It had been 31 months since Ronny Orta had seen his family.
Short on money as a college student who is unable to work because he’s in the U.S. on a student visa, the Venezuelan native recently received the happiest surprise of his life.
Orta’s Nova Southeastern University baseball teammates — whom he joined just five months ago — pooled their money to give him the Christmas gift of a lifetime: a plane ticket home.
“It was a complete surprise,” Orta said in Spanish. “I was emotional, happy. I had a feeling to cry. I was excited. I didn’t really know how to react.”
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When he called home to tell his mother he would be spending Christmas with her, she was overjoyed.
“My mother was mute for five minutes,” said Orta, who will return to South Florida next week to resume his classes as well as the start of the 2017 baseball season. “I imagine she was crying tears of joy, but she couldn’t talk. One of my brothers had to grab the phone.”
Orta, a 22-year-old right-handed pitcher, grew up in Caracas, one of the three most violent cities in the world in each of the past five years. In 2015, Caracas had the highest murder rate in the world with 120 killings per 100,000 people.
For context, St. Louis had the worst U.S. murder rate last year, ranking 15th in the world with 60 murders per 100,000 — half the rate of Caracas.
Worse yet, Orta grew up — and his family still lives — in Petare, considered the worst slum in Venezuela.
“It’s a very poor place — a lot of large families live all in one room,” Orta said. “There’s a lot of violence there, a lot of drugs. There are street gangs on every corner.”
Baseball was the ticket out for Orta, who said he never got involved with gangs. He started playing at age 11 and was good enough that his travel team coaches were able to place him in a Florida high school, Faith Baptist Christian in Brandon.
But while there, tragedy befell the family back home. One of Orta’s older brothers, 27-year-old Felix Hernan Neltha Rodriguez, died while riding as a passenger on a motorcycle.
Orta was unable to go to his brother’s funeral and never got much of an explanation as to what happened.
“They told me it happened late at night,” Orta said. “But I don’t know exactly how.”
Orta tried his best to channel his grief, earning a scholarship to play at State College of Florida. As a freshman, he was fourth nationally among junior college pitchers with 12 saves. He posted a 1-3 record, 2.88 ERA and recorded 27 strikeouts in 25 innings.
As a sophomore, he was converted into a starter, posting a 3-7 record with a 4.34 ERA, two complete games and 71 strikeouts in 85 innings. His 16 starts ranked third in the NJCAA.
With a fastball ranging between 90 and 93 mph — and an assortment of breaking pitches that include a changeup, curve and sinker — the 5-10, 180-pound junior was noticed at an all-star game by NSU pitching coach Justin Ramsey.
NSU, which won its first national title last season, didn’t have to twist Orta’s talented right arm to get him to sign with the Sharks.
“As soon as they called,” Orta said, “I knew that’s where I would be going.”
When Orta signed with NSU, he was immediately welcomed by his new roommates and fellow pitchers, Gilberto Torres and Josh Glick.
“We told the coaches we would take care of [Orta],” said Torres, who played high school ball at Miami Columbus. “I had no idea who he was at the time. But [coach Greg Brown and staff] have always preached that we take care of each other.”
Torres and his roommates noticed that Orta had no car and very little money. They gave him rides to practice and helped him with meal money. But they wanted to do more.
“It’s miraculous how much he smiles,” Torres said of Orta. “He can walk into a room and light it up in seconds, and we wanted to do something special for him.”
Torres brought the idea to his teammates with the goal of raising $600 for the ticket. As it turned out, every player on the team gave something, and a total of $1,200 was raised.
After a late November practice session, Torres gathered his teammates in a circle and then made that announcement that the guys were giving Orta his special gift — the ticket, plus the extra $600 so he could have it for the holidays with his family.
In effect, Orta’s new family is reuniting him with his original family.
“We didn’t do this to make a big story,” Torres said. “We did it for Ronny.
“The way he handles everything with a smile on his face has taught us a lot, and the look on his face when we told him he was going home made a month’s worth of planning worthwhile. He was speechless, and you could see tears in his eyes.”