The 'real' Sergio Romo

The Giants closer wants you to know who he really is -- if he can figure it out.

Originally Published: April 5, 2013
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 15 Photo Issue. Subscribe today!

THE CATCHER keeps jumping into the closer's arms. The television screen in a house in Mesa, Ariz., plays and replays the same scene: The last pitch of the World Series is thrown, the closer's arms go skyward, the catcher sprints out from behind the plate.

The closer's arms pump in front of his chest in a wild, exuberant dance -- a creation best described as Gangnam-meets-butter-churn -- and the image on the screen freezes.

Two people sit in the room: the closer and his 7-year-old son.

All is quiet until the closer asks, "Who's that right there?"

"That's you, Dad."

There is a pause before the closer speaks, quietly, nearly under his breath.

"Yeah, that is me, isn't it?"


WHERE DO you go to find the guy you used to be?

The world wants to see you as a caricature, the cartoon closer, the lovable little guy with the ridiculous black beard, and you don't really know who that guy is. The guy you know is the one who derives sustenance from every slight and slur, who carries around insecurities like textbooks in a backpack, who was always too small or too emotional or just too damned uncoachable to ever amount to anything.

[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images)Despite his slight frame and not-fast fastball, Romo closed out three of the four Giants' World Series wins.

How do you keep that guy alive when the world refuses to acknowledge him?

How do you get across the idea that that guy, the son of Mexican immigrants who calls himself "a beaner from Brawley," is the only reason you're here in the first place? The world wants to replace that guy with a two-dimensional image of a fun-loving, photo-bombing, political-T-shirt-wearing closer with nutty facial hair and a wild postsave celebration.

To be fair, you've given them reason to pass judgment on the images they see. You and your bullpen buddy decided to grow beards for the playoffs way back in 2010, and two years later you both looked like hermits, the epic facial hair viewed as the outward manifestation of your inner wackiness. In the 2012 playoffs, you turned goofiness into a cottage industry, standing behind on-camera broadcasters and teammates alike, mugging in an orchestrated attempt to bring attention to yourself.

You were a public relations dream, catching every single ceremonial first pitch in your home ballpark. Returning soldiers, corporate glad-handers, kids with cancer -- you caught them all, taking a mundane duty normally the domain of bullpen catchers or first base coaches and making it performance art. If your team needed someone to chew some scenery in television commercials promoting giveaways or theme nights, you were there. Gnomes, texting gloves, Filipino Heritage Night -- you were a ham for every occasion. Dress up like a martial artist and whip around the nunchucks to sell Bruce Lee Tribute Night? Hey, no problem.

It's easy to get lost in a persona and easier still for everyone else to see nothing else.

But don't these people -- the ones who now want you to perform on demand, like a community windup toy -- understand the difference between perception and reality? Can't they see the beard and the gamesmanship for what they are -- shields to defy uncertainty?

How did he get to this point? How did he become a two-time World Series champion with a new two-year, $9 million contract? Sergio Romo shakes his head, shrugs -- even he isn't sure. Start with defiance -- of convention, of expectation. He's among the smallest closers in baseball history, a 5'10", 165-pound human whip who describes himself as "a power pitcher without power stuff." Without the outsize bravado to not only stare down his doubters but piss them off, he wouldn't be here. There would be no slider with the super-secret grip that allows the pitch to look like a fastball until the last second, when it seems the ball is attached to a string and someone in the first base dugout is reeling it in. "I don't throw 95 and I'll never throw 95," he says. "But the slider is my 95."

He's accustomed to fighting for everything. It's the theme of his 30 years on earth. He talks about "the chip on my shoulder and the attitude on my forehead" as if they're his best friends. Everyone else can forget the guy who struggled and doubted and kept a mental ledger of every criticism and critic; he doesn't have the luxury. Now everyone, even the people who said he'd never amount to anything, wants to tell him how great he is. Now everybody saw it coming. Now the lines blur, and it's getting harder to keep track of the sides involved in Romo v. The World.


PUNK. THAT was the word he heard the most.

He heard it through high school in the California desert town of Brawley. He heard it when he left for Orange Coast College, the first of four schools he would attend in four years. People -- local college coaches, aimless townies -- would say, "You think you're bad because you're going off to college?" He sensed a similar undercurrent when he was drafted by the Giants in the 28th round in 2005. In his mind's eye, he still sees them, finishing their taunts with a dismissive flip of the hand and the words that cut to the bone: "You'll be back like the rest of them." That got to him: & like the rest of them. They grouped him with a culture of failure in this place with its infernal weather and inferiority complex.

You wouldn't believe what they say to me. So I get two outs and look at the next guy and say to myself, 'Yep -- that's one.' And I drill him.

-- Sergio Romo

In a town like Brawley, 22 miles from the Mexican border, poor Mexicans work the fields in ungodly heat for wealthy landowners, and the proximity to drugs and the drug trade sometimes leads to shattered and shortened lives. You'll be back is viewed as both epithet and epitaph. It's a way for those who lack ambition to ridicule those who have it, as if betterment is an affront to people left behind. It's easy to be bitter. In 2005 Brawley High's football team traveled 130 miles to Point Loma, an affluent part of San Diego, for a playoff game. One of the homemade signs hanging from the bleachers read: win or lose, at least we don't live in brawley.

