Baseball: a lifelong passion for NIU infielder

By Eddie Garcia

A 3-year-old walked up to the plate for the first time in his little league career wearing his father’s cleats, which were three sizes too big, and smacked a double on the first pitch he saw.

Maribel Reyes, mother of senior baseball infielder Samuel Vega, said she recalls her son’s first baseball memory as if it happened yesterday.

“He loved the game since the day he was born,” Reyes said. “It has been fun to watch him since he was a little boy.”

The senior infielder began his journey in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, where he watched, breathed and dreamed the game of baseball.

Vega said his love for the game has never changed, even after playing it for almost his entire life.

“My whole family enjoys baseball,” Vega said. “We watch it 24/7. We play it, and it is just hard to describe. I dedicated my whole life to this sport because of my love for it.”

Vega spent most of his time on the baseball diamond as an adolescent. His first time playing in the United States was in 2006 at 9 years old in the ESPN World Wide of Sports Baseball World Series.

Vega took advantage of his opportunities as he made multiple trips to the U.S. with baseball travel leagues, which constantly recruited him based on his early work ethic.

Vega’s father, Samuel Vega Reyes Sr., said his son’s dedication and focus opened up future opportunities for success.

“People were always calling him and trying to recruit him,” Samuel said. “He always had a lot of open doors. He represented Puerto Rico and truly made his own future playing good baseball.”

Vega attended the International Baseball Academy and High School, where he took bilingual courses in an effort to learn English.

Vega said a majority of his time in high school was spent enhancing his knowledge of baseball.

“We started school at 7:30 a.m., and we’d go until 11 a.m.,” Vega said. “We had lunch from 11:00 a.m. until 11:30 a.m., then bus would leave at 12:00 p.m. From there until 4 p.m., we’d be on the field practicing.”

Vega said he played for travel teams, which required night practices after the school day, and that did not include the games on weekends.

“It was about seven hours of baseball every day,” Vega said.

Vega was ranked eighth-best prospect at second base in Puerto Rico and was recruited by Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa, out of high school. Although his ultimate goal had always been to play Division I baseball, he remained determined with a positive outlook.

“It was always my dream to play division I baseball, and then from high school that didn’t happen,” Vega said. “I went to [Southwestern] with the goal of making it to the Division I level, and I thank God I’m here.”

His path to playing baseball in the States was not easy, as he had to overcome a variety of obstacles, the main one being the language barrier.

“I went to a bilingual school all my life, and I thought I knew English, but once I got here, I couldn’t understand people, and people didn’t understand me,” Vega said. “I basically had to learn English all over again.”

Vega said this was the hardest part of the transition, as he felt extremely isolated upon arrival. He had to deal with learning English while transitioning to living alone for the first time.

“I was in the dorms by myself, and every time I struggled or needed help or money, I didn’t have anyone to help me,” Vega said. “It was just a time of learning to be alone and going through things by myself.”

Vega hit .344 in the first season at Southwestern, posting a .429 on-base percentage. He was named Honorable Mention All-Region in 2015 and posted a .529 batting average during 2015 NJCAA Regional play.

NIU recruited Vega to join the team in the fall of 2016, and Head Coach Mike Kunigonis said he has made a huge impact since coming on board.

“He has been a very high-character kid,” Kunigonis said. “He really gets after it in the classroom, in the community and on the field, so we’ve been thankful to have him the last two years.”

Vega’s transition to NIU was much easier than Southwestern, as he was able to enhance his English language skills over the two-year period.

He also had some familiarity with senior pitcher George Faue, as the two played together in the summer of 2016 on two travel teams: the Joplin Outlaws and the Kenosha Kingfish.

“Coming to NIU was way easier,” said Vega. “My English wasn’t perfect, it’s still not perfect, but it was better. I came here with George Faue. I knew him from summer ball where I was the only Latino, so everyone was speaking English, which made it way easier to learn the language.”

Vega instantly made an impact for the Huskies as he played in 53 games in 2017, 52 of them as a starter, and posted a .297 average.

In the fall of 2017, Vega had to overcome another obstacle, as he had no communication with his family in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma hit the island Sept. 6.

“I wasn’t able to talk with them for over a week,” Vega said. “I used baseball to kind of distract me. Hitting by myself always helped.”

His parents just received power a little over three weeks ago for the first time in six months.

Vega said his play is strictly fueled by the thought of his family.

“My biggest motivation is just trying to make my family proud,” said Vega.

From his first hit at age 3 to reaching his ultimate goal of playing Division I baseball, there is no telling what Vega is capable of accomplishing.

One thing is for sure, he will always revolve around the diamond.

“Baseball means everything to me,” Vega said.