After 10 seasons and 11 years, Fuego has found niche that sustains club
Jun. 2—There's Dave, who grabs foul balls by the bucket full and returns them to the baseball field.
And Rose, who bakes cookies for the members of the Santa Fe Fuego and recently became a host family for players.
And Chuck, who helps chalk the batter's box and foul lines before heading to the announcer's booth.
And Bo and Maggie, who have been Fuego fans from the beginning, with Bo even spending time as the public-address announcer.
They are the familiar names and faces at Fort Marcy Ballpark who form the nucleus of the Fuego family that is now 11 years — and 10 seasons, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — strong.
When Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber threw out the first pitch to signify the start of the Fuego's 10th season in the Pecos League on Wednesday evening, the aforementioned people were in attendance, as usual.
In fact, one of the biggest Opening Day crowds congregated to the ballpark, as about 600 people showed up for the Fuego's season opener against the Roswell Invaders. The large crowd demonstrated the staying power the club has maintained over the past 11 years, even if it's among the lowest rungs of professional independent baseball.
"These fans, they've always come out and supported us," said Fuego left fielder Jesus Chavez, a 2015 Española Valley graduate who played the last half of the 2021 season in Santa Fe.
There were plenty of reasons for baseball and Santa Fe not to work. Fort Marcy's dimensions are better suited for a Majors Little League division than 20-somethings who only need to poke the ball about 280 feet to right field to smash a home run. It's why home games often run between 3 to 4 hours — and sometimes longer.
Batted balls often take weird hops and spins because of the uneven infield. The stairs to the bottom level of the ballpark are uneven, leading to awkward steps on the way down and stumbles climbing the steps.
Sometimes, staff and players are unable to connect the hose to water down the infield prior to the game.
Those quirks are charming qualities to those who live and die with the Fuego. If anything, the low-level feature of the league demonstrates to the faithful players' true love of the game.
They are willing to wait to the final out, regardless of when it comes, cheering for their team.
"These guys are playing with passion and they want to play," said Rose Otero-Molina, who has followed the team for nine seasons. "They've been struggling to go somewhere with their talents and their passion. ... They're very talented players, and the games are always exciting."
Otero-Molina, the cookie baker, said she finally took the plunge and became a host family for the first time, housing Fuego center fielder Parker DePasquale. She even had DePasquale, her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend outline meal options Otero-Molina will prepare during the season.
"One of my passions is cooking," Otero-Molina said. "So I assured Parker he was going to have plenty to eat while he was staying at my house."
Chuck Grovener has been following the Fuego since 2013 and is among a group of volunteers lending a hand during the season in any way possible. This year, he added PA duties to his repertoire, taking over the microphone that was once the job of Bo Brumble, who did it for a few years before taking on a more customary role as a fan.
Yvonne Encinias, who has been the Fuego general manager during the club's entire existence, said those fans are just a part of a group of roughly 100-150 people who passionately support the Fuego.
"It's a huge investment, but it's a good investment for me," Encinias said. "I see people in my community — friends, family — that get to come out and spend their time like this. A lot of people are still learning about this team, and once they experience it, they're like, 'We didn't even know you were here!' And they come back."
Webber said Encinias also deserves a large amount of credit for the Fuego's success, as she sacrifices endless amounts of her time to ensure the club operates smoothly. She plays a big role in rounding up sponsors, developing special days that honor certain groups and organizations around town and making sure the daily operations of a ballclub move as smoothly as possible.
"They love it, and we're not a city with enough of a population to sustain a Triple-A club or even a Double-A club," Webber said. "But I don't think anybody has any doubts [about the Fuego] anymore."
It is the hard work and dedication of Encinias, Otero-Molina, Grovener and dozens of other Fuego followers who created the foundation for the Fuego organization to thrive.
Encinias said she hopes it portends to a second decade of continued success, both on the field and in the stands.
"We have such a good fan base," Encinias said. "Even when we're down 15 [runs], they're still hanging in there cheering their guys. It's just a fun experience."
Fuego 8, Invaders 7
After the Invaders scored four runs in the top of the seventh to take a 7-4 lead, Santa Fe scored once in the bottom of the frame, then tallied three runs with two outs in the ninth to pull off the walk-off win. Declan Peterson's two-run single scored Jared Gay and Jesus Chavez to cap the rally.
Fuego starting pitcher Matt Sanchez had a solid outing, allowing three runs on eight hits and three walks in six innings before Roswell erased a 4-3 deficit in the seventh. Juan Montes supplied the big hit with a three-run home run that made it 6-4. Santa Fe responded during its turn in the inning, with Jared Gay's single scoring Drake Ayala to cut the margin to 7-5.
Brenton Thomas pitched a scoreless ninth inning in relief to earn the win.
The two teams play the second of their four-game series at 6 p.m. Thursday.