In the zone
Amid the sand and cottonwood trees of Valencia County is a sports legacy as rich as any other part of New Mexico’s history.
From youth to adult leagues, from high school football to talented college baseball players, the county has long produced fine athletes and teams who have become known in faraway places.
“Sports helps hold family values together,” said Leroy Aragon, who grew up playing on the Tomé-Adelino baseball field. “And it keeps a mom and dad invested in their kids. Whether it’s baseball or touch football, kids and adults are learning to do something together, and learning to follow rules.”
Belen High School played its first football game in 1922. The Eagles played in title games in 1963 and 2009.
BHS has nine team state championships in wrestling, five in golf and one each in boys tennis, girls track, boys track and girls cross country. The boys basketball team played for the 1985 state title.
Solomon Luna High School, later known as Los Lunas High School, has a rich tradition that stretches back many years.
Los Lunas has won three state baseball championships at the high school level, and one each in boys soccer, girls track and volleyball. Its teams have reached the finals in softball and girls basketball.
Valencia High School, the newest secondary school in the county, opened in 2006. The Jaguars haven’t yet won any team state championships, but have fielded competitive teams in every sport, including its football program, which in 2011 reached the state semifinals.
Many county individuals and teams have won state and national championships in rodeo events.
Both Belen and Los Lunas have had chartered programs in the American Youth Soccer Organization for many years.
Competitive swim teams and programs, gymnastics teams, martial arts and much more have long been part of Valencia County sports culture. The county has been competing and playing in its fields, tracks, streets and buildings for as long as humans have been here, and thousands of its residents have played baseball, in one form or another, over the past century.
Organized youth baseball has a long history that is much older that even the Eastern Valencia County Little League and more recent efforts. Current adult leagues, such as the Los Lunas Men’s Softball League, have baseball roots and predecessors that go back many decades.
The interior walls of the Thome Dominguez Community Center, located on N.M. 47 in Tomé, are filled with baseball memories. There are players with connections to the Belen and Los Lunas high school teams, to Isleta Pueblo, to college or semi-pro teams, and to the Tomé and San Fernandez areas.
Tomé and Adelino had a combined team that played for many years in the Mid-Rio Grande Baseball League. News-Bulletin records from the 1950s and ’60s show the Tomé-Adelino team was frequently at or near the top of the standings.
Other teams to compete in the league included Bosque Farms, Los Lentes, Los Chavez, Jarales, Belen, El Cerro and Socorro County communities, such as Polvadera.
Tony Moya is one of countless adults who grew up with baseball as way his family spent most every Sunday afternoon in the warmer months.
“There wasn’t Sunday football on TV (back then), so families gathered for picnics and to watch their husbands, boyfriends and neighbors play,” said Moya. “Back in the 1950s and ’60s, baseball was an important part of life in Valencia County. Each community had their own little team. Those games brought families and communities together.”
Moya said many friendships formed on the Tomé-Adelino field, and on dozens of similar diamonds around the state, have lasted a lifetime.
If neighbors can find nothing else in common — which is not usually the case — they will always be able to talk about a double play or a diving catch from the past.
Small children were a fixture at the Mid-Rio Abajo games, said Moya.
“There was plenty to do at a baseball game,” said Moya. “Shag balls, sell candy and cokes, or just run around and play. You didn’t have to send kids outside for an hour to get exercise like you do in this day and age.”
Other areas of the county have rich baseball traditions, as well.
In a 2005 issue of the News-Bulletin, Sam Cordova wrote about the Jarales teams, and the way players used to look forward to Sundays just because those were the game days.
In that same issue, Ron Lente, of Isleta, and Gilbert “La Gila” Ulibarri, of Belen, told stories about baseball in their areas.
Lente said he found evidence of baseball being played at Isleta in the 1800s, and there have been intra-pueblo leagues and ones that involved several New Mexico pueblos and tribes.
Ulibarri, who grew up in Belen in the 1920s and ’30s, recalled learning about the game, and about playing with homemade bats and gloves and a ball made of wrapped-up black tape, with no coaches or teachers to explain the rules.
Lente said the Isleta field was a far cry from the modern, artificial turf at the Isleta Little League complex, which is in about the same spot as its predecessors. Like many of its contemporaries, Isleta’s field had no outfield fence, so if a ball were hit past the outfielders, it might roll all the way to the railroad tracks.
Not all of the county’s sports history is rosy. There were fist fights from time to time.
Ulibarri recalled a terrifying moment, from when he was very young, when a man killed another man with a baseball bat during a brawl. He said the ballpark was soon knocked down, and that was the end of baseball in Belen until after World War II.
Ulibarri, like major league stars such as Joe DiMaggio, was torn away from the game while serving in World War II. He did get to meet DiMaggio at an exhibition game in Rome, and the Yankee Clipper hit a home run that day.
DiMaggio came to Belen years later to attend a function at Weldon Burris’ ranch, and Ulibarri happened to be there, and the two conversed.
Athletes never seem to forget some of the best or most frustrating moments, and the county’s baseball players are no exception.
“In 36 years of playing ball, I only gave up four home runs,” said Lente. “And I remember every one of them.”
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