Bryce Miller: Baseball guides Ruben Niebla from rough-and-tumble days in Calexico, Calif., to Padres clubhouse

Bryce Miller, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Baseball

CALEXICO, Calif. — In the front yard of Ruben Niebla's childhood home, a small rectangular patch of grass served as a baseball infield.

In the carefree days before a fence was installed and a tree grew high in the approximate spot where the mound would be, outfielders fanned out along John Kennedy Street as balls made from tape or socks whistled through the neighborhood.

This is where baseball really began for Niebla, the Padres' pitching coach and one of the most respected mound mentors in the major leagues. It's where he crammed his hand into his first glove. It's where his dreams gained shape and wings.

It's where almost nothing was safe.

"The biggest memory that I have was the day I got my first glove and played catch with (my brother) Jose," Niebla said. "He threw it at me and it hit my eye. I thought I was done with baseball for the rest of my life, until the next day."

Niebla and his five brothers were walking, talking insurance claims in waiting. No window, no car, no neighbor was guaranteed to escape the baseball obsession unscathed.


Niebla's father, Guillermo, estimated the front window was broken five or six times. The 52-year-old Padres' coach laughed at what he called creative math. He also smiled widely at the choice of tiles for a living room wall that bore the brunt of games that shifted indoors, with spider-webbing evidence in all directions.

"You've got to remember, those windows were breaking from the inside and outside," said Niebla, who buys his parents a new TV every two years to make up for the one knocked out of commission decades ago. "And I don't know why they put mirrored tiles on that wall. That was a big mistake."

Calexico, a city of about 40,000 in the routinely-broiling agricultural heart of the Imperial Valley, sits in the massive shadow of cross-border sister Mexicali and her nearly 1.2 million residents.

On one side, quiet and dusty. On the other, a bustling metropolis where the diminutive Niebla played baseball against adults on weekends and, a time or three, snuck over with a fake ID at 17 to party at a notorious club called The Forum.


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