By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
To young boys across America, an old sock is, well, an old sock. To young boys in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and old sock can be turned into a baseball. Put a rock inside the sock, wrap some tape around it, tear a branch off a nearby tree or grab an old broom handle and you have yourself a baseball game.
That’s how Junior Mejia was introduced to the game of baseball as a youngster. Playing stickball in the streets of Santiago with a tree branch and a taped-up sock. Hey, when you love baseball, you do what you have to do.
“We used to get out there, ya know, just kids being kids. We’d play out on the street and that was our ballpark,” Mejia said.
Twenty-odd years later, Mejia reflects on how picking up that taped-up sock changed the direction of his life, and he likes what he sees when he flips through the memories of his life.
Mejia and his family came to the United States and settled in Ventnor when he was 10 years old. He didn’t speak a lick of English and had never played organized baseball. A few short years later he was hitting .500 for the Atlantic City High School baseball team and parlaying those skills into stops at three colleges, the last of which was Tampa University, where Mejia helped lead the Spartans to a Division II national championship.
“Being from the Dominican, we obviously play baseball. But for me it was just out in the streets with the sticks. We used to take a rock and stuff it in a sock, tape it up and that was our ball. We’d grab a stick off a tree. That’s what we used to do. I didn’t start playing organized baseball until I was 13,” Mejia said.
Although Mejia had a very limited background in organized baseball, his talents were obvious and he came in as a freshman at Atlantic City High School as a starting outfielder. He admits it took some time to get used to playing varsity as a 14-year-old, but once he got used to the speed of the game there was no holding Mejia back. He became an outstanding hitter in his final two years, batting around .500 each year and leading the Vikings to two straight playoff appearances.
“Facing those guys was tough as a freshman. It took me a little while,” Mejia said. “But I wasn’t the type of person who got intimidated by the hard throwers. Over the years I learned to deal with the frustration of baseball. Once I became a junior, my career really took off and that’s when I really started to understand the game and what it was going to take to play at the next level.
“My goal (going into high school) was getting my education. In terms of baseball, it was to make myself a better player all around. That was my goal. And use that to get a scholarship to go and continue my education, which I did.”
Mejia may have endured some frustration during his baseball career, but there was also plenty of success. After graduating from Atlantic City in 2003, Mejia attended Binghamton University in upstate New York. After two years and one Tommy John surgery, he transferred to Pasco-Hernando Junior College in Florida. That move eventually led to Tampa University, which won the DII national championship in 2006. Mejia thought perhaps he had missed out on a chance to win a collegiate title, but in 2007, Mejia’s first year with the Spartans, Tampa was just as good, going 54-10 and beating Columbus State (Ga.) 7-2 in the championship game. Mejia homered in that game, padding a late-inning lead that helped secure the title.
“That’s every kid’s dream, obviously besides getting drafted, but winning a national championship is just as good,” Mejia said. “You have to think about how many student-athletes at the college level get to do that a year. It’s only a handful. When I went there they had just won it, and I was like, ‘ah, man, they just won it. What are the chances of us winning it again?’ But we did.”
After graduating Mejia worked a few odd jobs to pay the bills, and like many recent college graduates, wasn’t really sure what direction his life would take. A boss at one of his jobs kept prodding him to become a teacher, but Mejia was considering a career in law enforcement. He finally took the advice of his boss, skipped the civil service exam and took the Praxis instead to become an alternate route teacher. Today Mejia, a 29-year-old city resident, is in his fourth year of teaching second grade at the Texas Avenue School in Atlantic City, and stays involved with baseball as one of Brent Bean’s assistant coaches for the Atlantic City High School varsity team.
Mejia said he hopes his experience of playing high school baseball, and overall knowledge of the game, can help influence some of the players he coaches now.
“(High school sports) teach you to be responsible and to make a commitment. Anything you do in life you have to take responsibility and make the commitment to do things right. And those are some of the things you learn,” Mejia said. “That’s one thing I try to teach the kids I coach. Hey, you have to be responsible and you have to make a commitment. That will take you a long way. I try to do that because for me that worked.”
Mejia said he believes the Atlantic City baseball program is heading in the right direction, and the proof is in the results. Last year the Vikings had one of their best seasons in a very long time, and this year Atlantic City went 15-10, including a huge upset win over No. 2 seed Vineland in the first round of the South Jersey Group IV playoffs.
“Brent and the other coach, Bill Glose, between the three of us I think we have what we need to put out a successful program,” Mejia said. “Not to take anything away from any of the players in the past, but I think this year – more than any other year – the players bought into what we were trying to do and they responded well. They wanted to play for us, and for each other, and when you have those kinds of kids it makes it a lot easier to coach.”
Mejia said being involved as a high school coach is particularly gratifying for him because it reminds him of how he improved as a player and how coaches and mentors helped him grow from a boy into a man.
“It’s neat. Especially watching the young guys develop because it brings me back to how I developed as a player,” Mejia said. “And it makes you feel good because you have some guys come in maybe not knowing much about the game and it’s good to see how they work at it and how they improve.
“High school is very important, not only to develop as a player but also your academics. Overall, high school is part of the equation, so it’s very important.”
Mejia said one of the best moments of his high school career came in his sophomore year, when he launched a game-winning home run in the 13th inning against Buena Regional.
“It was almost like everything just went into a fog. You get so excited, you don’t even realize what just happened. That was one of the most memorable moments of my high school career,” Mejia said. “It’s a pretty good feeling. Being able to get the game-winning hit, scoring the game-winning run, things like that will get you going. If you don’t get excited for that, then obviously you don’t have the passion for the game.”
Perhaps what is most impressive about Mejia is not his exploits on the baseball field, but rather his perspective on life and what’s important. Recently Mejia’s house was broken into, and one of his most prized possessions – his 2007 national championship ring – was one of the items stolen.
“No matter what your situation is now, for anybody it can always change and it’s up to you to do it. At the end of the day it’s up to you. You’re going to determine what’s going to happen in your life. You have the choice,” Mejia said. “You’re going to hit some bumps in the road. If you fall, you just have to get back up and keep going. I just had my house broken into and had about $3,000 worth of stuff stolen, even my (championship) ring was stolen. But you know what? I could sit here and feel bad for myself, but at the end of the day life goes on. Unfortunately it’s something I worked so hard to get, but there are people out there going through worse stuff. So you just have to continue to go forward and living life.”