Story by Phil de Montmollin, St. Thomas Athletics
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – It was an unforgettable Opening Night that inspired, reunited old friends, and ended in an electric win by the Bobcats.
Javier "Javi" Perez, the Principal of South Dade High School and an Assistant Baseball Coach for St. Thomas University from 1996-98, came back to St. Thomas on Jan. 31 to help the Bobcats start their 2017 campaign and their quest for a return trip to the NAIA World Series.
"It was very emotional to be back at St. Thomas where I started my coaching career," said Javi. "It was an amazing night for me."
Javi, a close friend of St. Thomas University Head Baseball Coach Jorge Perez, came back to STU on Opening Night nine months after a near-fatal accident last April where he lost both of his legs. Javi has been on the road to recovery ever since, a courageous journey with the goal of walking again.
To read more about #JaviStrong and his journey, visit this story by the Miami Herald.
Opening Night started with a private meeting in the Bobcats' locker room where Monsignor Franklyn Casale, the President of St. Thomas University, led the group in prayer before Javi addressed the 2017 Bobcats, sharing in detail his inspirational story of courage and faith. The Bobcats were then able to talk to Javi further before heading to Paul Demie Mainieri Field for Opening Night.
"Talking to the team was the most impactful part of the night, even for me," said Javi. "Baseball does build the foundation. I am who I am today because of baseball. Like me, they (the current players) are going to be the fathers and the leaders in the community because of baseball and the things that they learn playing."
"My main message to the team was that life is going to throw you obstacles, or curve balls using the baseball term, and you have to bounce back, you have get up, and you have to keep trying no matter what comes at you. Some problems are bigger than others and obviously I am dealing with some serious stuff, but it's not the worst thing in the world. I am alive and the Lord gave me a second chance to be able to see my kids grow up and to do some big things in the community for people who might need my help."
Once at the field, many friends and former teammates were able to reunite with Perez who not only coached for the Bobcats but also played baseball for the Florida Memorial Lions, STU's opponent on Opening Night.
"My old baseball coach (Robert Smith) is now the Athletic Director at Florida Memorial. Coach Smith visited me at the hospital when the accident happened and it was great to visit with him again. I was also able to see many longtime friends from my days at St. Thomas as well as players who I once coached both at St. Thomas and at the high school level."
The Opening Night rosters for the Bobcats and Lions were introduced as both teams stood at attention along the first and third base lines setting up the main event as Javi headed toward the mound and threw the ceremonial first pitch to mark the start of the 2017 season.
The two teams remained in position for the National Anthem before the season began in earnest with the Bobcats responding with a four-run first inning. STU would win the game 11-0 capped off by a two-run home run by James Spatafora as five Bobcat pitchers combined for a one-hitter.
The whole night was made possible due to a tremendous friendship and lifelong bond between STU Head Coach Jorge Perez and Javi.
"Jorge is like a brother to me," said Javi. "I have known Jorge for a very long time. In baseball, we create tremendous relationships growing up and those friendships last forever. We have stayed in touch our whole adult lives and have helped at every opportunity. He's a tremendous person and I really appreciate him giving me the opportunity to come back to St. Thomas and talk to the team.
Before the night was done, Coach Jorge Perez made Javi an offer to return to St. Thomas to once again throw out the first pitch. The next time, however, would be with Javi walking with prosthetic legs.
“Before the season ends, Jorge and I made a deal that I would come back and throw the first pitch again but this time walking or maybe he will even let me catch the first pitch.” (Javiwas a catcher as a player and coached catchers as an Assistant Coach for the Bobcats).
Donations were collected for #JaviStrong on Opening Night to help Javi and his family with incurring medical costs for his rehabilitation and his prosthetics. To support Perez, donations are being accepted via Go Fund Me at https://www.gofundme.com/javiPerez and his journey and upcoming events can be found on social media using the hashtag #JaviStrong.