Diego Rico is headed to the World Series, one for which he was groomed since he was in grade school.
The former Sunnyside High School and Arizona outfielder, a sweet-swinging left-handed batter, is going to the grandest stage of them all — the World Series of Roping.
One of the top rodeo events in the nation takes place in Las Vegas in early December and Rico has qualified for it for the first time in three years.
“I was born a cowboy first and then I became a baseball player,” Rico said. “Now, I am back to being a cowboy.”
He was raised on his dad’s ranch near Benson Highway and Valencia Road and was part of junior rodeo competition starting when he was only 6. He participated in calf and team roping and also rode bulls by when has 14 and attending Altar Valley Middle School in Three Points, west of where Casino del Sol is now.
Rico was the header and Joaquin Saavedra the heeler when they finished with the top average time of 35.74 seconds in Arizona’s No. 10 World Series of Roping qualifying event at Show Low on Memorial Day Weekend. They topped seven other roping teams to advance to the World Series of Roping in Las Vegas from Dec. 3-10. The winning team can take home $300,000 from that event.
“It’s the biggest amateur finals that you can find,” Rico said. “I go to about 12 of those (qualifying events) a year. I am going to a couple of more before Vegas to try to qualify at higher levels as well.”
When he was 9 years old, Rico took up baseball with friends and family — he is a first cousin of Omar Moraga, also a former Sunnyside and Arizona standout who like Rico played professionally.
Rico placed his undivided attention on baseball by the time he was 14 and attending Altar Valley. He transferred from Flowing Wells High School after his freshman season to Sunnyside.
While with the Blue Devils, his swing from the left side became one of the most fluid and productive swings Tucson has ever seen.
“He is one of the purest left-handed hitters,” Sunnyside coach Ernie Palomarez told The Arizona Daily Star at the time. “We got what we call a blue-chipper.”
Rico earned all-state honors as a senior at Sunnyside in 1994, batting ,407. He went on to excel at Arizona from 1995 to 1997, batting .390 as a junior.
He joined other Tucson baseball standouts from the same class at Arizona, including Sabino’s Jeff Saffer and CDO’s Colin Porter and Russ Brown.
“It was awesome. It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Rico said of his three years at Arizona, the first two with Jerry Kindall as coach and the last one with Jerry Stitt. “Being able to have my parents watch me play every day was was a blessing.
“A big reason why I went to Arizona is because (ASU baseball coaching legend) Jim Brock had just died. I grew up an ASU fan. I went to take my visit over there and Brock passed away (from cancer) two weeks later. The U of A then offered me a full ride, so I just stayed home and liked the idea that my parents could watch all of my games.”
Moraga rejoined Rico with the Wildcats in the 1996 season after playing a year behind him at Sunnyside.
They opened the door for other standouts from the southside to be recruited by Stitt, including third baseman Erik Torres (Sunnyside Class of 1997) and infielder Moises Duran (Class of 2000).
“Before (Torres), it was Omar Moraga and Diego Rico, and I looked at all them as role models,” Duran told the Arizona Daily Wildcat in a 2001 interview. “Since they all made it here, I saw myself like them, and I considered myself one of them.”
Rico left Arizona after his junior season and signed with the Chicago Cubs, who drafted him in the 57th round following his senior season at Sunnyside.
He played in 1998 and 1999 for Class A Dayton (Fla.) and batted a credible .279 with 11 home runs and 100 RBIs, but he was not re-signed and he went on to play independent-league baseball in Sonoma County (Calif.) and Yuma from 1999 to 2001.
His baseball-playing career came to a close at age 24 after he spent the 2003 season with Nogales in the Arizona-Mexico Independent League.
“Toward the end of my baseball career, I started training my own horses and I kind of got back into roping,” Rico said. “After baseball was over, I went full blast with it and have never looked back since.”
Rico said he prides himself in being part of a small fraternity of professional baseball players who also are involved with rodeo.
Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Madison Bumgarner secretly competes in rodeos using the alias Mason Saunders.
Texas Rangers left-hander Taylor Hearn grew up competing in rodeo following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. His grandfather Cleo is a legend who was the first African-American to attend college on a rodeo scholarship. He went to Oklahoma State.
Rico said parallels exists between rodeo and baseball.
“Mentally, just being in situations, making adjustments, there are comparisons,” he said. “For me, the mental part is the biggest thing. There’s times when you have to catch your steer a little faster because you have to beat a certain time or there’s times when you’re up ahead, and you don’t have to be that fast. You just have to make a clean run.
“A lot of the mental state with baseball, everything I learned, made the transition back to rodeo easier for me. It really did.”
Rico has not entirely shifted to rodeo. He is still putting that swing of his to good use as the lead hitting instructor for D-Bat Tucson on Oracle Road.
He wants to help his son Diego Jr. fulfill his aspirations as a baseball player at Sunnyside. The younger Rico was involved with rodeo at a young age as well.
“I also have a 7-year-old named Emily who is into soccer and my 3-year-old Gracie, who will probably be my little cowgirl. She loves to ride and tries to rope,” said Rico, who also trains his horses and conducts riding lessons.
He keeps busy on weekends with his annual tour of rodeo events throughout Arizona — in Williams, Show Low, Wickenburg, etc. — with a stop or two in New Mexico with the goal of reaching Las Vegas.
He finally gets that opportunity again in a World Series not of baseball, but of the sport of which he loved first — rodeo. In many ways, going from town to town for his ascent to the World Series of Roping is similar to a baseball player working through the minors to get to the major leagues.
“Heck yeah, I am excited,” Rico said. “Going to Vegas is kind of like the pot at the end of the rainbow, you know? I go to 12 (qualifying events) and I spend a lot of money trying each one. It’s kind of hit and miss and and then you just hit it that one time
“Then you go and hopefully hit it big again.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District