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Photo courtesy of Bailey Orr/Texas Rangers

Alumni create SFA connection in one of MLB's fiercest rivalries

Story by Nathan Wicker '19

Baseball is a game of inches.

The game often hinges on minute details — a close play at the plate, a pitcher missing his spot in the strike zone by a whisker, or a long ball hit an inch either to the left or right of the foul pole can be the difference in a memorable home run or a mammoth, yet quickly forgotten, foul ball. All come into play, and all could be the difference between the elation of winning and the anguish of defeat.

The line drawn between the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers also can be measured, though the distance between the two teams depends on which fan base you ask.

Referred to as the Lone Star Series, the rivalry began in a friendlier nature during the 2001 season when the teams first met in an interleague matchup. The two even compete for a trophy, and the team with the most wins in the season series takes home the Silver Boot, modeled after the symbolic, if not conventional, cowboy boot.

When the Houston Astros jumped from the National to the American League in 2013 and straight into the Rangers' division, the rivalry evolved from a cordial battle for bragging rights to a win-at-all-costs affair to get a better foothold in the division.

The rivalry intensified when both teams met during the 2023 American League Championship Series — the first time in baseball's rich history that two teams from Texas squared off in the postseason. In a seven-game slugfest, the Rangers toppled their in-state rival and a few days later claimed their first World Series title in franchise history against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But as the dust settled, two individuals — one from each organization — shared a tighter, more specific bond.

Eric Velazquez and Sean Fields, assistant athletic trainers for the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers, respectively, were in the same cohort and graduated from SFA's Master of Science in athletic training program in May 2010.

The two have kept in touch throughout the years since graduating and occasionally have crossed paths when their minor league teams competed. Now, at the big-league level and competing in the same division, Velazquez and Fields cross paths more often — 13 times in the regular season and counting.

Depending on their workload, their interaction can be as subtle as a head nod and wave, but often it's a 15-minute conversation in center field to catch up since last they spoke.

"It's fun to be able to look across the diamond and see [Velazquez] there," Fields said. "We've always kept in touch over the years, but 2023 has been even more special knowing that we are both where we want to be."

Sean Fields, Texas Rangers
Sean Fields
Photo courtesy of Ben Ludeman/Texas Rangers

Fields is constantly reminded that he's living his dream.

Entering his second season as assistant athletic trainer and 15th season in various roles within the organization, Fields works with professional baseball players, watches major league games in the dugout and gets to call Globe Life Field — or any ballpark, for that matter — his office.

Much like Velazquez in 2022, Fields accomplished what most in his field never will — being on a World Series-winning team in his first year with a big-league club. It being the first in his beloved franchise's history was a valuable bonus to his lifelong dream.

"It was a dream come true," Fields said. "Having an opportunity to be a part of an MLB staff was crazy enough. Winning the World Series and having that World Series be the first in franchise history is unfathomable. There isn't much that can top this now."

Getting to this point, however, was quite the journey.

Intrigued with the idea of working in baseball, particularly at the collegiate level, Fields chose a career in athletic training following his undergraduate studies at Texas Tech University and upon his acceptance in SFA's athletic training program. The program cohort, with a head count of eight students at the time, also interested Fields due to its intimate setting.

During his time in SFA's athletic training program, Fields also served as an intern with the Rangers, which placed him in the Dominican Republic with the Rangers' rookie affiliate, the Dominican Summer League Rangers. This fueled his desire to work in the professional baseball ranks.

"I can honestly say that SFA prepared me for almost every facet of my professional career," Fields said. "I first noticed it during my internship when I was put in some stressful situations and was able to handle them calmly and collectively due to the experiences and classes taught by Dr. Linda Bobo and Dr. Stephanie Jevas. Conversations on triage and in-game decision making with Sandy Miller also helped to mold my thought processes in tough situations."

Bobo is a professor and program director of the athletic training program and has worked in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Science for 21 years. Jevas, who is now director of the athletic training program and professor of professional practice kinesiology at Texas Christian University, served as clinical coordinator at SFA from 2006 to 2012. Miller served as a head athletic trainer at SFA for 31 years and later served in a part-time faculty role following retirement.

Once his studies were complete, Fields accepted a full-time position with the Rangers in May 2010 that sent him back to the Dominican Republic for the 2010 Dominican Summer League season. From there, Fields worked his way up the organization's ladder, earning such positions as minor league rehab coordinator and Arizona league medical coordinator along the way.

Fields' responsibilities include preparing the athletic training room and providing medical coverage during practices and games. He also assists with maintenance treatments for athletes, pre- and post-rehabilitation exercises for various injuries, shoulder and forearm strengthening and maintenance programs, workload monitoring, and postgame treatments.

Eric Velazquez, Houston Astros

Eric VelazquezVelazquez could only use one word to describe being a part of the Houston Astros organization during its 2022 World Series-winning run — "surreal."

It was his first season with the big-league club, following 12 years as an athletic trainer in minor league clubs, working his way up the ranks with about six years each in the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox organizations. He also worked in winter leagues in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, worked in the Arizona Fall League, and was on Team Columbia's staff during the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

"I had spent so long working toward being a part of a major league staff that the entire season and playoffs I was just trying to make sure I was doing even the smallest thing to help the team," Velazquez said about the 2022 World Series-winning run. "After everything was done, I reflected on how fortunate I was to land this job and be able to be involved in that season."

Velazquez was first introduced to athletic training while working toward a degree in exercise biology at the University of California, Davis, and realized it was a career path he wanted to pursue.

Spurred by the opportunity to immediately work with the athletic teams and athletes, his pursuit led him to the piney woods of East Texas.

"SFA's athletic training program provided me the opportunity to be hands-on since day one," Velazquez said. "The extensive, immersive clinical experiences provided different opportunities to learn and begin to formulate a catalog of how to deal with situations."

Now entering his third season in his position with the Astros, Velazquez's day-to-day responsibilities include preparing players for pregame, game and postgame activity and providing medical coverage during practice and games.

Velazquez's mentality, along with the rest of the team and staff, is to put their team back in a position to win.

"At this level, everyone wants to win," Velazquez said. "Our piece of the puzzle is to maintain the players in the best playing physical shape they can be. We strive to mitigate time spent on the injury list and keep players on the field performing at their best."

Velazquez and Fields are both examples of the well-established success SFA's Master of Science in athletic training program has had in producing high-caliber professionals.

"The quality of the Master of Science in athletic training is exemplified by its long-standing accreditation by its national organization, the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education," said Dr. Judy Abbott, dean of SFA's James I. Perkins College of Education. "But as important as an accredited master's degree is the caliber of graduate students attracted to this degree and the high-quality preparation they experience in this two-year program. These two alumni, Eric and Sean, took their knowledge and skills to professional sports and thrived in that fast-paced, intense setting. We like to think that SFA helped them in being successful in their careers."