The phone call, the one every baseball player dreams about receiving, came last month for JoJo Romero. He was headed to the majors. The Phillies, Romero was told after answering his phone while eating dinner in Allentown, needed him in uniform the following day.
He fell in love with baseball as a 3-year-old watching his dad play on Sunday afternoons in a Southern California men’s league. Twenty years later, he was a big-league pitcher.
Now it was Romero’s chance to make the call that every player dreams of making it. It was time to tell his family that he made it.
“We were ecstatic. We were so happy for him and happy to get that call,” said Romero’s father, Abel. “You almost have it in the back of your mind, ‘We can’t wait for him to get there so we can all fly out and enjoy this special moment.’ Then we get to this year.”
The start to Romero’s major-league career has been impressive. He has not allowed a hit in his first four appearances, throws 98 mph, and could be an important piece of the team’s bullpen in the season’s final month. But there’s something missing: his family.
The year that Romero was able to call his parents, Abel and Elena, is the year that fans are locked out of ballparks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were really happy,” Abel Romero said of that phone call. “But, again, ’Man, we won’t be able to be there.’”
Romero’s journey to the majors started with keeping score at his dad’s games to playing little league and high school to pitching in travel tournaments and attending two colleges and playing four minor-league seasons after being drafted in 2016.
His path, like so many others, was a family affair. It was a team effort, his father said. Everyone played a part, knowing that they were pushing together to the big leagues. But Romero was by himself last month in Atlanta when he threw his first pitch. There was no flight to catch or hotel rooms to book in this pandemic season.
“To me, it’s extremely disappointing that the parents aren’t there,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “I know we’re in a pandemic, but if there are two people who should be allowed in a game it should be the parents of a rookie that they have never seen [play in the major leagues]. Then, after they see him that first time, they’re not allowed. You just want to share the moment.
“There are so many people who have helped you along the way and the people who have helped you the most are your parents. Your parents have been there every step of the way. I thought about all the car rides that my parents gave me and the laundry that they did. When I was 16 years old, I was playing close to a 100 games a summer because I played in three different leagues. What my parents had to do to balance four boys and a girl and all of us playing sports was incredible.”
Romero has a similar story. He grew up the oldest of three children, all of whom played sports. One parent would take Romero to a baseball tournament, while the other took his brother to a baseball game or his sister to a soccer game. Like Girardi’s parents, the Romeros found a way to make it work.
“It was a lot of dedication by the entire family,” Abel Romero said. “It was a journey.”
Romero’s phone call from Josh Bonifay, the Phillies’ director of player development, was a blur. The reactions he heard when he called home almost felt like a dream. It didn’t hit him that he was headed to the majors, Romero said, until he started gathering his belongings that night in Allentown. He was packing for the big leagues.
“It wasn’t settling in until I realized, ‘OK. I have to drive to the field tomorrow. I get to suit up.’ It was pretty awesome,” Romero said.
The Romeros, back home in Oxnard, Calif., were ready. They subscribed to the MLB TV package, ensuring that they would see their son’s debut even if they could not get a ticket. And then they waited.
Romero sat through eight games before being used. The first few days were nerve wracking, he said. Imagine what it felt like watching from the couch.
“Every game that he was up, we would be like, ‘OK. Maybe it’s going to be today,’” Abel Romero said. “We just watched every game.”
Eight days after answering his phone in Allentown, a phone rang again. The call came to the bullpen in Atlanta during a lopsided loss for Romero to start warming up. The nerves, the ones that he said started to fade away as he waited for his turn, quickly returned.
“The first couple pitches warming up were, ‘This is really happening. This is really happening.’ But within my last two warm-up pitches, I was able to lock it in,” he said.
More than 2,200 miles away, his parents were watching. The pandemic not only kept them from the ballpark, but prevented the Romeros from having a proper watch party for their son’s debut. They had to improvise.
They aimed a cell phone at the TV screen and streamed Romero’s inning on Facebook so the Romeros could cheer along with family and friends. It was a major-league debut in 2020.
“It was such a relief,” Abel Romero said. “He was in The Show. He’s on TV. He’s doing what he loves to do and what he’s been preparing to do since the first time he took a ball in his hand at the age of 3.”
“We were just absorbing it. It was a relief in a sense and we were all really happy for him. Everyone was commenting on how excited they were and the joy that was coming through the live feed.”
It was tough, Romero said, to not have his family in the ballpark that night. But he watched a replay of their live steam, following their cheers and reading the comments from friends as he struck out the three batters he faced.
“Watching their reaction and hearing their emotion through the entire inning. That made it really special,” Romero said.
He called his parents that night after returning to the team hotel. A week earlier, he called to tell them he was becoming a big leaguer. Now, he was calling home after he officially became a big leaguer. The conversation, his father said, was pure excitement.
“Excitement for himself. Excitement for all of us,” Romero said. “Just that we were able to share that moment.”
The stands were empty, his family was at home, but Romero was a major leaguer. He achieved his dream. The pandemic kept his parents away, but it could not take away a moment that a family worked 20 years to see.