Bobby Verdugo grew up in the shadow of the University of Arizona. He’s a baseball player at heart. Played the sport at Tucson High. Went to Pima Community College. Served in the Navy, literally putting out fires on an assault ship.
So, what is this baseball-loving, U.S. military veteran doing in the Arizona Wildcats softball bullpen?
Well, that’s a bit of a long story.
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Bobby Verdugo is a student manager with coach Mike Candrea’s softball team. He never planned on being around the sport. He never attended a UA softball game while growing up and attending Roskruge elementary and Tucson High, right down the street from the university.
As with many good things in life, he simply took advantage of an out-of-the-blue opportunity.
After leaving the Navy, he re-enrolled at Pima in the fall of 2015. His stepmother volunteered him to coach his 10-year-old sister’s team in Baja Girls Fast Pitch Softball.
“I don’t know, something about it just grew on me,” Verdugo said. “Learning about softball just flipped the switch for me. It was like, I kind of like this.”
He applied to get in to the University of Arizona for the 2016 spring semester. That’s when another door opened. His aunt, Stella Montante, works in the athletic department’s compliance office. She had an idea: Why don’t you talk to Candrea about working with the softball team?
“I met with Coach, and at first, I think his feeling toward it was, ‘just leave a resume and if a spot opens up, I’ll let you know,'” Verdugo said. “I don’t know what I said, but it went from ‘if a spot opens up to I’ll give you a shot tomorrow.’
“I was like, ‘Yes, sir.'”
Verdugo’s first destination: bullpen catcher. That was a new adventure. Being a baseball catcher didn’t prepare him for catching a softball rise ball.
“I think the first week, he missed about all of them,” said senior pitcher Nancy Bowling.
Said Verdugo: “They made fun of me.”
He eventually got the hang of it and worked extensively with Bowling over last summer.
“He just really has a passion for the game, honestly,” Bowling said.
“Any time I wanted to come out and throw, he was always there to catch me. He never said no. Not once. He loved it. He even sometimes said, ‘Hey are you throwing today?’ I said, ‘You want to catch me?’ He said, ‘Uh, is that even a question?'”
Verdugo is attending Arizona on the GI Bill, which pays for his tuition and provides a monthly check of about $1,250 for living expenses. He hopes to be a teacher. He dreams of being a softball coach.
“He served our country and he has a passion for the sport,” Candrea said. “It’s awfully hard to say no to someone like that. It’s worked out great.”
Yes, while this softball thing might just work out for Verdugo, in a very roundabout way, he might never have reached this point if not for Tucson High legend Chris Moon.
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Chris Moon was a multi-sport star at Tucson High, graduating in 2007, drafted by the Atlanta Braves and signing to play baseball at Arizona. He walked away from that to enlist in the Army in 2008. He became an elite sniper.
“He was a senior when I was a freshman,” Verdugo said.
“Going into my freshman year, I saw him as big, bad Chris Moon — top dog. My freshman year, I played football, too, and I had a week on the varsity. I had to defend him one time and all of a sudden I see Chris Moon, all-star baseball player, line up and blow by me.
“I’m like, ‘Wait, he plays football, too?'”
But Verdugo’s favorite memory of Moon has nothing to do with sports. It has to do with a simple act of kindness.
Verdugo was attending an Arizona baseball camp at Sancet Field a year after Moon graduated from Tucson High. Moon spotted him on campus from a distance. Verdugo was still star-struck.
“He saw me and ran over and shook my hand and asked he how I was doing,” Verdugo said. “Here’s Chris Moon saying, ‘What’s up’ to the little guy he played with for like one game in football. There was something about what he did that hit me.”
Moon died on July 13, 2010, from injuries suffered from a roadside bomb while serving in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Verdugo had made the Pima Community College baseball team in the fall of 2010. But money was running low and he had other nagging thoughts.
“Chris Moon had just passed away, so that had a really big effect on me,” Verdugo said. “There was something about what he did and what he sacrificed that hit me — what was I doing? I felt like if big, bad Chris Moon could do bigger things, I should be doing something, too.”
Verdugo did. And he still does. Touched by Moon’s kindness at the baseball camp — and knowing how it made him feel important — Verdugo tries to do the same to all he meets while coaching girls softball.
* * *
Verdugo joined the Navy.
He was a machinist, going on two six-month deployments aboard the U.S.S. Peleliu.
“With our repair division, we actually did a lot of firefighting stuff,” he said.
“It was a very exciting time. It was rough. A lack of sleep. Fires, floods, steam leaks. … Going from a kid who loved to sleep, then all of a sudden you get six hours a day, good luck.”
He would follow the baseball news as much as he could. Talk baseball. Think baseball.
“They would always make fun of me,” Verdugo said. “That’s all I would talk about. I would play guitar and talk about baseball.”
The U.S.S. Peleliu was decommissioned in March 2015, after more than 34 years in service. Verdugo said a paperwork snafu allowed him to leave the Navy six months early. The lessons last a lifetime.
“Most of it is just working long, long, long hours,” Verdugo said.
“But I respected my time doing it and I respect the people who do it. One of the things I always take with me is just keep busting your ass off and you’re going to be rewarded someway. The more you volunteer yourself, the more you’re going to learn.
“I’m used to going 100 percent all the time.”
* * *
Verdugo, 25, returned to Tucson, enrolled at Pima in the fall of 2015 and thought about trying out for the baseball again. But his shoulder wasn’t feeling great. The timing wasn’t right.
The one thing he knew — had always known — was that he wanted to coach.
The softball world became his opportunity. His spring was filled with classes, Arizona softball practice and then coaching the team his now 12-year-old sister plays for.
“I really miss the playing the game, but I get to be here under one of the legendary coaches. That is something I am not going to take for granted,” Verdugo said. “I want to be a coach, so what better way to be right next to that man.”
The Navy taught him life lessons. Candrea has plenty of those, too. Verdugo is happy to soak it all in — the philosophy, the strategy, the preparation, the relationship-building — taking plenty of notes along the way.
“Any time he hears Coach talking, you just see him with these big eyes, trying to take it all in,” Bowling said.
“There are people who love the game, then there are people who LOVE the game. He’s one of them. He’s very determined. He wants it. I think he could do pretty much anything he sets his mind to. But don’t tell him I said that.”
Verdugo has more school to finish while building a library of knowledge in a sport he hopes to turn into a career. If only his Navy recruiter could see him now.
“He’d be like, ‘What the hell happened?'” Verdugo said. “But it’s how things change. I love what I do.
“Coaching in high school or college or whatever. Hey, whoever wants to give me a shot. All I know is, whoever gives me that shot, I’m not going to let them down.”