Cover Stories

Native to the Game

Local players represent their tribe at Major League Baseball team’s Native American All-Star Baseball Showcase

Gabriel Lomayestewa digs in, taps home plate, then smacks a hard-hit ball to the left side of the infield. Showing off his speed, he easily beats out the shortstop’s throw to reach first base and tries to soak in the moment.

“It just felt like a dream,” he tells SFR days after recording a pair of infield singles, which are common for the 17-year-old Santa Fe High School senior.

There’s a reason it felt so special.

Lomayestewa got in the books twice for running down the base path at a $672 million stadium as part of a showcase recognizing some of the best high school ballplayers in the country.

The Atlanta Braves hosted the first-ever Native American All-Star Baseball Showcase July 16-17, offering young ballplayers the chance to practice and play in front of pro and college scouts at the massive, modern Truist Park in Georgia. The top 50 high school players of Native descent, representing 35 tribal affiliations from 13 states, hit the diamond for a pro-style workout and showcase game, demonstrating their skills and learning a thing or two from big leaguers.

Among them were Lomayestewa and Kyle Suina, 18, and a recent graduate from Santa Fe Indian School—both members of the Pueblo of Cochiti, located roughly 35 miles southwest of Santa Fe. With about 1,100 enrolled members, it’s a community where Gov. Phillip Quintana says everybody knows everybody. If it weren’t for the invitation to compete in Atlanta, the pair would have been celebrating with the tribe for its annual feast day that weekend.

However, if you’re an aspiring baseball prospect looking to learn, spread your name in the network of college scouts or just have a memorable time, you clear your schedule when a major league ball club offers you the spotlight. So Suina and Lomayestewa, both coming off good seasons with their high school teams, each made the nearly 1,400-mile car ride to play on the Braves’ field to impress coaches and potential college suitors. Their high school coaches praise their passion for the game, which underpins their dreams of some day making it to the big leagues themselves.

If they were to come true today, the Cochiti ballplayers would join just two other active Native players in Major League Baseball: Ryan Helsley, all-star pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and Cherokee Nation citizen; and Brandon Bailey, pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds organization and citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.

According to the 2022 Racial and Gender Report Card, conducted yearly by the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, on opening day this year, 0.1% of MLB players were Native American.

Despite the small number of Native Americans to make it to the league throughout its history (52, according to Baseball Almanac) the list includes notable figures such as Louis Sockalexis. A member of the Penobscot tribe of Maine, he’s recognized as the first minority to play in the National League, signing to play for the Cleveland Spiders in 1897, 50 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Olympic gold medalist and celebrated athlete Jim Thorpe—member of the Sac and Fox Nation—played for six years in the MLB. More recently, there was two-time World Series champion Jacoby Ellsbury, the first player of Navajo descent to play in the bigs. Other players with some Native American heritage include the likes of Johnny Bench and Willie Stargell.

“The talent is there and baseball is in our culture,” Jude Torres, Santa Fe Indian School head baseball coach, tells SFR, adding that all Native ballplayers need is the opportunity and a strong foundation. “There’s a lot of poverty, alcohol, drugs in the community. So it’s easy for a kid to fail at something and fall quickly into that atmosphere. So you’ve got to keep them positive.”

Suina and Lomayestewa credit the support of their families, coaches and tribes for their success. The community came together when the pair hosted raffle fundraisers to pay for their trip to Atlanta.

“I threw a party the other day and a lot of the tribal members came and supported me,” Suina says. “They said, ‘Just go do whatever makes you happy,’ and they said, ‘Home will always be here.’ So I have the support from my whole tribe.”

He and Lomayestewa hope their fairytale experience will inspire more Native kids to strive for success that might seem unattainable. Suina says he’d like to help foster a greater representation of Indigenous people in baseball.

“I think that Native Americans could get more out there through the press and media,” he tells SFR. “I think it’s great that we’re given this opportunity. This is [the Braves’] first time doing this, so we’re like the stepping stone for Native Americans to get out there into the world.”

The local sluggers seized the moment. Both were skeptical when they first heard about the invitation and thought it was likely a scam. It sounded too good to be true, until they realized it was, actually, too good to pass up.

“I hadn’t got an opportunity like this in my whole life,” Lomayestewa tells SFR. “After some research, we realized it was legit and this was a good opportunity for me to get my name out there.”

The pair—seasoned summer ballers accustomed to traveling during the warm months—grabbed their gear and their families, and headed for Atlanta. On arrival, they folded in with the other high school players and met up with former MLB players Marquis Grissom, Johnny Estrada, Marvin Freeman and Lou Collier.

