From The Daily Republic out of Solano County
Former Vanden baseball great Jando Lara (currently at UC Davis) overcomes cancer, now waits as Covid-19 plays its course. Lara was a standout at BAWS Underclass in 2013/2014
By Peter Fournier
FAIRFIELD — Patience is something former Vanden High great and current UC Davis baseball player Alejandro “Jando” Lara has had to practice each of the last three years, on top of perfecting his craft at the plate and in the outfield.
He still wants to step up to the plate in a Major League Baseball ballpark someday, even if his last three years have seen a lifetime’s worth of obstacles placed in the way, making the journey longer than he’d like.
Lara has shined when he’s been able to perform at his best on the diamond. When “he’s been able to,” being the key words to his so far chaotic collegiate career just 30 miles away from his hometown at UC Davis.
At a time when most teenagers can’t wait to get as far away from home as they can, Lara’s hopeful journey to the big show started close to home, and likely saved his life.
The story starts in Fairfield. One of the best players to have ever played at Vanden, the 6-foot-3 Lara made an early verbal commitment during his sophomore year, at 15, to play at UC Davis. He graduated from Vanden in 2016.
“I’ve always maintained since we got Jando, in the past, we don’t get him,” Aggies coach Matt Vaughn said. “He’s normally. . . the type of guy we didn’t get because someone bigger would get him. They would snatch him up.”
Lara earned an All-Big West honorable mention in 2019, his junior season. He touted a .312 average, .449 slugging percentage, and 28 RBIs in 45 games while playing in the outfield. With Vanden, Lara batted .448 with 145 hits and 113 RBIs in four varsity seasons, according to Maxpreps.com, getting to the plate more than 90 times each year.
Lara, who was still recovering from a torn ligament in his left wrist which ended his sophomore season just six games in, thought it was just a marginal performance, per his standards, but his life would drastically change just a few months later, forcing him to put baseball on the shelf – just for a bit.
He visited an acupuncturist that October, following a suggestion from his mother, Yolanda Lara. During one of his appointments, his acupuncturist felt lumps on his neck and advised him to see his doctor to get them checked out. That led to a visit with the Aggies’ team doctor, followed up by a biopsy, that led to the cancer diagnosis.
“It was a blow. I was thankful for an early detection,” Lara said. “It was a tough time for the family. Nobody expected it. And that will shock people, sometimes.”
He credited his dad, Jose Lara, with being the rock of the family.
“He was so strong during the whole thing. A lot going on, and he was just a lynch-pin in the family,” Jando Lara said. “He was what we needed . . . He kept the whole thing afloat.”
The elder Lara wanted to be a strong presence as his son was battling cancer.
“As a father, you got to show your kids things are going to go wrong and you’re always going to have adversity in your life,” Jose Lara said. “I was just trying to be positive for him and let him know everything is going to be good. Even if baseball didn’t work out that he’s a good person and God has a plan for him.”
The turnaround from confirmed detection was quick. Yolanda Lara said cancer was confirmed on a Thursday and surgery was performed the following Monday.
Jando Lara said the cancer spread to lymph nodes around the thyroid, but that the surgeon was able to remove all of it when going in to take out his thyroid.
Following the operation, he had to take radiation pills for three days, which forced him into isolation for that time frame.
“You’re just tired,” Jando Lara said. “You feel a little weaker. It was just three days, so it wasn’t too daunting. I know people go through years and years of chemo sessions. That seems brutal.”
What Lara has to do now is take one levothyroxine pill a day, followed by occasional blood tests to detect the level of the thyroid-stimulating hormone in his body. As of early June, his TSH level was still around 20, and the and the normal level is 0.4-4.0, according to the American Thyroid Association.
“I didn’t know how much the thyroid actually did for you until I didn’t have one. It regulates a lot of hormones, it helps with metabolism,” Lara said. “Basically everything that you want in your recovery system, as an athlete, is missing.”
Vaughn recalled Lara was determined to be in the Opening Day starting lineup, and was impressed he maintained his fitness throughout his recovery, and maybe sometime pushing the envelope to get there.
“He was always determined that he was going to play for us this year,” Vaughn said. “. . . I told him, ‘If you’re back and healthy, you’re out there.’ . . . It kind of was never a question to him.
Ten days before Opening Day, Lara took his first swing in a batting cage.
Lara jumped into the 2020 season with the limited batting practice and started off hot, going 2-for-3 with an RBI in the opener against the University of Utah. He followed that with a three-game hitless streak, before shaking off the short slump with hits in 9 of his next 11 games.
Vaughn says Lara was having a great season, even if the number don’t reflect superior output. The Aggies count on “quality at-bats” to determine offensive success. Vaughn pointed out that when Lara made contact with the ball, it was usually hard contact.
“It was a lot of situations when he was hitting the ball hard, and not getting rewarded for it,” Vaughn said.
Lara finished the season with back-to-back multi-hit games in a series against Mt. St. Mary’s before the season was placed on hold because of Covid-19. He finished the 2020 season with a .283 average, 15 hits and nine RBIs through 15 games.
Vaughn pointed out Lara hasn’t had chance to play a fully healthy season as an Aggie. He has enough credits to graduate with a communications degree and officially walked in the fall. With Lara’s redshirt eligibility for another season and possible extended eligibility due to the pandemic, Vaughn would more than welcome him back.
Although Lara has MLB aspirations, this year’s draft was limited to five rounds as cost cutting measure. The players association and owners recently worked out a return play amid the Covid-19 shutdown.
“If professional baseball doesn’t come about (this year), I think he’ll get an opportunity, especially if he has a full season where he’s playing and healthy,” Vaughn said. “If he’s healthy and playing, he’s going to show people who he is and what he’s capable of.”
Time is now the new obstacle for Lara, with the return of collegiate baseball still in the air.
When his day in the MLB draft comes, though, there will be no questions about Lara’s persistence or determination, two intangibles that aren’t defined at the plate or in the outfield, but in real life. And he’s had more experience finessing those character traits in three years than most have in their lifetimes.