Back in November of 2017, Artie Cabrera had no idea when he came from Miami to the Miami Valley to support his old pal Anthony Grant – who was debuting as the head coach of the Dayton Flyers basketball team – that he’d become a UD fixture, albeit at games of a different stripe.
Cabrera and Grant have known each other since they were assistant coaches at Miami Senior High School, a powerhouse program in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood that eventually would win five state titles in seven years under the late head coach, Shakey Rodriguez.
“Anthony is like my brother,” Cabrera said. “He’s treated me so good throughout my career.”
“I met Artie right after I graduated from UD,” Grant said. “We were in a beginning teachers’ program getting ready to teach at Miami High. We were always together and became lifelong friends.”
It was the same with Frank Martin, another of the Stingarees assistant coaches, and now the head coach at South Carolina. All their lives have been intertwined since and that’s what brought Cabrera to the Flyers’ season opener against Ball State at UD Arena four years ago.
It was Grant’s first game back at his alma mater and it ended up a nail biter with Josh Cunningham scoring in the final second to give UD the 78-77 victory in front of a vocal, sold-out crowd.
“I showed up at that game with all my Dayton stuff on,” recalled Cabrera. “I had to be here for Anthony. And it was quite an experience.”
Yet that night doesn’t quite compare to what Cabrera has been experiencing this season in Dayton.
His son Chris – a graduate transfer from Barry University in Miami – is one of the top hitters on the Dayton Flyers baseball team this season.
Cabrera has come to many of the games this year, including this weekend’s pivotal final series of the season – a four-game home stand against George Washington – that will determine if the Flyers make the Atlantic 10 postseason tournament.
They needed to win three of four games and did top the Colonials, 6-4, in Thursday’s opener. Friday’s doubleheader was played at Day Air Ballpark and in his very first at bat, Chris hit a three-run home run. Saturday’s finale will be at UD’s Woerner Field. It will be Senior Day and Chris will be one of the honorees.
“Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think Chris would end up at Dayton with Anthony Grant,” Cabrera said. “What’s the chance of that?”
Considering the relationship of the families, you might think it’s not too surprising, but Chris stressed “Anthony had nothing to do with this. He didn’t know I was coming here until after I committed.”
Actually, his Dayton relocation was just fortunate happenstance.
After playing junior college baseball for two season at Broward College, then starring at Barry University in 2019 and missing the 2020 season as the COVID pandemic shuttered the college baseball world, Chris – who already had graduated, but had a year of eligibility left – decided to transfer.
“I’d spent my whole career in South Florida and I just wanted to be seen by some other sets of eyes,” he said.
His junior college coach knew Dayton coach Jayson King and reached out to him.
“He told me, ‘This kid is one of the best hitters I’ve ever had,’” King said. “There aren’t a lot of guys you trust when taking advice on players, but him I do.”
It also helped that Chris knew one of the Flyers players.
“Alex Brickman and I met four or five years ago,” Chris said of UD’s big first baseman. “We played together in the North Shore Summer League in Boston and became friends.”
Although this proved to be a tough season at times for Chris – a couple of series were canceled because of positive COVID tests among the Flyers or opponents and then he missed nearly three weeks after sustaining an ankle injury while making the highlight reel, “play of his life,” catch, as his dad put it – the 5-foot-10, 200-pound left fielder entered the weekend hitting over .300.
“I love this place,” he said. “I wish I had more time here.”
You get the feeling Artie does, too.
Even with COVID restrictions, family members were allowed into games this season, so he came to several. It also enabled him to see Grant, who came to a few games to support Chris.
“I’ve known him since he was born,” Grant said. “It’s awesome to see him doing what he’s doing. And I love seeing it for Artie, too. You won’t find a prouder dad.”
Artie Cabrera was born in Camaguey, Cuba.
His family fled the island in 1970, over a decade after Fidel Castro took over the country and seized many people’s assets, including the Cabrera’s.
“We went to Spain first and ended up in the food lines there,” Cabrera said.
The family eventually moved to Chicago were Cabrera said he grew up “on the North Side around Wrigley Field.”
His connection to the Chicago Cubs grew when his cousin, Oscar Zamora, pitched for the team in the mid-1970s.
Yet, with all the baseball connections, Cabrera gravitated to basketball and after high school came to Miami and played four years at Biscayne College (now St. Thomas University) in the mid-1980s.
A few years before that, the small Division II school was a regular foe of the Dayton Flyers and twice pulled off shocking upsets, topping the visiting Flyers, 71-70, in 1979 and 79-75 in overtime two years later.
As Cabrera was playing at Biscayne, Grant was putting together a stellar career at UD.
The pair and Frank Martin, who, like Grant, had played at Mimi High, joined the Stingarees’ staff and after great success they all became high school head coaches themselves in Miami.
Grant, Martin and Cabrera are forever linked. They’ve been in each other’s weddings and have served as godfathers for each other’s kids.
“There’s just a special bond to that Miami High family,” Grant said.
‘It’s just a neat story’
Chris said he was drawn to his dad’s basketball program at Goleman:
“I’d be at practices and at games I’d try to slip into the dressing room at half time. Some games I’d sit on the bench.
“I played basketball until high school. That’s when my dad told me I should just concentrate on baseball.”
Initially upset, he said he eventually realized his dad’s thinking.
“I knew he wouldn’t have the height,” Cabrera said. “But I do know if he’d have kept playing he would have put in the time. He’s a hard worker.”
Focused on baseball and getting great family support – from his dad, his mom, Minerva Batista, and now his stepmom, Rebecca Fajardo Cabrera, who is Gloria Estefan’s sister – Chris won All Dade County honors as a junior and senior at Mater Academy.
A torn ACL in the summer before his senior year hurt his ability to showcase himself, so he decided to go to Broward College, where he liked the coaches and ended up hitting .382 and winning all conference honors his second season.
After a redshirt year, he led Barry University in batting average, home runs, runs batted in and doubles in 2019.
His first game as a Flyer was at South Carolina where Gamecocks coach Frank Martin came to watch and brought along his son, Brandon, who is Artie’s godson.
Chris’s most memorable play this season came against Oakland when the bases were loaded. The batter hit a deep fly to left and Chris crashed into the wall chasing it down. When he fell, nobody was sure if he’d made the catch.
“Remember how Pudge held up the ball in the playoffs?” Cabrera asked.
He was referring to Miami Marlins’ catcher Pudge Rodriguez being bowled over by San Francisco’s J.T. Snow in a play at the plate in the 2003 National League playoffs.
As he lay on the ground, Rodriguez held the ball up to signal he’d hung on and Miami had won the divisional series.
On his catch, Chris stopped the threat and Dayton won. Although he missed several games because of his ankle injury, he’s come back and been hitting well.
“He really loves it here,” Cabrera said. “He loves his teammates and coaches. The program is a real hidden gem. A lot of kids in South Florida would love playing here.
“I’m telling you I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris ended up staying around Dayton.”
King said he’s “sure glad” Chris came: “He’s just an awesome kid, the kind of guy I wish I had for four years.
“It’s just nice the way it is with him. Yes, he’s an exceptional hitter, but it’s more than just Dayton and baseball.
“Anthony is here. He’s really best friends with his dad and the kid has a love for the school.
“It’s just a neat story.”
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