“You Guys Ain’t Going to Do Anything” — An Interview with Johnny Espinosa and Tom Hartsock: Part 1 of 2
By Fowler Roberts
About fifty years ago, Johnny Espinosa and Tom Hartsock met through softball in the city recreational league. Tom says, “I was just coming up. He was on the way out and I was on the way in.” Johnny says, “I was the catcher for Tom’s brother so I was already playing.” Naturally, when they sit down to share their memories they start talking about Gallup sports history.
1953 State baseball champs: “You guys ain’t going to do anything.” Back in high school when Johnny was a sophomore, “Gallup had a real good team and they had Spider Lopez, who was a great pitcher, Bob Vega and Eddie Armijo. We figured they would do well in State because they had the pitching. When we were juniors, they still had Spider Lopez and Eddie Armijo, but they didn’t do anything. They took district, but they didn’t get any further. So when we were seniors, the older guys said, ‘You guys ain’t going to do anything.’ All we had was Bob Vega and Nicky Saucedo, our pitchers.
“We played in District 8 with Farmington, Aztec, Rehoboth and Grants. We lost to Farmington. Bob Vega was pitching and he hit one of the batters right in the face and he got all shook up, so we lost 3 or 2 or something like that. So anyway we played them again. We beat them, so we took the district, and we went into Albuquerque to play Regionals. So they didn’t even give us a chance. They said we’ll lose to St. Mary’s which is probably Pius now. We beat St. Mary’s so Highland High and us went to State from Regionals.
“So Highlands met Las Cruces. We met Santa Fe Indian School. There was only one division when we were in high school. There were no big schools, no small schools. You played whoever came along. They had a great pitcher. They were supposed to beat us. We weren’t even favored. We were out of a pitcher, but we beat them 12 to nothing.”
A clutch pinch-hit. “And then the next day we played; in the morning we played Dora. Those guys were big and could hit the ball. We beat Dora about like 4 to 1, 4 to 2, something like that. So we played Las Cruces for the championship. They had a tough team. So we beat Las Cruces. It just . . . it was an upset.”
Johnny’s most vivid memory of the state championship run was a pinch-hit in the semifinals. “When we played Dora, we were behind and we had two men on base. Coach Hyson said, ‘Jimmy Klein, come here. Go in and pinch-hit.’ So Jimmy came up to bat and he got a double, scored two runs and that’s the way we got into the championship game.
“It was a big deal for us. We played the state tournament in Santa Fe. The game ended about 4:00 and in those days it was four hours or better from Santa Fe back to Gallup. We were having our prom that night, so we were in a hurry to get back.” Johnny laughs.
“I didn’t see him. I ran into him (John Cattaneo).” Tom moved to Gallup from Ohio when he was eleven. He says, “I had never had an opportunity in Ohio to play ball because the town was so small and the farms were so scattered. So when we moved out here, it was so cool because I was going to be able to play baseball.”
The baseball park for the younger kids then was at Ford Canyon. “It was brand new. They just started building it. When we started playing, that was ’57. All they had up was a backstop and I think a couple of the sideline fences as far as first and third. There was no outfield fence. There was no concession stand. They operated out of the back of a pickup truck.
“One of the guys I played against was Johnny Cattaneo, and he was a little bit younger than me, but not much. And John has always been a huge guy, a huge physical guy. We were playing a game against his team. I think he played for the White Sox, but it might have been the Yankees, I don’t know. I got on second base somehow. I was a pretty decent hitter but I was really slow.
“The batter after me hit one clear to the fence, or where the fence would have been had there been a fence. And I’ve got my head down pumping away, going to third base and the coach is hollering, ‘Go home! Go home! Go home!’ And I never even looked up, made the turn, just coming full barrel down the third base line.
“Johnny Cattaneo was catching and he had moved about six feet up the third base line waiting for the throw from the outfield. I didn’t see him. I ran into John, like hitting a brick wall. I went down and John didn’t even flinch as he caught the ball from the outfield. I think it was Willie Fatur that was umpiring. He threw me out of the game for being unnecessarily rough.” Tom shakes his head and laughs.
“Gallup was a place to do it.” Johnny started coaching Babe Ruth Baseball in 1956. “I was twenty-three years old trying to coach fifteen-year-old kids,” Johnny says and then he laughs. “Eddie Munoz is the one that got me started coaching baseball. Him and a gentleman by the name of Sam Tabor and we had four teams. Our first games were played at Bubany Park. There’s a house there and a little park now, but we used to play right there. That’s where Babe Ruth started and then we moved to Miner’s Park where Washington School’s at when they started building homes around Bubany Park.”
Johnny remembers some of his best players, “Joe Athens was a catcher for me. He was a good athlete and all-around player. I’d say he’s one of the best kids that I coached, beside Mickey Menapace, Tom Pino and Ernie Abeita. I’d say he’s among those four.
“The only really bad thing that happened for me was I took a team to play in the Babe Ruth State Tournament in Farmington. Tommy Pino came up and he hits a double over the fence, bounced over the fence, hit two runs in. And then the catcher tells the umpire, ‘That batter stepped out of the batter’s box, sir.’ The umpire didn’t see it, but he called it. He called Tommy out. The umpire called him out and we lose the game. That was the worst. It was the state tournament.
“The highlight of my coaching was the three years that I had Tommy Pino, Ernie Abeita, and Butch Turpen, and a kid by the name of Rudy Martinez. We went three years and lost one game out of 36 games or 38 games. That was the highlight of my coaching career.”
Johnny coached youth baseball for forty years in Gallup after a brief stint in California. “The most important thing that I always told the kids that I coached was: ‘Baseball is life. It’s your life.’
“You have to compete for something whether it’s your girlfriend, whether it’s a job, whatever it is. It’s the same way in any sport. And that’s the only reason, when I came back, I wanted to be in sports. To see if I could excel in sports, as well as my life. And Gallup was a place to do it.”
COMING IN MARCH: THE CLARK DAIRY COYOTE HUNT, THE HARVEY HOUSE, THE 1944 STATE CHAMPIONSHIP FOOTBALL TEAM & A SURVIVAL HIKE FROM CHURCHROCK TO CROWNPOINT