The crowd at Boston College’s Shea Softball Field was buzzing last Sunday. The Eagles had mounted a furious comeback to trail Atlantic Coast Conference rival North Carolina State by just a run, 6-5, in the seventh inning. With a runner on first, Tatiana Cortez, the school’s all-time leader in home runs and RBIs, was at the plate. A chance to deliver. Again.
Even under normal circumstances, the moment would have been rife with drama.
But these were far from normal circumstances.
A life-changing moment
Feb. 28 began innocuously enough for Cortez. Following her usual morning routine, she grabbed lunch with fellow senior and teammate Jordan Weed before the two trekked back to their living quarters on campus.
Cortez hadn’t been home long before she received a life-changing phone call from her mother, Sheri.
“I didn’t really hear what she was saying at all because she was freaking out and I was like, ‘Mom, what are you saying, what are you saying?’ ” recalled Cortez, 22. “She told me that my dad had just been in an accident and he had been shot.
“I was like, ‘No, you’re lying. It wasn’t Dad, you’re just freaking out.’ I hit complete denial. Then I heard all the sirens behind her and that’s when it kind of set in.”
Cortez’s father, Ronny, was a 24-year veteran of the Houston Police Department. While responding to a burglary in his own neighborhood, Cortez was shot multiple times in the stomach and spine. He arrived at Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center in critical condition.
With emotions running high and a sense of shock setting in, Weed and BC softball coach Ashley Obrest did their best to support Cortez in whatever way possible.
“I was actually sitting in my office watching film with one of the girls and I usually have my phone on silent because otherwise it goes off all the time,” Obrest said. “I got done watching film and I looked over at my phone and I had text messages from [Cortez’s] mom and a couple missed calls.
“I called her right away and she was in a pure panic. I heard ambulances in the background and I had to tell her, ‘You have to relax and try to tell me what’s going on.’ She just kept saying, ‘You have to get to Tat.’ ”
Said Cortez, “Ashley was awesome throughout this time. She sprinted from Conte [Forum] to my dorm room, and my dorm is on a hill, so she got to my room fully out of breath like she had almost run a marathon. Jordan, she was in my room with me because she didn’t have class and she was fully supportive as well.”
The two quickly set their sights on something far more pressing than the team’s scheduled practice: getting Tatiana on a plane to Houston.
“I had so many different moods in that short period of time,” Cortez said. “I hit denial, freaking out, crying, and then I was like, ‘OK, what do I do? I’m in Boston right now; I have to get home.’ ”
BC Police officer Miguel Bueno had reason enough to be invested in the Eagles softball program. His daughter Mia, a sophomore on the Newton North High School team, looked up to the women donning maroon and gold, and enjoyed attending games at Shea Field with her father. Bueno had met Cortez and was aware that he and her father shared a career.
What he didn’t yet know was just how integral a part of the Cortez core he’d soon become.
“Right before my shift ended, my lieutenant says, ‘Hey, I need you to take one of the students down to the airport. Her father’s a police officer and has been shot,’ ” Bueno recalled. “I pulled up and realized it was [Cortez], and it was heart-wrenching.”
Cortez was ushered aboard a plane to Houston, and upon landing she was rushed to see her father. Despite the gravity of that moment, Cortez could laugh as she recalled the father-daughter reunion.
“When I got to the hospital, all my family was there,” she said. “I was able to see my dad right away. He was still in critical condition, but he was stable enough for me to talk to him. The first thing he said to me was, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”
“Tatiana said, ‘Well I’m here because somebody shot you, Dad,’ ” said Sheri. “He said, ‘Don’t you have a tournament this weekend?’ They went back and forth and she looked at me like, ‘Is he for real?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s for real; he’s on no pain meds right now.’ ”
Tatiana and Ronny’s playful exchange quickly gave way to raw emotion. Ronny was paralyzed from the waist down. But the fact that he was alive, cognizant, and fully in character was a blessing.
‘Back the Blue Day’
Cortez returned to the softball field just three days later and, true to form, made an immediate impact, going 3 for 6 with 3 RBIs to help the Eagles split a doubleheader at the ESPN Citrus Classic in Orlando.
“We weren’t expecting her to come back right away because we wanted her to take as much time as she needed,” Weed said. “It’s just not something you expect of somebody who’s going through something like that. But it also shows who she is as a person.”
Weed’s parents helped supply the team with bracelets and T-shirts featuring “Back the Blue” inscriptions in honor of Ronny Cortez’s role as a police officer, and a banner was hung in the BC dugout to honor his service.
Less than a week later at Penn on March 8, Cortez hit a grand slam and a three-run homer to break the program’s career RBI record.
“She didn’t go out there to try to break a record,” said Sheri. “She went out there, relaxed, doing what she knows, and I think that just speaks volumes to her maturity.
“She’s making her daddy so proud. Every time something comes up and I show him . . . maybe he had a bad day in physical therapy, but his daughter made it better because she hit a home run today. We’re just so proud of her. She’s amazing.”
With the vision of Obrest and the support of many in the BC community, last Sunday’s senior day doubled as “Back the Blue Day,” with police officers from all over Massachusetts gathering in Chestnut Hill to support the Cortez family.
Two ceremonial first pitches — from Sheri and from Bueno — punctuated a heartfelt pregame ceremony that was missing only the man who had thrown Cortez her first Little League pitches years ago in Houston.
With emotions running high, BC fell behind, 6-1, through 3½ innings. But the tide began to turn. Weed pitched 3⅔ innings of perfect relief, and a two-run homer by Cortez in the fifth helped close the gap to one at 6-5.
When Cortez next dug into the box, the stage had been set for a storybook ending.
The first pitch was a called strike. The second, a tad off the outside corner, was ball one. The third was a low strike that Cortez fouled off, putting her in a 1-and-2 hole.
Pitch No. 4 was up and over the plate, right in Cortez’s wheelhouse, the kind she had mashed countless times.
This time was no different.
The walkoff home run she belted surely will be an indelible moment in BC athletic lore. But it was so much more.
“It was awesome that my mom was here,” Cortez said. “It’s very tough for her to be here right now because of my dad’s health condition.
“Usually I’m her main focus all the time, so it was very special for me to do that in front of her, with her here, and not having to call her and say, ‘Hey mom, I hit a walkoff home run!’ ”
Weed summed up the moment.
“That’s Tatiana Cortez,’’ she said, and then pointed out to the field. “That’s her legend, right there.”