- Story by SportsTalk Mississippi’s Ole Miss Beat Reporter Brian Scott Rippee
The tears never came for Peter Ortega. He was 13 years old when he buried his father at Queen of Heaven cemetery just outside of Pico Rivera, California.
The tears didn’t come when his father was lowered into the ground on January 16, 2009. They didn’t come in the gauzy first few days and weeks after when the grief was clouded by disbelief that he was really gone.
Cancer took Peter Ortega Sr. at the age of 48, succumbing to a two-year battle after a tumor was discovered behind his nose. Peter Jr. was just 13 years old and the tears never arrived because he felt the need to show strength, to be a stabilizer for his seven-year-old brother, Mark, and six-year-old sister Priscilla.
“He was very strong about it,” his mother Ana said. “I wanted to take him for therapy. You don’t want to cry, Peter? Peter, cry.”
Whether it was instinct or merely an uncanny sense of maturity beyond his years, Peter understood the role he needed to assume, a role that will likely last the rest of his life.
“I felt like there was no one else to replace him other than me,” Peter said. “My brother and sister were young. I didn’t want them to go down the wrong path. I’ve had to take on the dad role since I was 13.”
Peter’s number one priority for the last decade has been making sure his siblings have everything they need or want. It’s why he saved money for over a year so he and Mark could fly across the country to take in a game at Swayze Field. Mark’s favorite college baseball team is the Ole Miss Rebels, a fandom that began not long ago and one he and Peter have bonded over.
The Ortegas live in Pico Rivera, a predominantly Hispanic suburb 11 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Ana and Peter Sr. came to the United States from Mexico as children. Each of their families are descendants of a town called Victoria in northeast Mexico. Peter Sr.’s passion for the game of baseball rubbed off on his sons at a young age and it’s become both a grieving and bonding mechanism for the two since his death.
Mark is now 17 and Peter is 23. Mark’s Ole Miss fandom began roughly 18 months ago. While surfing through baseball highlights on YouTube, he stumbled upon an episode of The Season. He became intrigued by the entertaining style of play and was infatuated with the behind-the-scenes access that personalized the players. He introduced Peter to the show and their collective fandom began to blossom.
Unsure of how to watch Ole Miss baseball from all the way in California, the two have scoured the web for postgame highlights, with YouTube as their best option. There was one exception. In February of 2018, Ole Miss played a series at Long Beach State, roughly 25 minutes from Pico Rivera. It was an opportunity Peter and Mark couldn’t pass up.
“It was crazy to see how many fans they had at the game,” Peter said. “Like, that is in our town and they had that many people there. I was like ‘Who are these guys?’ I love high-intensity baseball. You could just tell they were playing a different caliber of baseball.”
“That is when I realized this was something we had to go see. That is when I started saving.”
Peter drives a delivery truck for FedEx. He works five days a week. He began to stash away money to take Mark to Oxford to see a game. They’d only left California a handful of times in their lives to visit family in Mexico and once to go to a baseball tournament in Las Vegas. But Peter was hell bent on making this happen. He and Mark started detailing cars on the weekends for extra money. Dollar-by-dollar they began to save as much as they could.
Baseball lies at the center of their orbit. It reminds them of their father. Mark is in the final days of his senior season at El Rancho High School. He plays second base. Peter also played second base in his high school days, wearing his father’s number 48.
“What our lives revolve around is baseball,” Peter said. “That is our number one connection. Our number one starting point to a conversation.”
Peter Sr. played baseball in a recreational league until he got sick. Peter still plays in that league, on a team called Victoria, named after the Mexican town from which the Ortega family descends. Most of the players have ties to Victoria in some way. Baseball helped Peter grieve his father’s death, and it is also a tool he uses to provide for Mark. The summer before Mark’s senior season, Peter created a travel team for Mark, comprised of local area kids, and coached them in tournaments. He raised enough money to take the team to Las Vegas for a tournament. They made it to the championship game against teams that trained at academies and had practiced daily for years.
“I wanted to get him ready for his senior year,” Peter said. “I knew he was going to have a lot of competition. I wanted to do whatever possible to make sure he enjoyed the game.”
