YOUNTVILLE, Calif. — For much of his life, C.J. Pino has been bullied for the way he speaks.
“A lot of people don’t understand the difficulty of having a stutter,” he said. “They laugh at you.”
Pino’s speech impediment is just one of myriad ailments he deals with as a consequence of being born 15 weeks premature. At just one pound, two ounces, Pino was given just a 30% chance of survival. When he’s on a baseball field, though, his speech impediment disappears, and he turns into one of the most dominant San Francisco prep baseball players in recent memory.
Pino has had gastrointestinal and aural issues, kidney problems, a sweating disorder, seizures, ADHD, recently-diagnosed asthma and the stutter.
As a child, Pino suffered from Perthes disease, a rare disorder where blood supply to the rounded head of the femur is disrupted, causing bone cell death. Until he was 5, he wore a Scottish Rite brace, which holds the legs apart in a V shape with a metal bar. Pino’s parents, Dan and Lisa, would take C.J. to Upper Noe Park, where Dan would pitch to his son, who hit and ran the bases wearing the brace.
C.J.’s regrown hip bone made his lower body tight and stiff, and slowed his running. Standing 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, he’s not appealing to scouts at first glance. He’s a switch-hitter, though, and his quick feet enabled him to be an all-league shortstop. He’s developed into a dominant pitcher for Mission High School and one of the best hitters in the City. Should he want to do it full time, he’s a natural catcher.
On the mound, Pino had an impressive opening act at Mission. After missing the week and a half of school due to illness, he recorded the first no-hitter in school history as a freshman, blanking Leadership 17-0. He finished his prep career with a 19-8 record and a 1.65 ERA, and earned the CIF State Spirit of Sports award. As a senior, he went 6-2 with a 1.06 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings.
“He’s remarkable,” said former Sacred Heart Cathedral outfielder Danny Hinderliter, who has been playing against Pino for as long as he can remember. “To be honest, I didn’t really know his story until three years ago. When I was growing up with him playing baseball, I always knew he was a stud.”
When Pino was born, he was the size of a hamster, Dan said. C.J. spent much of the next four months in an incubator at the Kaiser NICU in San Francisco, and every night, Dan would read him a book about baseball.
After mostly living at the hospital following their son’s Aug. 9, 2000 birth — the morning of Lisa’s 25th week — Dan and Lisa left to see the Bruce-Mahoney Game at Kezar Stadium on Sept. 29. At halftime, they received a frantic call from nurses. They rushed back to see a doctor suctioning C.J.’s underdeveloped lungs by hand. Since the age of 3, he’s had at least 15 surgeries, many to repair collapsed eardrums.
“There’s been too many to count,” Lisa said.
After C.J. finally came home from the hospital, Dan’s father Casey — who lived in the duplex unit above Dan and Lisa’s — noticed that, as soon as C.J. could walk, he’d drag around a plastic baseball bat.
To help with his development, Casey — a former youth coach — painted a white, oblong diamond in the family’s shared 40-foot-by-20-foot concrete backyard, complete with red bases. He and C.J. would play home run derby nearly every morning. It was there that he learned how to hit, and, five years after Casey passed, C.J. still has a Swing Away hitting apparatus where home plate used to be.
In four first-team All-City seasons at Mission, Pino struck out just 10 times while batting .402.
“He’s just a really humble kid,” Hinderliter said. “He’s not the most talkative person, but when he does talk, the words, they’re powerful. He brings his teammates together.”
Pino became a popular and well-liked presence at Mission, and in May, when the Italian Athletic Club presented him with the DiMaggio award — the City’s highest prep baseball honor — he was called the Bears’ heart and soul.
“It’s his calling,” said Mission teammate Will Cohen, who’s played with or against Pino since middle school.
Before his career at Mission was over, Pino had gotten letters from Dartmouth and Arizona. The former baseball coach at St. Michael’s — a Division II school in Vermont — wanted him. So did the head coach at Curry College, a Division III school in Boston. Colorado State-Pueblo invited him to try out.
Lisa had stopped working after C.J. was born, and has helped not only manage his academics (he graduated with a 3.3 GPA despite missing class regularly due to illness), but also a lifelong string of doctors visits (he would have up to 10 per week after he was born). He recently began new meds to get his asthma under control, but also has proteinuria, the source of which was finally discovered after two years of diagnostics. If C.J. had a health emergency, the East Coast would be too far away and the care too expensive for his single-income family, not to mention the fact that his asthma gets worse in the winter.
C.J. will spend the next two years at Skyline College in San Bruno, Calif. He needs time, doctors have said, to learn how to manage his own health. He has plenty of motivation: He wants to play baseball at a four-year university. On a recent trip to Colorado for the Stan Musial Baseball World Series, where he struck out four in two innings — including players from Texas A&M and New Mexico — and was invited to visit Adams State. An Adams State assistant coach pushed Pino’s 93-year-old grandmother around campus in her wheelchair.
After putting away his gear following a 7-2 loss in the state Joe DiMaggio baseball tournament on Aug. 3, played at Borman Field at the Veteran’s Home in Yountville, Calif., Pino took off his jersey to reveal an Adams State shirt. With nothing to prove, he caught the entire game on a 90-degree day.
“On the baseball field, I’m not nervous,” Pino said, without a stutter. “I’m just playing free.”