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For a select few, it’s worth it

One athlete’s parents spent $36,000 last year to help him chase his dream

Posted: August 6, 2009 10:11 p.m.
Updated: August 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The parents of Valencia High baseball player Christian Lopes spent thousands of dollars on his athletic career.

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As a child progresses through youth sports and into the high school level the cost of maintaining a prized athlete’s career continues to get more and more expensive until the investment can start to pay financial dividends, but chasing a dream can sometimes lead to experiences that few can even reach for.

If there is one thing the Lopes know it’s baseball.

Christian, an incoming junior at Valencia, is the reigning All-Santa Clarita Valley Player of the Year, and his younger brother Timmy, who will be a sophomore, put on a display in the Valley Invitational Baseball League playoffs by going 4-for-4 in the Vikings first-round playoff win this summer.

But the price of success on the diamond doesn’t come cheap.

Jack Lopes, Christian and Timmy’s father, estimates his family spent $36,000 last year on Christian’s blossoming baseball career, which included following him for a month with the USA Baseball U-16 team.

“Even though USA Baseball paid for Christian’s flights and lodging, we still had to take care of all of our travel and lodging and food and everything else,” Jack says. “I think we spent about $1,200 on rental cars alone.”

Lopes also estimates that the family spent roughly $3,000 on hotel fees during the trip.

The added strains are not only monetary though. Christian Lopes is currently taking summer classes so he will not have to worry about math courses during the school year, allowing him more time to focus on baseball, while he is in the regular high school calendar.

As for the rest of the Lopes family, they too have made sacrifices in their careers to help their sons reach such high levels of baseball success.

“I am fortunate because I get five weeks of vacation time,” says Jack, a respiratory therapist who works with children. “Plus, I have a boss who is a coach so he understands that my wife and I want to see Christian and Timmy play as much as we can see them.”

Last year Christian played in tournaments in Florida, Oklahoma, Colorado and several tourneys in Arizona over the summer.

His busy schedule led to his mother’s decision to work per diem. She also is a respiratory therapist and working on a day-to-day basis has allowed her more flexibility to watch her children play.

“Actually, how it came about was that Christian was just starting to get noticed when he was 10, and he was invited to play on a tour in China so his mother quit her job because we intended for her to travel with him since he was so young,” Jack says. “At the last minute, we decided not to go, but we realized it afforded us with an opportunity for her to be with the kids more, and there is always demand for the work we do.”

The $36,000 the Lopes spent on supporting Christian’s passion is roughly 10 times what they spent on it during his first season nearly a decade ago.

Still, the investment has already led to something few could even dare to envision: a full page spread in Sports Illustrated. He recently appeared in a Sports Illustrated photo feature collection of 14 top high school athletes in America that ran in July titled “Where will they be?”.

“The reward for us is getting to watch them,” Jack says. “In a way it’s kind of like living vicariously through how well they have done. I know that there are sacrifices that everyone has to make to let their kids do what they most want to do. Sure, we’ve missed out on work and the money we would have made, and pretty much all of our vacations revolve around baseball, but when you think about it, what does it cost for a year of college at a good school like Pepperdine these days? If this leads to scholarships then everything we have put in probably pays for itself.”

And if the investment goes beyond college?

“Think about it like ‘Willy Wonka’ and the golden ticket that those kids are chasing,” Jack says. “How many candy bars do you have to open to get a shot at it? If something happens then it will all be worth it.”

When the investment pays off, all the hard work, money, road trips and nights spent in hotels are well worth it according to Michelle Loucks, mother of Canyon High and University of Southern graduate and soccer star Nini Loucks.

“When Nini was playing soccer growing up, we were traveling almost every weekend for her games with her club team,” says Michelle, who also coached Nini for eight years, beginning at the age of five. “It was basically like I had a full-time job on top of my regular job. I would get off work, and I would just run around town carting the three of (my children) around. Basically from 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. I was running from practice to practice.”