The urge to provide is what prompted their trip to Mississippi, a goal that at first seemed like a pipe dream. Peter finally saved up enough money and in February of this year told Mark to pick a series to go to. Mark picked Florida and Peter booked flights and lodging.
“I thought they were crazy,” Ana, a naturally worried mother, said. “What are you guys going to do over there? It’s the other side of the world to me.”
Mississippi may as well have been on the other side of the world, or another planet for that matter, for two kids who had only been to one other state in their lives. But off they went, leaving a sprawling LAX on a red-eye flight, sitting through a four-hour layover in Houston and driving down from Memphis in time for Ole Miss’ Friday night contest. Mark picked this series because Florida was a high-level program, too. Since the trip to Long Beach, the Ortegas became more immersed in the world of college baseball, learning about the tradition of programs like LSU and Vanderbilt.
They got to Swayze early to take in the scene and were mesmerized by the sights and sounds, the colors and the crowd.
“Oh, man, this park is beautiful,” Mark said. “I was like ‘This can’t be real.’ I had seen it on YouTube, but it was amazing.”
They visited the merchandise store in the stadium, bought jerseys and slipped them on over their clothes. Ole Miss bludgeoned Florida that night, 12-4. The brothers took in the Friday night fireworks after the game and ventured down to the third base line to see try to meet some of the players. They met Grae Kessinger, Ryan Olenek and Thomas Dillard. Olenek let them pop out onto the field for a photo.
Peter and Mark bought general admission tickets for the Friday night game and were unsure where to sit. They ventured over to a sparsely populated section of seats near the end of the grandstands on the third base line. As it turned out, they were unknowingly in a season ticker holder’s seats. Jim Flanagan, a Clinton native with a slew of tickets, ventured into the game to find the two brothers keeping his seats warm. Flanagan wasn’t using all of his seats that night and invited them to sit alongside him. Strangers became acquaintances. Two kids from Los Angeles and a middle-aged man from Mississippi bonded over the game. Jim gave them the 411 on the players and the current state of the team, some of which they already knew. Their fandom may be newfound, but it is certainly thorough.
“The nicest and most polite two guys you will ever meet,” Flanagan said. “I have never met a stranger. I will know half your life story if you give me the chance.”
Flanagan gave Mark and Peter tickets to the final two games of the series. They sat together all weekend.
“Everyone is so friendly there,” Peter said. “That was one of the first things we noticed. It isn’t like that in LA.”
Saturday brought a rain-induced doubleheader. They didn’t mind. What would be better than an entire day at the ballpark? Mark caught a Cole Zabowski foul ball in game two. The surrounding sections cheered at the snag. Mark’s face lit up with joy. He and Peter made it on the video board, a longtime goal of theirs at Dodgers games that they’d yet to accomplish. Peter beamed with pride at his brother’s elation. That was the whole point of this trip, after all.
“He wanted to go see his team play,” Peter said. “I didn’t have that. I didn’t have anyone to take me to games. But I did my best to make sure this was something he got to experience.”
The tears never came for Peter when his father passed away, but don’t mistake that for an absence of grief. Cancer robbed him of the man who introduced him to baseball, the man Peter would pester daily to play catch with him when got home from work. Cancer drained the energy out of Peter Sr.
“My dad couldn’t talk, couldn’t eat,” Peter said. “He’d always come home and just go to bed.”
The absence of a father-figure robbed him of so much more. Peter’s father never saw him play a high school game. He dedicated his entire career to his dad, wearing his number 48. As a teenager, Peter was simultaneously trying to navigate life without a father while learning to play the role himself. When he bought his first car, he asked a friend’s dad to teach him about changing the oil and minor maintenance. It was the little things.
Peter visits his father’s grave often. There’s something therapeutic about going back. There is no routine or schedule. Just when he needs it. When he sees the number 48 somewhere and it triggers a reminder, or if he is having a bad day, he makes the 20-minute drive to Queen of Heaven. On December 6, 2014, Pete Sr.’s 54th birthday, Peter brought his glove with him.
“It is my stress relief,” Peter said. “I go there to remember him. One thing we did is we always played catch. When he came home from work, I always annoyed him wanting to play catch. Every day I wanted to play catch. Baseball is something we always connected with.”
