L.E.S. Gaucho is definitely getting the message


By Judith Stiles

He is restless and itching like Superman to chuck the street clothes and make the transformation back into his beloved Lower East Side Gauchos baseball uniform. But this star player will not only have to wait until winter ends, he will have to rehab a broken shoulder that forced him to miss the big championship game against the Gauchos’ chief rivals, the Youth Service League from Brooklyn. As a sophomore at La Salle Academy, Jimenez is considered a rising star in the New York City Little League baseball community, and because of his outstanding 2006 season, he was recently named 14-and-under M.V.P. and received three other awards: This lefty was co-winner of the Burt Beagle All-Around Award (given to the best Gaucho), the Batting Title Award and the Broken Record Award for a batting average of .530, 107 hits and nine triples.

Every baseball player has a good story from his or her childhood, and for Jimenez it all began with a little blue plastic bat and a spongy ball that his mother, Luz Robles, has added to the vast display of his trophies in their home. Although her mantra used to be “Don’t play ball in the apartment!” Mom is his biggest fan and goes to every one of his games.

“I get devastated when a game is canceled,” says Robles. She adds, “I love baseball and I just love being around those kids!”

Nelson Jimenez finished his 2006 L.E.S. Gauchos season under the leadership of Coach Dave McWater, who founded the L.E.S. Gauchos program in 2001. McWater is a longtime Lower East Side resident, community leader and current chairperson of Community Board 3. Realizing the need for a new type of baseball training program on the Lower East Side, shortly after 9/11 McWater hatched the brilliant idea of teaching youngsters how to play baseball using former professional players to coach, not just any available local dad. The current staff includes Frankie Rodriguez, who pitched for the Minnesota Twins, and Oreste Marrero, who was the starting first baseman for the Montreal Expos under manager Felipe Alou. The baseball knowledge and the coaching tips they give the upcoming players are like gold and would be hard to duplicate in any other New York City program. Jimenez is quick to point out that not only is he learning how to play baseball at a very high level, he’s also learning some very important lessons in life from his coaches.

“Dave told me once, ‘If you want to get somewhere in life, as with baseball, just put your head to it and don’t give up easily.’ This gave me a lot of self-confidence,” says Jimenez as his fingers multitask their way through new text messages.

At 6 feet tall and 145 pounds, Jimenez has a commanding presence for a Little Leaguer, and he has earned the respect of his fellow ballplayers as captain of his team. He led the players through the ups and downs of an 80-game season, all the way to the championship game, which he could only stand by and watch after having suffered a broken shoulder right before the game. Although he could not pitch, he still did his usual pregame preparation of listening to music on his iPod, choosing a techno beat for such an important game.

For Jimenez, it was very difficult to watch the Gauchos lose to Youth Service, 6-2 and 4-1. But after the losses, Jimenez reminded his team, “You play baseball because you love the game and, win or lose, we are on the same team.”

While his uniform languishes unused in a drawer, Jimenez wastes no time in preparing for next season. By now his shoulder is healed enough for him to follow a self-imposed workout routine that he designed for himself. It includes running a mile on a track, even in inclement weather, 700 pushups and 100 sit-ups, every single day.

Like many young athletes he has dreams of playing pro ball and he definitely wants to play college baseball, somewhere away from New York City. However, these dreams are over the home run fence somewhere in the distant future. These days Jimenez is busy being a typical teenager, text messaging, oiling his glove occasionally and waiting for the day he will hear that first glorious thunk of the ball in the leather, on the first day of spring training.