Michelle estimates that when Nini was playing the most during her high school years, the family was spending between $10,000 and $15,000 on her soccer career per year.

“I know it was expensive,” says Nini, who is now working on her master’s degree in occupational therapy at the University of Southern California. “I’m glad that I was able to get a full-ride (scholarship) out of it because I guess that cancels out a lot of the money my family put into all the soccer I played growing up.”

According to Michelle, the family took generally six or seven trips a year that required flying, and team dues cost $100 to $150 each month for the premier league.

“I have been to 60 or 70 percent of the states in America,” says Nini, who graduated from USC with a degree in communications. “It never got to be stressful until maybe my last couple years of college. And even then it wasn’t so much the game, as much as it was what I was going to do next.”

Currently Nini works on training young female soccer players in her time away from her studies at USC.

“My family never had the money for trainers or anything extra, but I know they gave up a lot as it was, and it wasn’t just money,” Nini says. “They gave a lot of their time to help me become a better player, which I appreciate because it was a lot of fun.”

Loucks never played on more than two teams in a year, splitting her time in high school between the Cowboys and her club teams. Over her 13 years of playing she says she played on six or seven different teams, which means the costs added up.

“I wouldn’t even be able to guess what we spent overall on Nini’s soccer,” Michelle says. “I really couldn’t guess what we spent between our three kids. I know it was a lot. Maybe it’s better that we don’t know, but whatever it cost it was totally worth it to get to see them enjoy themselves and grow.”

For Nini, as she continues her academic career, she learns more and more what weekends away from her friends and extra hours of practice meant.

“I always knew getting a scholarship was a big deal for me and my family because of how much money it saved us,” Nini says. “Now that I’m actually having to pay for school I really realize how big of a deal it was. There are days when I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to make it happen so I know how much it meant to get four years of education for free thanks to soccer.”

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher and Hart alumnus James Shields was an athlete from the time he started playing organized sports at the age of six, and his parents were a major reason for his growth as an athlete.

In grade school Shields and his two brothers played a variety of sports, which proved to be costly for the Shields family.

“We always saved roughly a third of our budget for sports,” says James’ father Jack Shields. “I’d say between the three kids we were spending about $15,000 to $20,000 a year. It definitely represented a good amount of our entertainment budget.”

The Shields family limited their children to playing only one sport at a time so by the time James reached high school he had to chose whether he wanted to focus solely on baseball or continue to multiple sports.

James decided to play just baseball, a decision that paid dividends in a major way.

The 1999 Hart Indians won a CIF-Southern Section championship in large part due to Shields, who posted a 2.35 ERA on the season, while going 11-0.

“We were very involved with the teams our kids were on,” Jack says. “We always helped out with fundraisers, which helped with the costs of putting three kids through athletics. If there was anything we could do to keep them active we wanted to do it. If they had been interested in music or art instead of sports then we would have put our energy toward that.”

Shields did not play on multiple baseball teams until high school when he spent time on both the Hart team and a club team.

“We didn’t travel as much as some families just because of the expense and the fact that we had three kids,” Jack says. “Still we fully worked as hard as we could to make sure our kids had what they needed to go after what they wanted and to maintain their activities.”

In 2000 Shields graduated from Hart and was drafted by the Rays in the 16th round of the Major League Baseball draft.

Nearly six years to the day later he made his debut MLB on May 31, 2006.

“I still feel like I’m living a dream to get to see him pitch on television,” Jack says. “To think back about the money we spent I don’t even bat an eye because it is still amazing to be able to just turn on the television and see him on the mound doing what he loves.”

Shields dreams reached a higher level when the Rays made an improbable run to the playoffs last year.

He scored the first and only World Series win in Tampa Bay history by pitching the Rays to victory in Game 2.

“Whatever we invested in our kids as far as time and money was paid back to us 10-fold,” Jack said. “There is not a single thing I would change about what we did for our kids.”

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