Middle school students from North Philly’s Esperanza Academy Charter School took a break Tuesday from engineering and health sciences classes to hear advice from a surprise virtual guest: Phillies reliever Héctor Neris.
Neris, a native of the Dominican Republic, shared memories of his first major league game with the Phillies six years ago and spoke about what school meant for his sports career.
The 25-minute Q&A session was led by Yohana Giraldo, Esperanza Academy’s director of student development, and Kenny Johnson, the Phillies community engagement manager.
Neris said he dreamed of playing for the local MLB team after he watched Rocky.
“Philadelphia is a great city, a historic city, that I learned about with Rocky Balboa, a boxer that was determined to be better and great. Since [then] I wanted to come and play for this city; it’s my passion to be here.”
About 100 students in sixth through eighth grades, all working remotely, attended the virtual conversation. Some expressed their excitement to see Neris with chat messages like “OMG! No way!” and “Dominican UP!!!”
The Phillies kicked off their Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations with the special appearance by the pitcher through the Zoom meeting before Tuesday night’s game. The team will pay tribute to Latino major leaguers who have played with the Phillies over the years with cardboard cutouts of the players in the stands during a Friday game against the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s one of a number of organizations holding events to celebrate the history, culture, and achievements of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States.
Neris, 31, made his MLB debut pitching for the Phillies on Aug. 5, 2014 — a game that went scoreless until the 15th inning; the Phillies scored in the bottom of the inning, earning Neris his first major league victory.
Neris told the students about his love for the sport and how his family kept him focused through the game.
“I’ve been playing since I was 17, and I play every day because I want to set an example, like Pedro Martínez or David Ortiz, and for me and my family, to help them have a better life.”
About 90 percent of Esperanza Academy’s 710 middle school students are Hispanic, with a majority of them having Puerto Rican or Dominican heritage, one of the reasons Neris was invited to speak.
Neris, a high school graduate of the Liceo José Francisco Peña Gómez in Santo Domingo, encouraged Esperanza’s students to work hard and be the “first ones in the line” to excel in school. He told them to be the best — whether it’s the first to complete assignments or achieve the best grade.
“The most important thing about school is to see how this helps you see yourself in a different place in the future, and for me, who was into sports, the best part was to take the time to enjoy each moment [in school]," Neris said.