Baseball gave him an outline for life

Fresno State Professor Dr. Irán Barrera during a lecture in one of his classes on campus on Aug. 16.
Fresno State Professor Dr. Irán Barrera during a lecture in one of his classes on campus on Aug. 16. Vida en el valle

The long, arduous road to success for Dr. Irán Barrera includes several challenging fronts from the pro and collegiate baseball fields to long hours working in cotton fields and homelessness at Long Beach.

The 44-year-old professor and lecturer on social work at Fresno State University is on a tenure track. He had a promising career in professional baseball after signing a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, but an injury thwarted the dream.

He authored “The Glove,” a book on perseverance.

Barrera, who is married to Miriam Lizeth Barrera, a Guadalajara, Mexico native, and together are raising Damara, 13, and Diego, 11, has no ill feelings for enduring the life of farm laborer, the tough experience served as a motivator to return to college and seek a degree.

“I had a great childhood. We didn’t have much obviously, but, I think that we had a lot of the sense of community; family, I think that’s what really, the things that I remember,” said Barrera, a 1992 graduate of Avenal High School.

The fifth son of eight siblings born to a farm working Pedro and Olga Barrera, both south Texan migrant workers was gifted with a steadfast right arm that captured the attention of recruits before his 16th birthday.

“We’d migrate every six months back-and-forth. I’m third to the youngest and there’s eight of us, so my dad at one point said, ‘Ok, the older kids are going to be in high school. It’s time to settle down,’ so we ended up in Avenal,” said Irán, who was born in Santa María, and, like many young Latino field workers, worked for school clothes.

The thought of playing professional baseball had never entered Irán’s mind.

“It was never a dream. I actually think it was kind of an accident. When I was a junior in high school I got a letter from Colorado State University. And it said that they were having a camp, but I needed money to get there,” he remembers.

Barrera visited local businesses in Avenal asking for funding. He received $20 here and there, but nowhere near the $700 for the trip. His contractor uncle heard about his panhandling and wrote him a check on the spot.

His father and brother dropped him at a Greyhound bus stop in Goshen.

“My father told me ‘Don’t sit in the back (of the bus) because that’s where all the crazy people are!’ but I had never been on a Greyhound. I was 16 years old,” he remembers.

“And by the time we left California, I was in the back with all those.”

He fell asleep and missed his stop in Fort Collins, Colorado by four hours. He called the baseball camp, who sent coaches to picked him up.

He impressed scouts with a good showing on the mound, which prompted a visit from coaches the next day. A Stanford coach was interested in him, but a mix-up in transcripts ruined his chance. His school grades were mixed with his cousin’s records. The Stanford scout had already left and signed a player from Florida.

“I was like really down about that. I came back to Avenal. Colorado State was still interested in me. They talked to my parents. I was about to sign with them when they told me they dropped their baseball program,” he said.

Good grades at Avenal High School made him eligible for the University of California, Berkeley, and other colleges, but he didn’t attend because his parents didn’t understand financial aid applications.

“They didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t fill them out, so I couldn’t go to the university,” he said.

A friend offered to pick him up in Avenal and to enroll in plumbing and carpentry classes to Fresno City College, anything, he said, that would make eligible for financial aid.

He was urged to tryout for the Rams’ baseball team, who had just won the state title in 1991. He soon found himself outside the office of head baseball coach Ron Scott, who shouted “He said, ‘Son, you’re two weeks late, where have you been?’ I’m just asking for a shot,” said Irán, “I said those words. ‘Today at 3 o’ clock and be dressed like a baseball player, dammit.’”

The tryout squad attracted nearly 300 players. He entered in the ninth inning striking out two players in a row on six pitches before coaches came out.

“‘All right! That’s it!’ said the coaches because they were behind there with the radar gun,” said Irán, who was about 17 years old at the time.

“They said, ‘You’re from Avenal?’ I go, yeah. They said, ‘We heard about you. We’ve been looking for you, son’ and it was like a change. The trainer rushed out there to put ice on my arm, the equipment guy measured me for my jacket.”

From the Rams, he earned a scholarship to play for Long Beach State. From here, he earned a spot to the Toronto.

Upon his completion in Canada, he returned home and three weeks later received a letter releasing him from the team.

“I ripped it up. I should have kept it. The very next day I got that letter, I went to work in the fields,” he remembers, “And I already had a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I went to clean cotton because that’s all I knew.”

From the professional ranks of baseball, Irán was back in the fields of Avenal working for his contractor uncle.

Two weeks of grueling work yielded $80 out of $200 after expenses. He went home and placed all his belongings in a bed sheet and left Avenal and returned to Long Beach.

“I struggled for a while. I was homeless, sleeping in people’s cars, sleeping in people’s yards, you know, my friend’s yards,” said Irán, who played one year in Zacatecas, Mexico from 1997 to 1998, before landing a job with Shields for Families in southern California.

He completed the Masters of Social Work at Long Beach State. After his master’s degree, he returned to work in Avenal, but was soon interested in Latino behavioral health.

Barrera completed a rigorous dual Doctorate program at the University of Texas, Arlington. The two-doctorate degree program was partnered with the Autonoma de Nuevo León in Monterrey, México.

“You study in México for a year, and, if you pass, you study in Arlington. You get two PhDs,” said Irán, who was 35 years old when he received his Doctorate degrees, both in social work.

Irán is fulltime at Fresno State University and works on numerous projects associated with social work. He remains on track for a tenure position.

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