A Family Game: Roman Baisa keeps late brothers name alive through Ball State baseball
As the National Anthem Plays throughout First Merchant Ball Park Complex prior to Ball State baseball vs. Bowling Green State, the Cardinals line up in their respected positions facing the American flag.
Sophomore redshirt walk-on Roman Baisa bows his head and says a prayer.
“Thanking the lord for having this opportunity and for having an angel above my head,” Roman said.
Roman’s 5-foot-8-inch frame sports the Cardinals red and grey uniform. But a bracelet around his right wrist, the initials "LB3" written on his glove and batting tape display the real reason he steps on the field.
“I don’t play for myself,” Roman said. “I might play for my family name, but I play for my team. I play for my family. I play for the people who have supported me, and then I play for my brother most of all.”
Nov. 24, 2010
"Hijo, I love you,” were the first words that Roman’s father, Raul Baisa, muttered to him through his own cries over the phone.
Roman vividly remembers the night before Thanksgiving in 2010.
It was a stormy Wednesday night. He's with friends when he receives a call asking if his older brother, Leon is OK. Roman’s confused, asking his friend what he’s talking about.
That’s when he first hears the words that his older brother had been in a car accident.
Roman hangs up, frantically running home in the pouring rain, sprinting through the creek – anything to go faster to see if his brother is alive. Nobody's home. He runs back to his friends house and his dad calls him informing him where his family is.
Roman gets a ride to the scene of the accident. Sitting with his head in his hands the entire time.
“I’m just praying,” Roman said. “The rain is coming down on the top of the car."
He said it's how an ideal movie scene would occur.
He pulls up to the sight to see ambulances and police cars, caution tape and his father’s green trailblazer – that Leon was driving – stalled in the middle of the road with the driver side smashed in.
"I run over to my family, this cop yells, 'stop,' and I'm like that's my brother," Roman said. "I go through the caution tape and my sister comes up to me."
Roman’s sister, Dakota Baisa, stops to tell him that Leon didn’t make it.
“I drop to my knees and I’m just screaming,” Roman said. “That’s how my night ended.”
A competitive brotherhood
A year and a half apart, Roman and Leon fell in the middle of their nine siblings. Roman argues the two were the closest and had a unique relationship.
“Leon and I were different because we were competitive with each other,” Roman said. “He would always push me and I would always push him.”
Even the oldest brother, Cruz Baisa, said that Roman and Leon had a special relationship.
"We don’t really have another sibling dynamic in our family like the two of them had," Cruz said.
The brothers’ competitive sides showed at home, but became more apparent through sports. Whether on the soccer field or baseball diamond, Roman and Leon made one another better all while also tearing each other down in a brotherly way.
“He always motivated me and we always motivated each other just by wanting to be better than each other,” Roman said. “I wanted to be better than my big brother and my big brother’s not going to let his little brother be better than him.”
Cruz – nine years older than Roman – said he remembers Roman and Leon playing baseball nonstop with other children in the neighborhood.
"It was like watching minor league baseball in the front yard,” Cruz said.
At the time leading up to the accident, Roman, a freshman at North Central High School in Indianapolis, and Leon a sophomore, were in the midst of soccer season, preparing for baseball.
Both played infield, and rumor had it that Leon’s little brother, Roman, was coming for his roster spot.
“He was scared because people would say ‘oh I hear your younger brother is better than you.'" Roman said. "And he’s like telling me ‘well, you’re going to have to take it from me.'"
But even with all the competition, Leon always looked out for Roman - ever since they were little.
Their mom, Diana Baisa, tells Roman a story of when he first came home from the hospital after he was born. Leon wouldn’t leave his side.
When people would come to visit him, Leon would stay and make sure nobody bothered his new baby brother. When they left, he would slam the door behind them and return to Roman’s side.
“He’s been my guardian, role model and older brother for as long as I can remember, and he still is,” Roman said.
But the two were best friends on top of being brothers, and Roman said that was becoming apparent the last month of Leon's life.
