Watsonville native Eric Ortega, 35, dreamed of playing Major League Baseball.
A former shortstop at Monte Vista Christian School and Sacramento State, Ortiz fell short of achieving that goal. His fall-back plan got him to the majors, though, earning him a front row seat at every game, including Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs on Monday at AT&T Park.
Ortega is in his 11th year as an athletic trainer with the San Francisco Giants’ organization, including his third at the major-league level.
“Unbelievable, unbelievable experience,” said Ortega, and he wasn’t talking just about being on the field for the Giants’ thrilling, 6-5 13-inning win over the Cubs on Monday night.
“I wanted to be on the other aspect of it, where I was the actual player out on the field,” said Ortega, who is married with four children, after shagging fly balls prior to the game. “But when that didn’t pan out, obviously this was where I wanted to be. Being able to step out and be on the field with these guys on a daily basis has been an unbelievable experience.”
Believe it or not, Ortega wasn’t just shagging foul balls. He was checking in on the players. Turns out, outfielder Angel Pagan wasn’t feeling so hot. He was a late scratch with back spasms, opening the door for Gregor Blanco to start in left field.
Tweaks and dings are commonplace for athletes, but the playoffs put a little extra pressure on the training staff.
“Hectic. Hectic,” Ortiz said of playoff baseball. “Obviously everyone’s expected to play, and we do our best to get them out there, no matter what they’re going through, whether it be a personal matter or an athletic injury.”
Ortega’s job begins with spring training in February and, more often than not in recent years, extends to mid-October and beyond. He is paid to keep a close eye on the players.
Ortega watches games from the dugout rail. When an injury occurs, he’s one of the first to sprint out to the field to help whoever is in distress.
He watches games a little differently than most fans.
“When there’s a double play, people will probably watch the ball turn to second, then they’ll watch it all the way to first,” Ortega said. “I maintain my eye focus on second base because I need to know: Did my shortstop get blown up? Did my guy that slid in slide too hard? I need to be able to see what’s going on. Same thing with a play at home or wherever it may be.”
No moment is too big to break his focus, playoffs included. But it’s a battle.
“Every once in awhile, I end up catching myself and I become a fan, especially when things are going well and we’re scoring runs,” he said. “When the World Series was in ’14, I had to really had to remind myself, I’m there for work and not enjoyment.”
One of the players he enjoys watching most is Gold Glove-winning shortstop Brandon Crawford.
“I never know when he’s going to do something awe-inspiring,” Ortega said. “You just don’t ever look away.”
The roles were reversed in spring training this year. Crawford evaluated Ortega fielding grounders in a spring-training competition that pitted trainers against clubhouse attendants. Apparently, Ortega still has some of the chops that made him think he might be able to make it to the majors as a player.
“Eric won the competition,” Crawford said, smiling. “I was the judge.”
Crawford has worked with Ortega since 2009, when both were in Double-A Connecticut.
“I’ve had a lot of good times with Eric,” Crawford said. “He has been awesome. He’s easy to talk to, easy to work with. He’s a hard worker and always gets you what you need. He’s one of the few people who keeps me out there on the field every day.”
Ortega is good to the Giants and the organization is good to him.
His affiliation with the team has helped him earn three World Series rings. He’s hoping the Giants win another title during his tenure. He wants a ring for each of his children.
Ortega’s family participated in the last World Series parade in 2014. One of Ortega’s daughters thought the parade was specifically for her.
“She was soaking it up and waving to everybody,” he said.
He’s hoping there’s a parade again this year. But even if there isn’t, Ortega’s job is far from done.
“My season doesn’t end with the final out,” he said. “My season ends two or three weeks after because we have a lot of stuff to clean up. We have a lot situations to make sure everything plays out the way we need to with injuries. Injuries don’t stop on the final day, they carry out through the offseason.”
Contact Jim Seimas at 831-706-3256.