Sports

Baseball-playing Puerto Rico native reflects on Hurricane Maria, life in Midwest

By Tod Palmer

Special to The Star

Abdiel Rivera-Cotto, a Puerto Rico native and shortstop in KC's Ban Johnson League and at Park University, counts his blessings one year after Hurricane Maria.
Abdiel Rivera-Cotto, a Puerto Rico native and shortstop in KC's Ban Johnson League and at Park University, counts his blessings one year after Hurricane Maria. Courtesy photo

Abdiel Rivera-Cotto desperately wanted to focus on his international business studies and baseball in late September last year.

But as Hurricane Maria laid waste to Puerto Rico — dumping nearly 38 inches of rain on his hometown of Caguas, the most any location in the Caribbean nation received — what Rivera-Cotto wanted even more desperately was a phone call from his mother, Liz.

Rivera-Cotto, a shortstop for YBC in the Ban Johnson League and Park University, would sit at his residence in Parkville dialing every phone number he could think of back home.

“I called every friend that I had over there, but nothing went through,” he said. “You couldn’t talk to anybody.”

Hurricane Maria knocked out all electrical power across Puerto Rico and destroyed most of the country’s cell-phone towers. Rivera-Cotto’s mind raced and frustration set in.

“It took a month before I could actually talk to them,” Rivera-Cotto said. “My aunt finally found someone with a working phone who let her borrow it. Until then, I didn’t even know if my family was safe. I didn’t know what was happening. It was really bad.”

Much to his relief, his family was safe, but his grandmother’s house, where Rivera-Cotto briefly lived after his parents divorced when he was a child, wasn’t as lucky.

His grandmother — ironically, also named Maria — lost everything, including all of Rivera-Cotto’s childhood treasures that were proudly displayed there.

“All my trophies and all that stuff, all my childhood, was in that house,” Rivera-Cotto said. “It all disappeared.”

It’s rare to see Rivera-Cotto without a smile. That’s what coaches and teammates remark when asked about him: ceaseless energy and optimism.

Sitting on a bucket in the dugout at Mid-America Sports Complex’s Fenway Park field on Friday, Rivera-Cotto — known by teammates as “A.B.” — was in his typical form, joking with teammates and shouting encouragement to batters.

The smile only dissipated when he concentrated on a coach’s counsel after a sixth-inning strikeout.

Then, Rivera-Cotto sat back down on the bucket — closer to the plate than any other player in YBC’s dugout — and the smile quickly returned along with the chatter.

Rivera-Cotto’s effervescence doesn’t hint at the incredible journey and occasional struggles he’s faced already in life, but he had every reason for that smile during the 9-8 win against Seaboard.

Liz and her husband — Rivera-Cotto’s stepfather, Angel Cotto — were 50 feet away watching the game from the metal bleachers as Rivera-Cotto put on a show. He smashed a two-run home run in the first inning and gave YBC the lead for good with the game-winning RBI single in the third.

It’s also not hard to see where Rivera-Cotto gets his demeanor.

Liz understands English well, but her son served as translator in answering questions for an interview. When asked about seeing Rivera-Cotto’s first-inning shot, she immediately cracked a wide smile and started giggling at the mention of “home run.”

“That was great,” said Rivera-Cotto, who is batting a team-high .510 with four doubles and 20 RBIs this summer. “She said one of my teammates told her before the game, ‘A.B.’s a really good hitter. I bet he gets some hits for you today.’ Then, (the home run) happened. She can’t even talk about how happy that made her.”

Rivera-Cotto is an only child, so Liz wasn’t always as thrilled about him moving to Missouri for school and baseball.

He’d been a highly regarded prospect in Caguas despite being only 5-foot-10, a slick fielder capable of hitting for a high average with occasional pop.

After high school, Rivera-Cotto received a full scholarship for academics and baseball at the University of Puerto Rico-Bayamon, which was perfect for Liz with him being less than a half-hour from home.

A wrist injury during an all-star game the summer before Rivera-Cotto was supposed to start college changed everything. He underwent surgery and wasn’t able to play the following year.

