Ryan Spilborghs is as American as apple pie and as unique as guava gelato.
“I might be the only Belgian-Guatemalan human being, besides my sister,” Spilborghs said, when asked whether any other Major League ballplayer had similar blood lines.
Rene Spilborghs was born in Belgium, and Essie Avelos in Guatemala. Rene’s parents, seeking a better life, brought him to Santa Barbara. Essie came here to study at City College. She and Rene met at a dance for international students. They married, moved into a modest home on the Mesa, and Ryan was born on September 5, 1979.
“I wanted a quarterback,” said Rene, who had a limited knowledge of U.S. sports. But as soon as his son could swing a stick, he wanted to be a baseball player. Ryan’s family-including his younger sister, Natalie-has been with him all the way from the Goleta Valley South Little League to the National League Championship Series.
Spilborghs, called up by the Colorado Rockies a month-and-a-half into the season, contributed mightily to the team’s September surge and started in center field as they swept the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round of the postseason. The Rockies have maintained their energy, winning 21 of their last 22 games and completing a sweep against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday night. They are headed to their first-ever World Series against either Cleveland or Boston on October 24.
Ryan and his father learned the game together. “My dad never had any prior experience in baseball,” he said. “We’d watch instructional videos and play catch. He blew his arm out pitching to me in the backyard.”
Rene, a maintenance worker, was a boon to every team his son played for.
“Rene gives, gives, and gives,” said UCSB baseball coach Bob Brontsema. “He cleared out a mess behind our right-field fence, painted the distance signs in the outfield, and built the shed where we keep our tractor.”
Rene would then sit back with pride and watch his son play. “Until he got drafted, I don’t think I missed but two of his games,” Rene said. Still living in the Mesa home, he has compiled scrapbooks that document the highlights of Ryan’s career:
His .512 batting average as a senior at Santa Barbara High.
His 35-game hitting streak at UCSB.
The day he hit for the cycle (single, double, triple, and home run) for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers.
His .412 batting average in spring training this year.
His six-RBI game at Baltimore shortly after the Rockies called him up.
His catch that robbed Washington’s Brian Schneider of a home run.
His two-run homer in the eighth that triggered a comeback against the Dodgerson September 18, as the Rockies won 14 of 15 games to reach the playoffs. Spilborghs hit .322 in the month and finished the regular season with a .299 average.
Ryan’s strongest asset is his chronically upbeat personality. He speaks for the unbridled youth of the Rockies. “We’re a bunch of naive guys,” he told mlb.com. “This is just a game for us, and we’re really good at it.”
“Ryan is like our mom,” said Natalie, a law student. “She gave us a zest for life.” Now Ryan is returning the favor. Essie Spilborghs has been weakened by a lung infection, complicated by rheumatoid arthritis.
“It leaves me with zero energy,” Essie said. “Baseball brings a lot of joy to my life. When I watch Ryan play, I feel alive.”
Essie and Natalie were able to attend the last game of the Philadelphia series, and Rene went to Denver for this week’s NLCS games.
“Ryan was drenched in champagne after they beat the Phillies,” Natalie said. “He said to me, ‘Do you want to see my office?’ He took me out to center field. It was very cool to stand in the spot he plays.”
During their winning spree, the Rockies seemed like a big, happy family; and nobody on the team has a stronger sense of family than Ryan Spilborghs.