Last year, Behlul Ramnabaja was the only player on the La Jolla High School baseball team to hit two home runs in one game all season. This year, he earned a coveted spot as one of its starting pitchers. He’s also the only left-hander on the team.
Not bad for a kid who had never even heard of the sport until six years ago.
How could a child possibly grow up without at least hearing of America’s favorite pastime? When you, your parents and your five younger siblings are forced to hide in the mountains to avoid being murdered, you have bigger things on your mind than sports.
It all started when the notorious Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic ordered the genocide of all ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Soon after, in a swift effort to gain control of the country, the Serbian army began stealing all the equipment out of the local factories, leaving thousands - including Ramnabaja’s father, a former cement block maker - jobless.
Ramnabaja - still a child himself - stepped in to help keep his family’s head above water.
“I started working when I was 11 years old to help my family. Every day, I would buy two packs of eggs and I would boil them at 5 a.m. and then walk down to the city where I’d sell the eggs to people,” wrote Ramnabaja in a school essay last December. “I helped my dad as much as I could and it felt very good going home with bags full of food.”
After two years, however, the Serbian army charged toward Ramnabaja’s small town, Sofali, with strict orders to kill all inhabitants. The Ramnabajas heard that the army could be bribed, but they simply didn’t have the money to take the chance. Instead, they packed up the belongings they could carry on foot and fled, scrambling through the mountains and from town to town before finally settling into an eight-month stint at a NATO refugee camp in Macedonia.
“It was lonely there, and it was even starting to get boring,” said Ramnabaja, who passed the time by playing basketball and ping-pong. “But the United States provided everything we needed.”
Around the same time, La Jolla resident Gary Rectenwald called around to find out how he could help Albanian refugees. Four days later, he picked up all eight Ramnabajas at the airport and moved them into his Mount Soledad home, where they still reside today.
“I wanted to give this family a new chance at life,” said Rectenwald, who put his career on hold until the family got back on its feet. “I don’t know how bright the future would have been for them over there.”
According to Ramnabaja, it would have been pretty dim. There are very few opportunities for young people living in Kosovo, even though NATO sent troops to remove the Serbian army a few years ago. Today, he said, most citizens are jobless, and the situation shows no signs of improvement. So, Ramnabaja works every Friday, Saturday and Sunday to send money back to his cousins, aunts, uncles and other family members who still reside in his homeland.
“I make $9 an hour at In-N-Out Burger, and that is more than most doctors make in Kosovo,” he said. “But, when I go back to Kosovo, I take everyone in my family shopping and give them most of the money I’ve been able to save while in the U.S.”
Despite juggling his busy work and school schedules, Ramnabaja still makes time for his beloved baseball, a passion he credits Rectenwald with igniting. He wasn’t even interested in the sport until he caught sight of a few old, left-handed baseball mitts in Rectenwald’s garage. After just a few months of practice, he was throwing harder than his host.
“I realized he had natural talent, so we took him to Mission Bay (to play on a team),” said Rectenwald. “The coaches saw something in him, and he started playing before he could even speak English.”
Soon after, Ramnabaja made the team at La School High School.
“I like pitching. I can control the game, make it go faster or slower,” said Ramnabaja. "(And) I like striking people out. … It’s fun.”
When asked if he would continue to play the sport in college, Ramnabaja was unsure. Although playing at a two-year school is a definite possibility, Ramnabaja is focusing on trade schools in the area.
“I want to continue to help my family financially in Kosovo because there are no jobs there,” he said. “Once I leave high school, my goal is to work as hard as I can to save as much money as I can.”