Rivera-Cotto also became disillusioned.

“I was about to quit and join the Army,” he said.

But a call from a former coach — who let Rivera-Cotto know about an opportunity at Wentworth Military Academy and College in Lexington, Mo., and encouraged him not to give up on baseball — changed everything.

“Why don’t you take a chance?” the coach said. “Try it again. I’m pretty sure you can make it.”

There were a few hurdles. Rivera-Cotto didn’t even know where Missouri was — oh, and he didn’t speak English.

“To be honest, I didn’t know anything about Missouri,” Rivera-Cotto said.

When Wentworth coach Beau Franklin picked him up at the airport, he brought a Puerto Rican teammate to serve as translator.

“It took me about three months to have a full conversation with somebody (in English),” Rivera-Cotto said.

Fortunately, baseball is a universal language.

As a freshman, Rivera-Cotto batted .281 and impressed the coaching staff enough to be made captain for the 2017 season, when he improved his average to .364 with five doubles and more walks (10) than strikeouts (eight).

He also caught the eye of Park University coach Cary Lundy, who also manages the Edelman & Thompson team in the Ban Johnson League.

It’s his Park teammates who Rivera-Cotto credits for helping him endure the deafening silence after Hurricane Maria.

“My teammates really were there for me, knowing what was happening, but it was really tough,” Rivera-Cotto said.

It also was hard for Liz, who is an emergency medical technician in Puerto Rico.

“Being an EMT, helping people every day and saving lives, it was a funny thing not to be able to talk to your son back home,” Rivera-Cotto said, translating for his mom. “That was difficult.”

The two were finally reunited around Christmas after Rivera-Cotto and his girlfriend scraped together enough money to fly Liz, Angel and Maria to Kansas City.

“When I saw them in the airport, it was just,” Rivera-Cotto said then exhaled deeply, “wow. I was so glad to see them again and hug them. It felt like I hadn’t hugged them for two years. I had butterflies and started sweating and all this stuff. It was crazy.”

More emotional reunions have followed. Rivera-Cotto’s father, Enrique Rivera, who works as a personal trainer in Puerto Rico, visited in March. The day after finals ended in May, Rivera-Cotto flew home and surveyed the damage for himself.

“It’s becoming recognizable again, but there are places where it’s just dirt, like on the mountains, and I can see things from my house, like other houses, that I didn’t even know were there before, even though I lived there my entire life,” Rivera-Cotto said.

He worries about another fast-approaching hurricane season and what it will mean for a country still on the rebound, but Rivera-Cotto also counts his blessings.

“It was just material things we lost, thank God,” he said.

Besides, Rivera-Cotto, who batted .331 with 20 RBIs in his first season at Park, is excited for his final collegiate baseball season and the prospect of graduating next spring.

He just hopes this year he’ll be able to get back to his proper pregame ritual.

Every game-day morning, until last spring when communication remained spotty in Puerto Rico, Rivera-Cotto would “wake up and call my mom. Just talk to her a little bit and get relaxed for the game.”

“Then, I make the trip (to the stadium) and call my grandmother right before the game to let her know that I’m OK, I’m going to play and thank her,” Rivera-Cotto continued. “I’m doing what I’m doing because of them. They always helped me and supported me.”

He missed that game-day custom last year — just not as desperately as he’d missed hearing his mom’s and grandma’s voices six months earlier.

“I still did my job and had a great season, but I played with a sad feeling,” Rivera-Cotto said.

Next summer, he hopes he’ll still have a reason to keep making those game-day calls. After baseball is finished, Rivera-Cotto envisions being an entrepreneur and settling down in Phoenix with his girlfriend.

Liz, of course, still hopes he’ll return to Puerto Rico. She misses her son, but is happy he’s found a new home and trusts that he’s where he’s supposed to be for now.

“It’s sad for her that she doesn’t get to see me every day, like she was used to for 18 years, but there’s still a good feeling about it,” Rivera-Cotto said. “She knows I’m here and keep pushing for my school and for baseball.”

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