After walking through the tunnel of the 41,000-seat stadium, they started off with some drills, getting work in at different positions to broaden their skill sets. They took notes from guys like Ron Jackson, a former player who served as the hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox during the team’s historic 2004 run when they won their first World Series in 86 seasons. Stepping in the same box the pros use, they took batting practice as players shagged fly balls.

On the second day of the event—game day—the recruits got to hear their names called out over the stadium’s PA system as an announcer ran through the starting lineups. Lomayestewa and Suina each jogged out onto the field, standing along the foul lines for the National Anthem, just as the pros do before every game.

“It was exhilarating and awesome,” Suina says. “I wasn’t expecting that at all, for them to announce our names. Overall, it was a very cool experience.”

All with something in common—their Native heritage—the players got along well with the other students from around the country, hearing stories about where they grew up and what their baseball aspirations were. When it came time for the showcase, though, the 50 all-star athletes found their competitive spirit.

“It was pretty intense and I had to step up my game,” says Lomayestewa.

He followed up his first plate appearance with more of the same, hitting a comebacker that slapped off the pitcher’s glove before bouncing to the shortstop, whose throw was late.

Make that 2-for-2 for the Santa Fe High standout.

Suina came out swinging, too, knocking the first ball he saw over the pitcher’s outstretched glove, only to fall into the hands of the shortstop who had to make a quick read to get the out. In his second plate appearance, he worked the count to 2-and-2 before firing a hard-struck ball to the shortstop, who had to throw from the deep left side of the infield to beat the runner.

The experience validated the duo after adversity had reared its head in the form of a pandemic. Santa Fe Indian School shelved all athletics for two years, leaving Suina on the bench during crucial years of his baseball development and prompting Lomayestewa to start over at a new school by transferring to Santa Fe High so he could play ball.

“The pandemic took away two years of playing from [Kyle], so he really only had his senior year to prove himself and get his stats up,” Kasha Suina, Kyle’s mother, tells SFR. “He didn’t play for two years and that was hard for him to play catch-up, but he did it and he led the way on his team.”

In his senior year at the Indian School, Suina flourished in the batter’s box. He finished with a .442 batting average in 30 games, recorded a team-best 17 doubles and led in slugging percentage with .694. It led to a scholarship offer from Ottawa University in Surprise, Arizona, where he signed a letter of intent to play for next year.

The Braves have held similar events to allow people to experience the MLB dream, like the 44 Classic and Hank Aaron Invitational, the latter of which helped the organization find its starting center fielder, Michael Harris II. So Greg McMichael, director of alumni relations for the Braves and a former player, says events like the one this year can help the players raise their stock.

“I talked to some of the college coaches and they liked what they saw,” he tells SFR. “Some of the kids were already committed to a school. I think the biggest takeaway this year was the experience; No. 2, finding out how we can continually make this better and provide opportunities to connect schools and players.”

For Suina, who already has plans to play college ball, he had nothing to prove. The showcase was more of an opportunity to improve and give him some added motivation as he takes his game to the next level.

“I learned that I just needed to stay focused and keep disciplined with my workouts and that hard work will take you a long way,” he says.

Lomayestewa, meanwhile, wrapped up his junior season at Santa Fe High with a .312 batting average in 15 games for the Demons. Listed as 5-feet-4-inches tall, the lifelong athlete doesn’t let his stature affect his confidence, but it’s put a chip on his shoulder.

“I’m not the biggest guy out there,” he tells SFR. “I just wanted to prove that with my size, it doesn’t matter. I can be just as good as any of the guys out there, no matter how big they are.”

Lomayestewa is also hoping to extend his playing career after high school. He’ll continue attending camps and hopes to garner some college offers over the next year, with the goal of hearing his name called on MLB draft day. Before that, though, Santa Fe High coach Ian Farris expects a strong showing from the team leader during his senior campaign.

“I know for a fact that he’s going to bring that competitive fire,” Farris says. “Our team has 12 seniors coming back, so it’s going to be a good team and I think he’s going to be a big part of it, just making sure that we’re getting on base. That was a big thing for us last year. He got on base so much, not just because he’s small. He can hit the ball over people’s heads and is surprising people.”

Wherever the future takes the all-stars, they understand they always have a place at the Pueblo of Cochiti, and it’s the work ethic they’ve shown that has people close to them expecting great things in whatever they choose to do next.

“Baseball ends at some point for everyone, but those kinds of traits are going to be what help carry you and be successful through life,” Farris says.

Until then, Lomayestewa and Suina are going to keep playing for as long as they can. With the success they’ve seen thus far, they might just be rounding first.

READ MORE: The Tomahawk in the Room >>

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