Playing in the tournament would mean playing in front of Division I coaches, so Gortarez agreed. That’s where Texas coach Connie Clark found her – a baseball player who, with a little work on her swing, could easily become a great softball player.

After falling in love with Texas and its coaches, Gortarez made the decision to change her game. She’s happy with her team and happy to be with Texas.

“It’s definitely different [playing softball],” she said. “The field size is a lot different, and the ball size, but at the end of the day, defensively a ground ball’s a ground ball, a pop up is a pop up.”

The transition wasn’t too difficult – in 59 games last season, which ended May 21 with a loss to Texas A&M in an NCAA regional, Gortarez played in 44 and started 40. She hit .246 with one home run.

She hasn’t given up her spot on baseball rosters completely, though. Gortarez played for the USA Baseball National Women’s Team in the 2014 World Cup in Japan, 2016 World Cup in South Korea and 2015 Pan American Games in Canada. This summer, she’ll likely be home in California, playing and traveling for Ordorica’s team, the Legends, once more. Next year, she plans to tryout for the 2018 World Cup team.

She’s playing a new game now. But Gortarez will always stay true to her roots: rice, beans and baseball.