Rocky King Sr. could no longer contain the smile he had been busy holding back. He made a laudable effort, staving it off for several minutes, to no avail. It simply stretched across his face, nearly as wide as the dugout benches at the Verrado High School varsity baseball field.
King, an assistant coach for the Vipers baseball team, watched his two sons field questions about their tenure playing together on the varsity team. He looked on, shoulder-width apart from both of them, and gushed with delight.
“I really like playing with my brother,” said Rocky King Jr., a senior left-handed pitcher and first baseman, with a nod to his sophomore brother, Jake.
King Sr. chimed in, “It’s been a blast. I couldn’t ask for anything better. It’s been a special year.”
This holds all the feels of a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming-moment, but King Sr. always had a hunch this would pan out. There was always that sneaky suspicion that this is where they’re supposed to be – him patrolling the dugout and his two teenage sons side by side playing varsity ball.
It was during Jake’s eighth grade season at Verrado Middle School when this dream caught a whiff of legitimacy.
“His eighth-grade year we knew that maybe there’d be a chance (they could play together in high school),” King Sr. said. “Hopefully when he got to be a sophomore there was an opportunity, and obviously them being two years apart, there’s that chance.”
When Jake entered high school, his father had already been an assistant coach for two seasons. His brother, a crafty left-hander, was going to be a junior, likely a front-end starter in the pitching rotation.
How cool would it be, they wondered, if Jake were to join the team? But again, expectations and the excitement surrounding his arrival needed to be tempered. He was just a freshman, remember.
However, several late-season injuries the Vipers endured last season expedited Jake’s promotion to the varsity lineup. He was called up in mid-March, and at last they were all together.
He debuted in March and eight weeks later the Vipers had just finished their run to the 5A state championship game. Jake did nothing but hit in the 13 games he appeared in, ripping a triple into the right field corner that championship game. Five nights earlier, Rocky Jr. pitched four innings in a semi-finals win.
At last, a brotherly one-two punch at the varsity level was born. A mighty one, and one that would return the following year for Rocky Jr.’s senior campaign.
This spring, Rocky Jr. and Jake have been instrumental in reeling in yet another postseason berth for the Vipers. Verrado is the No. 8 seed in the postseason tournament, and will host No. 9 seed Apollo on April 27. Results of the first two rounds of the tournament were not available as of print.
The ace of the pitching staff, Rocky Jr. has a sparkling 2.33 earned run average. He’s punched out 57 hitters and walked 22. He’s also cruised through a team-high with 45 innings pitched. At the plate, he’s been equally impressive. He’s batting .329 with 22 RBI, which leads the team.
It might seem like a daunting act to follow, but Jake hasn’t flinched. He bats .318 to complement a team-leading 11 extra-base hits.
Perhaps the best stat of them all comes in the home run department. Verrado has hit a total of four all season, a dip from last season’s 15 bombs.
Two sluggers are tied with the share in homers this season. Of course, poetic justice almost, Jake and Rocky King Jr. are those two, each with a pair of homers this spring.
Jake held a slim 2-1 advantage over his older brother for a better part of the season, until Rocky Jr. hit his second home run late in the spring.
“When he tied it, I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ I can’t let him beat me,’” Jake recalled.
Rocky Jr. sought out his brother in the dugout moments after becoming a co-owner of the home run lead. “Hey,” he told little brother. “Guess who’s tied with you?”
Rocky Sr. smiled at this back-and-forth.
It’s now evident their brotherly love has come out to play. Asked if they continue to push their buttons when they take the field, both paired a nod with a sly grin.
“Yeah,” Jake admitted. “I like to press his buttons on the field, too.”
Both feel their postseason experience is a valuable asset to this Verrado team, which features more new faces than returners from last year’s team.
“We have a lot of young guys,” Rocky Jr. said. “We have to talk them into (the playoffs), and just going out there and playing your best.”
Jake added, “In the dugout, on the field, everyone needs to be into the game for all seven innings.”
King Sr. has grown up coaching his kids in youth sports – he has another son, Max, in third grade – so separating the coach role from the father role is something he’s grown accustomed to.
“You have to coach first and I pride myself on treating them like I would all the other players,” he said. “I love all these kids to death, so I can be hard on every one of them, not just my own. There’s a little more special bond when you see your kids out there and successful, go through the ups and downs and be able to be there for them. It’s an awesome experience to be a part of and having them both.”
There’s no telling whether or not this spring will be the last time Rocky Sr. and his boys share a clubhouse together. Rocky Jr. will likely play at Arizona Western College, though he’s still mulling a Division I offer, and Jake, too, looks primed to play at the collegiate level.
Rocky Sr. knows this, which makes this spring together all the sweeter.
“To see them out here working and doing what they want to do, it’s a blast,” he said. “As a family, as a community, we put a lot of work into baseball. We’ve had good family support, and people around us in the community know that’s what we do – we’re a baseball family.”