That kind of casual viciousness, inflicted for so long, becomes ingrained in the culture of a place. And it's a bitch to remove.

Punk. Romo heard it in Florence, Ala., when he played his junior year at the University of North Alabama after two years at different junior colleges. He was constantly battling opponents, coaches and himself. He called home and told family he felt out of place as a Mexican from Southern California in the Deep South. His coach repeated a common charge: Romo made the game personal, in essence bringing his Brawley attitude to a place it wasn't wanted.

A fair charge? Romo thinks for a moment. "If he was in my shoes, I think he would have understood a lot more," he says. "But yeah -- I may have. He wasn't the guy getting called a spic while he stood on the mound for the national anthem. He wasn't the one trying to make a name for himself, do something with his life."

Nobody in Alabama knew he was using bravado -- as he would later by making goofy faces behind broadcasters -- to throw them off the scent of his insecurities. They didn't know he viewed comfort as the enemy. They didn't know about the six boyhood friends who grew up inseparable through elementary school, playing ball and riding bikes and generally straddling the line between adventurous and troublesome. One joined the military; one stood on the mound in what amounted to a foreign land, trying to throw a baseball well enough to put distance between himself and the rougher memories of home; and four died because of what Romo calls "life decisions."

By the end of that one season in Alabama, the guy whose control was so good that his dad said he could have pitched in Little League when he was 5 had hit 11 batters. He would call his father after every start and give him a rundown: runs, earned runs, hits, walks and hit batters.

I hit two today, Dad.

Why, mijo?

You wouldn't believe what they say to me. So I get two outs and look at the next guy and say to myself, "Yep -- that's one." And I drill him.

By mutual consent, he was released from his scholarship and pitched his senior year at Division II Mesa State. "You usually don't release a guy with that kind of talent," says Mesa State coach Chris Hanks. "My conversation with Sergio began with him saying, 'I'm a Hispanic guy in the South -- it's just not working out.' "

He was the center of attention in Colorado too. When he pitched on the road against Colorado State Pueblo for the conference championships, fans along the first base stands yelled "Ro-mo," and those in the third base stands answered with "ho-mo." Sergio danced on the mound to the chant and pitched a complete game. Says Hanks, "When teams tried to bench-jockey Sergio, we'd sit in the dugout and say, 'That's stupid. Don't you know he loves that stuff?' "

He went 14 and 1, losing only to New Mexico Highlands. When he got a rematch in the regional playoffs, there was talk beforehand that Romo's mouth was bigger than his game. After Romo struck out two in a 1-2-3 first, he walked toward the third base dugout. He started a finger shake about two steps off the mound, and when he crossed paths with NMH head coach Steve Jones near the third base coaching box, Romo said, "Not today, Jonesy. Not today."

He took a no-hitter into the ninth.


HE HAS so much to prove and only one place to prove it: on the mound, "the one place I feel big, where I feel 6'10" and not 5'10"," he says. When it comes to motivation, he casts a wide net. It encompasses even his father, who pushed Sergio to join the Navy out of high school, then relented by giving him two years to pursue his baseball dream. Around Brawley, Frank Romo is a legend in a minor key, a burly, strong 55-year-old man who still plays competitive baseball in Mexicali on weekends against men younger than his sons. Most people who have seen him play say there's no doubt Frank could have made money playing the game, but there was always field work to be done -- up north in Salinas in the summer, in Brawley the rest of the year. The Navy was where he learned to become a man and where he learned the skills to find a good public-utility job that helped him and Leticia raise three successful children -- two ballplayer sons (Andrew reached Triple-A with the Giants) and a daughter who is a college administrator.

"I credit my dad for giving me the backbone to stand up," Romo says. "I've gotten my butt kicked, but I've never run from anything."

Theirs is a complicated relationship. In one breath, Sergio -- who has two boys (7 and 1) with wife Chelsea -- says, "If I become half the dad my dad is, I'll be happy." In the next he says, "I think I'm starting to accept the fact that he's living his dreams through me. Initially, though, I'll be honest: No one's gone through what I've gone through, and that includes my dad."

He remembers moments, like the first time his manager met his father. Bruce Bochy shook Frank's hand and asked, "You know why your son's here? Because he's got huge cojones."

That much was obvious from the moment Romo arrived in the big leagues in 2008 as a pudgy middle reliever who worked his way up San Francisco's bullpen chain and dropped about 35 pounds along the way. ("The Giants taught me how to work out," he says.) By the championship year of 2010, he was being called upon to get big outs late in an endless stream of close games. For two years, he was one of the best setup men in the National League, pitching the seventh or the eighth, moving the game toward fellow beard grower Brian Wilson one out at a time.

"I was happy to be the sidekick," he says.

