DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — When a group of Nova Southeastern University baseball players realized a new teammate from Venezuela wouldn't be going home for a three-week holiday break like the rest of the team, they decided to pitch in.
Last week, the South Florida baseball team members pooled their money to buy a plane ticket that will allow Ronny Orta, 22, to return to his hometown of Petare, Venezuela, to spend the holidays with his family.
It was baseball that brought Orta to Florida. Growing up in a poor Venezuelan neighborhood, he dreamed of a chance to play in the United States.
"Baseball was like my escape from everything I was seeing," Orta said in a news release from the university. "There's a very small chance you can get a scholarship at age 17 or 18. I started going to school again and was pretty much done playing, but figured I might as well give it a try. It was all or nothing."
A last-ditch recruiting video landed in the hands of coaches at Faith Baptist Christian high school in Brandon, Florida, a Tampa suburb. There, a pitching position on the team opened up and eventually he caught the eye of Nova Southeastern's pitching coach, Justin Ramsey.
Orta joined the Nova team earlier this year. As his new roommates Gilberto Torres and Josh Glick learned more about him, they realized they wanted to do something to help. So the team pooled together enough money to buy the airline tickets.
After practice one afternoon last week they called him to the field, surrounded by teammates. An emotional Torres shared their holiday gift.
"I thought they were going to make fun of me for something I did," Orta recalled. When they told him about the plane ticket, he says his mind went blank. "It was so touching. I hardly even remember the moment. It was amazing."
Since Orta arrived on campus, Torres and Glick told coach Greg Brown they'd look out for Orta. As they got to know him, they learned about the hardships he's overcome.
"I know what he's been through," Torres said. "I think it's miraculous how much he smiles. He can walk into any room and light it up within seconds. His laugh is the most annoying laugh ever, but it's hilarious. I wanted to do something special for him. In these four months I've known him, he's already impacted my life."
Last spring the Nova Sharks won the NCAA Division II championship. But for the players, Torres said baseball is about family and helping one another.
"This moment right now is something we'll never forget," Torres said, referring to helping Orta. "This is something that'll affect our lives forever. That's what it's all about."