It was soccer season when Leon died. Roman noticed that during soccer tryouts Leon would congratulate him on his goals. He didn't shy away from him in the hallway at school either, he would seek Roman out to say hello.
"We loved each other, but it was always us competing with each other rather than being best friends," Roman said. "Right at the end we were best friends."
Cruz also recognized that Leon began to take a kinder approach to Roman as a big brother as their high school careers went on.
"He [Leon] would start giving him tips on his swing instead of bashing it," Cruz said. "Or he’d try to give him a tip that he already learned. You could see that the older brother was starting to come out in Leon a little bit. For our family, it was really nice.”
A safe haven
Roman doesn’t remember eating a single thing on Thanksgiving Day after the accident.
He remembers the silence and how his family never left each others side.
“We cried a lot but we were always together,” Roman said. “We shared some stories, we tried to laugh, but it was hard. But we always stayed together.”
Cruz said that the way they healed was by being together.
"Fortunately, for everyone in our family we have a big family and were close and so the number one therapy for us was spending time with each other and remembering Leon well,” Cruz said.
While the coping process began, for Roman, so did the drug and alcohol use.
“As much as I don’t want to say it, and as disappointed as I am, and how disappointed I might have made my family, that’s what I went to,” Roman said.
His family was disappointed, but Cruz said that he can't blame Roman for turning to substances to cope.
"It’s a bit understandable in a way," Cruz said. "When you’re at an age when you don’t understand how to deal with things, that kind of stuff can happen."
Roman remembers the first New Years Eve after the accident.
"It was raining again just like the same night and everyone's having so much fun and my brother comes to mind," Roman said. "I’m drunk and I just go outside and take time to myself."
He said he realized that was the wrong way to cope when he starting hurting his family and seeing the disappointment in them.
"I wasn't the only one going through the pain," Roman said. "I was taking it out in a way and making the pain harder on them also.”
But Roman turned to something else to help him cope, what Leon would have wanted him to do – baseball.
"That’s kind of where I found my safe haven," Roman said. "It's where I can honor him through the things that he never got the chance to do."
Earlier this season, the Ball State baseball team and head coach Rich Maloney read a book called "Hard Hat: 21 Ways to be a Great Teammate."
The book tells the story of a Cornell University lacrosse player who died in the middle of a game in 2004. Since reading and discussing the book, Roman said the team has really opened up with each other.
"We were in the locker room and we were sharing personal stories and I opened up," Roman said. "I told them the story about the accident that night. I teared up opening up to all my teammates who care about me.”
Senior pitcher David Current said what really made the conversations powerful was that he and his teammates were willing to be vulnerable.
"They were willing to get emotional and share their inner secrets and what made them who the are today,” Current said
Current, Roman's roommate, knows how much Leon means to Roman and was glad to hear him open up about that night.
"He dedicates what he does to his brother," Current said. "He puts it in all of his work and everything that he does because his brother never got the opportunity that he's getting."
Coach Maloney said it's obvious that family - both blood and baseball - are most important to Roman.
“Roman really cares about people and he’s had a lot of heartache in his life," Maloney said. "I think that’s really made him appreciate his relationships more than most simply because when you lose people that you’re close to, that’s tough, especially for a younger kid."
Cruz said he's never seen somebody so driven in life to keep someone's memory alive.
"I think it does give him extra motivation when he's in the gym or doing the drudgery of training or going to class," Cruz said. "He’s really motivated by Leon's memory."
Roman said that if Leon was still alive he would be playing college baseball too. So Roman plays for both of them. Every time he wears his brothers number, three, he looks down at his wrist, sticks his right hand into his glove and sees the initials "LB3," he's reminded of his first friend, competitor, teammate and brother.
“I’m playing for the both of us," Roman said. "I’m playing more for him. It's not about me. It's not about my name. It's about my families name. It's about his name. It's about the name of Ball State. That’s why I play the game.”