The difference between the eighth and the ninth is the difference between near-anonymity and overexposure. His ascension was the result of attrition: Wilson blew out his elbow in 2012, Santiago Casilla developed blisters and Romo was the next man up.

"I have to admit, I wasn't ready for what happened last year," Romo says. "I was afraid of a lot of the attention I got. I leaned on my teammates. I credit them for allowing me to be better than I think I really am. They brought the best out of me, and I didn't have time to think about myself and my doubts. Many times I would think, Man, how can they have so much faith and I'm sitting here doubting myself?"

When that happened, he hid behind his ever-lengthening beard and his role as crazy-dancing goof. Romo saved 14 out of 15 games as the Giants won the NL West.

In the postseason, as the pressures and the stakes grew, Romo became more outlandish: He named his photo-bombs "Romo-bombs" and earned a feature spot in the World Series telecast because of it. Where was that introspective guy then? Hiding inside with his insecurities while the prankster -- a middle child who was "not the life of the party but the heart of the party," he says -- was throwing tacks in front of his car just to prove he could dodge them.

He closed out five do-or-die playoff games and three more in the World Series.

Now he's flipping through the photos on his phone, reliving them all.

There he is hugging Ryan Vogelsong ("See, I'm already crying") and Matt Cain ("Tell me I'm not crying right there") and Pablo Sandoval ("Proof that I'm crying"). He stops for a few beats to look at a photo of him hugging general manager Brian Sabean. "You see that one right there?" he asks. "He's telling me he's proud of me."

His life remains a search for validation. "In a sense, I feel like I weaseled my way into this spot in life," he says. He doesn't seem to trust success any more than he trusted scouts who said he was too small or coaches who said he was too cocky or hitters who said he was too gimmicky.


[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU/Getty ImagesRomo is always ready for his close-up, even on late-night TV.

PUNK. THE WORD still haunts him. He saw it in the faces of the cops in Arizona who pulled him over "a handful of times" as he drove his new BMW back and forth from his home to spring training in 2012. Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the controversial immigration bill, had gone into effect around the same time.

As Romo tells it, the first question was always the same: "Is this your car?"

Not, "License and registration, please."

Not, "Do you know why I pulled you over?"

But, Is this your car?

When Romo said it was, the next question was always: What do you do for a living?

"Why is that any of their business?" Romo asks. "I told him, 'You're only pulling me over because you see a guy with a big beard driving (a nice car and the state gives you the authority to discriminate.' "

And so, after the season, during the World Series parade in San Francisco, Romo wore a T-shirt that said, I just look illegal. There was a little something for everyone in the message. There was the prankster and the defiant guy whose stubbornness will never allow him to ignore a slight.

"Part of it was me being silly and goofy -- look what I've got on," he says. "Another part of it, legitimately, was that it doesn't matter who you are or what you've accomplished in life, people get treated the same. I know what it feels like to be discriminated against."

He stops, looks around the Giants' spring training clubhouse. The place is empty except for a couple of clubhouse guys folding uniforms.

"I'm tired of having to prove everybody wrong," he says. "There are a lot of what-ifs. What if I'd believed 100 percent what people said about what I was going to become? Why would I have tried so hard? It's almost (to the point where I can say I've done everything for the wrong reasons.

"Where am I in all of this? When have I done it for myself?"

He's quiet, almost melancholy. How does he reclaim himself from the runaway image he created? At this point, is it even possible? And if it is, where does he start?

The first step was easy: The beard is gone. He shaved before spring training, leaving a hipster goatee you could see on every street corner in San Francisco. "It's time to reintroduce the world to my dimples," he says. He laughs, but it's more than that. It always is with him. "The beard is not what made me play baseball well. The beard was just facial hair -- a lot of it."

It makes sense. Since everyone else starts with appearances, so did he.


THANKSGIVING WEEKEND, the same room in the same house in Mesa. The closer says to his father, "Dad, I want you to watch this with me."

Tenth inning, Game 4 of the World Series, two outs. Miguel Cabrera at the plate.

On a 2-2 pitch, after four straight sliders, Romo was all set to throw his fastball. He looked in for the sign, and Buster Posey called for another slider. He thought about shaking to the fastball but then thought, Yeah, I guess you're right. Besides, Cabrera had made a point before the Series of telling the closer he'd be ready for the slider. So there was a little bit of Brawley in that pitch too.

Cabrera fouled it off. He had a good swing, one that indicated he might be getting closer to making good on his prediction.

Posey called for another slider. This time the closer shook.

Fastball.

In the room in the house in Mesa, as the closer gets ready to come onto the screen, he asks his father, "Did you expect the fastball?"

"I expected it the pitch before," the father says. "I was calling it from the living room."

The son nods. He doesn't tell his father he was thinking the same thing.

On the screen, the pitch is thrown. Fastball, down the middle. Cabrera watches, stunned, one of the best hitters in baseball standing there like a guy they pulled off the street. The catcher runs out, the closer screams and dances, and they jump into each other's arms.

The closer watches himself as his father sits next to him. Then he watches his father watch him.

And he thinks to himself:

Is that really me?

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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