‘Loyal to my soil’: Watsonville MLB draft pick Ruben Ibarra won’t forget ball fields where it all began

The field, right behind his house, where Ruben Ibarra and his dad would get in extra reps any chance they got.
(Kevin Painchaud /Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ruben Ibarra is the latest Watsonville resident to get drafted into Major League Baseball, but he won’t forget his roots and the way it all started. “Even on weekends and early mornings, when we weren’t really doing anything, my dad was still out there hitting 100 ground balls and throwing 100 pitches and then coming back home to ice his shoulder.”

“Why are you getting your picture taken?” ask the two women taking an evening stroll on the path behind Ruben Ibarra’s Watsonville house Tuesday evening.

“I just got drafted,” Ruben says nonchalantly, a two-tone wooden bat in one hand and a ball in the other.

Their faces light up. “Are you Ruben?”

“That’s me” the 6-foot-5, 290-pound slugger says with a soft smile.

Ruben knows how to use the barrel of his bat.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Thanks to an other-worldly junior year at San Jose State, the power-hitting first baseman was taken in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Cincinnati Reds. Surrounded by his girlfriend, his family, and former coaches, the celebration at the Ibarra home commenced immediately after his name was called and his dreams turned to reality.

While Santa Cruz County has traditionally had a healthy number of baseball players get drafted for an area its size, Ibarra joins a small list of natives to be chosen in the draft’s first few rounds, the upper echelon where the odds of making it to the big leagues are exponentially higher.

In fact, Ibarra etched his name alongside a handful of the county’s most-coveted players ever.

“I tried to get up and hug everyone but my brother didn’t know whether to hit me or hug me so he just grabbed me and yanked me back onto the couch,” Ruben said with a chuckle. His middle brother, Junior, shares the same dream of going pro someday.

The Ibarra family is, to the fullest extent, a baseball family. The walls of their living room are decorated almost entirely with baseball-themed memorabilia. Bats of different sizes and colors hang from a rack built into the wall, baseballs can be found everywhere from posters to counter spaces, with the occasional ball finding its way into the cup of writing utensils.

Junior (in the corner) tosses the ball to Nick.
Nick (in the corner) tosses the ball to Junior.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

You might even have to duck if you hang in their living room, as balls float freely from the hand of Ruben to Junior and over to Nick, the youngest brother, all of them sprawled out on couches.

Framed photos of all three brothers in full uniform from Little League on are displayed on the wall at all times. Their house is aptly located directly behind the Watsonville Pony League field, a place where Ruben and his dad, Pete, spent countless hours while he was growing up.

“I was hopping that fence all the time,” Ruben said, gesturing to the chain-linked fence covered in green tarp. Having moved to Watsonville from Santa Cruz at the beginning of kindergarten, the majority of Ruben’s friends lived in Santa Cruz, where he continued to go to school. That was OK with him, though, because he had the field to keep him entertained and motivated.

“The president of the Pony League knew me and my dad really well, and when practices and games were over he’d tell us to lock up when we were done, and he’d clean up the field the next day,” Ruben says. “He always let us go and get after it.”

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And Ruben wasn’t fooling around. You could catch him taking ground balls and batting practice almost every day of the week, alongside his dad.

“Even on weekends and early mornings, when we weren’t really doing anything, my dad was still out there hitting 100 ground balls and throwing 100 pitches and then coming back home to ice his shoulder,” Ruben said with a grin. “He felt like he had just thrown a perfect game or something.”
“I wish I did,” Pete said with a smile.

His dad’s generosity rubbed off on Ruben in a special way. When he was in high school, he would voluntarily coach kids from the area, free of charge, while he worked out with his brothers.

The Ibarras, Ruben, Junior, Nick, Nikki and Pete.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Every summer the guys would call me and ask if Ruben can coach their kids and they’d pay, but I’d go ‘Nah, he won’t charge but he’s here so you can drop your kid off.’

Before I knew it eight or nine kids were showing up and I’m buying lunches for all these kids,” he said with a laugh.
While Pete was always all in on Ruben playing competitive travel ball, Ruben’s mother, Nikki, was initially hesitant to become “travel ball parents” — a slippery slope for many whose kids aren’t destined for D-I scholarships or pro contracts.

“I was like, yeah whatever. We’ll never be travel ball parents. I will never pay that much money for travel ball ever,” she said.

The walls of Nikki and Pete Ibarra's house is a shrine to baseball.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Nikki did a quick 180 when Ruben was invited to his first high-level tournament: “It’s that epiphany moment. You’re like ‘This is where it’s at right here.’”

Ruben played in a tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y., the holy grail of baseball lore, and decided to write his own chapter by putting on a relentless display of power in a home run derby, earning him dozens of fans as just a young teenager.

“I learned this may be bigger than anything we ever assumed,” said his mom. “If things were ever too expensive or anything, people were offering to help and it was just so humbling and heartwarming.”

His eye is squarely on the ball.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Not that there weren’t bumps in the road. When Ruben went down with a hand injury at SJSU that endangered his scholarship, he was overwhelmed with uncertainty and concern for his future. It was his dad who knew the right buttons to push.

“He just said something like ‘When have you ever shied away from being the underdog? When have you ever run away from the competition? Why does it matter now?’” Ruben recalled, his jovial demeanor turning serious. “It kind of allowed myself to remember, like, ‘You know what, I am that guy, let’s do it.’”

Ruben broke out in a big way the next season, earning all-Mountain West Conference honors and solidifying his scholarship. He took that momentum into his junior season in 2021 and cranked it up a few more notches. The result: Ibarra leading the Spartans in every significant offensive category (14 HRs, 1.353 OPS, 32 RBIs, .381 avg), and solidifying his future in pro baseball.

“Even though I had some adversity, you know, I just proved to myself that I’m loyal to my soil ... I like to say that a lot,” he said with a grin.

“I learned this may be bigger than anything we ever assumed.”

— Nikki Ibarra

Confident, but humble, Ruben appears to be right where he wants to be, physically, mentally, and emotionally. He’s got a nice wad of cash coming his way (the recommended signing money for his fourth-round position is $483,000), but don’t expect that to change much about him.

Asked for the first thing he’d buy with the money, Ruben gives the blandest answer he can come up with: a bottle of water.

“I’m surrounded by the two things I love: my family and baseball,” he said. “Doesn’t get any better.”

Ruben Ibarra is a happy man on a mission.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)