Mark brought his glove to Swayze. The last thing on the trip’s bucket list was to catch a foul ball. Zabowski’s line drive into the seats in game two and Mark’s nifty snag fulfilled that desire. The joy in that moment itself made the trip worthwhile, for Mark and for Peter. The Rebels hammered Florida again in game two and went for the sweep in game three.
The series finale saw Ole Miss fall behind 8-0. An hour-long rain delay ensued. Peter and Mark waited it out and witnessed the Rebels complete a comeback for a sweep, a cap to a picturesque weekend of baseball. Their newfound connection with Ole Miss is real and is evident in their words. Ole Miss is not a team, it’s their team.
“We had the biggest comeback I have ever seen Ole Miss come back from,” Peter said. “We were losing 8-0 and the comeback was crazy.”
They wandered back down to the field after game three to congratulate the players and say their goodbyes. Mark wanted to tell “Z-Bo” that he caught his foul ball. The players remembered them as the kids that trekked all the way from the west coast to watch them play baseball.
From Cali to Oxford Mississippi to watch the Rebels play Florida and let me tell you it was an amazing experience with my brother @Maarrkkk48 and a special thanks to some of the players we met @Swagulater15 @ROlenek @thomas_dillard7 @Cole_Zabowski @ServideoAnthony here’s a look.. pic.twitter.com/MFwkvFaY8v
— Pehter (@lilpete_95) April 8, 2019
With no game on Sunday and their flight not leaving until Monday, Peter and Mark ventured around Oxford and became acquainted with a small southern town. The day began at Big Bad Breakfast, where Mark, who is not a hash brown fan, quickly changed his tune after trying them at BBB.
They went to Rebel Rags to buy more merchandise. Mark wanted a powder blue jersey in addition to the navy one he sported all weekend. Peter had saved enough to ensure they could get what they wanted. They spent an hour in the store buying sweaters, pullovers and a backpack. They walked around campus and The Square.
“We just drove around the campus and saw everything,” Peter said. “This was kind of like an accomplishment for me. Like I really did this.”
They said they’d never seen a place so green, in awe of simple things like the number of trees or flowers in bloom. The quaintness of a small town was new to them. Peter remarked about the positive energy he could sense and asked Mark what he thought about moving to Oxford. It was a joke, sort of. The Ortega brothers came to the South with no pre-conceptions and little awareness of the stereotypes that often accompany it.
“All the people we ask around here (in California) about Mississippi, no one had been there,” Peter said. “We kind of went in blindfolded I guess you could say. This place definitely has a certain vibe. I was looking at my brother like ‘what if we stayed out here for a while?’ For me, I think it was just the positive energy.”
On a Monday morning flight, the Ortegas soared back to California. “It was the best experience I have ever had in my life,” Mark told his high school teammates. That’s what makes it all worthwhile for Peter. The year of saving money, the planning and the adventure itself were all worthwhile. These last 10 years have forged an unbreakable bond between the two. Their relationship is layered: Friends, brothers and even father-and-son in a way.
“He has always been there for me,” Mark said. “Him taking me on this trip was a blessing. He is the best brother you could ever have. I kind of think of him as my dad. He is my role model and I look up to him.”
Jim promised Peter and Mark tickets if Ole Miss were to host a regional in June. Mark badly wants to go back. Peter does too. But the logistics of it aren’t simple. It took Peter a year to save for the first trip, and only a handful of days sit between April and June. But if Ole Miss is playing June baseball in Oxford, he’s going to do whatever it takes.
“If they make it to regionals, I am going to put some money away, somehow, and find a way to get back out there. We want to experience it.”
Doing whatever it takes. That is what Mark has done since his father was laid to rest. Providing in any way he can, ensuring his brother has the things he did not. Baseball has afforded an avenue for him to do that. It has given them something to bond over and it gave them an outlet to grieve through some tough times.
Peter and Mark now have been introduced to WatchESPN. Instead of scouring YouTube for highlights, they can now follow the action live. They’ll be watching together when the Rebels play Kentucky on Friday night, wearing the jerseys they bought last weekend and bonding together over a team 1,900 miles away.
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