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Yorba Linda's Vega taking it in stride
YORBA LINDA – Nick Vega had every opportunity to complain.
When he took the mound for Yorba Linda against Cypress on April 24, Vega pitched a complete game, gave up two runs, one earned, and surrendered four hits against one of the best teams in Orange County.
He matched Centurions starter Kevin Lillicrop nearly pitch-for-pitch, but was still saddled with a 2-1 loss.
Vega brushed off the defeat, saying he stopped thinking about it once he started his car for the drive home.
It was without a doubt a tough draw for Vega, but the ability to play with the cards he has been dealt has been one of his strengths since he was born.
His pitching acumen is more impressive when you consider Vega was born with an undeveloped left hand.
Vega said there's no specific term for his birth defect, and that it was simply a situation in which the extremities in his hand didn't fully develop.
A thumb, palm and four knuckles; that's what his left hand consists of. Heart, a good spirit, and determination; luckily, that's what Vega consists of.
Maite Vega, Nick's mother, said despite the defect, her son has lived a normal life.
"He's never really noticed it. He never asked about it," she said. "He grew up fine. He wasn't treated any different. We always made mention of how everyone was born different."
Typical of his personality, Nick wasn't going to be one to complain about his situation, either.
"He never had any qualms about it," said Carlos Vega, Nick's father. "He would always say 'That's the way God made me.'"
At 4 years old, Nick began playing baseball and received guidance from his father, who played baseball at Fullerton College, then later at Fresno State.
Carlos would have Nick work with a pitch-back machine, and even taught him how to hit.
But Nick's father knew his son would eventually have to give up playing a position and become a full-time pitcher.
With that in mind, Nick had to learn how to pitch using an unorthodox delivery – similar to former Angels pitcher Jim Abbott.
There are many steps to the delivery process.
First, he puts the glove on his right hand to catch the ball. Next, he moves the glove to his chest then grabs it with his left hand.
After grabbing the glove, Vega takes the ball out from underneath with his right, cradles the glove with his left, and then fires the ball toward home plate. Once he releases a pitch, he slides the glove back to his throwing hand so he can field.
The delivery catches some eyes during pregame warm-ups and games.
Carlos tells a story of when Nick was playing PONY league baseball and as he was warming up at the very first practice, the coach's wife saw Nick's delivery and yelled from the stands "What is that kid doing, why is he taking his glove off?"
Vega was fortunate to have someone with a familiar situation – Abbott – to look up to.
The two happened to meet at Huntington Beach Little League in March of 2000, when Vega was 4 years old.
Abbott had something he had to ask Vega as soon as they met, and it had nothing to with baseball.
He asked Vega if he knew how to tie his shoes.
"I know it's something I struggled with. My third-grade teacher taught me," Abbott said. "It was an icebreaker for me and Nick."
That icebreaker developed into a relationship that has continued. Vega and Abbott occasionally correspond through email.
Since he knows what Vega is dealing with, Abbott has offered him advice along the way.
"He told me to never give up, stay positive and always try to get better," Vega said.
That wisdom has helped Vega become the pitcher he is now. His record is 3-5, but he's already proven he can go toe-to-toe with some of the top pitchers in the county.
There has been steady improvement in Vega's game every season.
He's gone from playing first base as a freshman to playing on varsity as a sophomore to becoming one of the Mustangs' top starters as a senior.
In that time, Vega has become so adept with his delivery that many don't notice he has a birth defect.
Opposing teams, however, do take notice, which means the occasional bunt to measure Vega's fielding skills.
"(Teams) are going to test him," Yorba Linda coach Matt Stine said. "What they try to do is bunt on his right side, but he works hard on that and is not going to let it bring him down."
There's confidence in the way Vega goes about his business on and off the mound, but for his parents, it's a completely different story.
His mother acknowledged she gets nervous watching her son pitch, primarily because of the fielding aspect and because he's always in the line of fire when a ball is hit back up the middle.
Carlos isn't any more relaxed than his wife.
"When I played, I was never nervous," he said. "When I watch Nick, I freak out."
Even though there are some nerves running wild while he watches Nick play, Carlos said he's extremely proud of his son, who plans to follow in the footsteps of his father and play baseball at a junior college.
It takes tremendous courage to do what Vega is doing, and that's not lost on his teammates.
"It shows what you can do, no matter the disabilities," Mustangs catcher Garrett Basehart said. "He's not just an inspiring story because of his hand, he's a great pitcher."
While Vega is inspiring his teammates and those around him, his inspirational figure is proud of the strength he's displayed.
Abbott is honored to have been a role model, but knows Vega wouldn't have been able to come this far without his own determination. And the former major leaguer knows that will impact someone else's life.
"I know Nick will affect someone else down the line," Abbott said. "It helps the tree grow, and there isn't much better than that in the world."
And that's been Vega's goal all along.
"If younger kids in Orange County read about this, I want them to know they can do anything they put their mind to," Vega said. "They shouldn't let something like this stop them. They need to continue to push through and just be the best they can be with what they have."
No matter what happens to Vega after his high school career comes to a close in the next few weeks, you can bet he's going to take it in stride – and, as always, with no complaints.