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Last of the Bros

March 17, 2014
March 17, 2014

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March 17, 2014

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Last of the Bros

On Opening Day, at a sun-baked high school baseball field flanked by the Santa Susana Mountains, the last shortstop ran his fingers through the bountiful soil between second and third. "That spot," says 18-year-old Nick Valaika, "just feels like home." It was the beginning of the season at Hart High, in the Los Angeles exurb of Newhall, Calif., and the ending of a dynasty. Since 2000, Hart has reared about 70 major-college and professional ballplayers, but a single family has owned the most prized real estate on campus. It was handed down like one of the blankets that Ilona Valaika crochets in the bleachers. She is running out of yarn. This is the 13th and final year that one of her sons will start at shortstop for Hart.

This is an article from the March 17, 2014 issue Original Layout

Ilona and her husband, Jeff, are to shortstops what Archie and Olivia are to quarterbacks, times two. They had four sons, spaced over a decade, united by position. Chris played short for the varsity as a freshman, then Matt started as a sophomore. Meanwhile Pat stocked the snack bar and Nick eavesdropped on scouts. When head coach Jim Ozella swung by the Valaikas's house for a booster club meeting one night in the early 2000s, he heard a thumping noise out back. "That's Pat and Nick throwing balls off the garage door," Jeff explained. "I'll tell them to stop."

"Oh, no," Ozella protested. "They shouldn't stop."

The boys were summoned inside only if they broke up neighbors' flower beds or set off car alarms. Then they wrapped socks in utility tape and belted them down hallways with broomsticks. Their sister, Briana, had to duck. The picture frames on the walls all had spider-webbed glass.

By the time Pat took over at shortstop, as a sophomore in the 2008 postseason, weary base runners groaned at the sight of another blond, barrel-chested vacuum cleaner who could reach the hole as easily as he could clear the fence. Incredulous recruiters asked, "How many are there?" Ozella advised other aspiring shortstops in the area, "Maybe try second."

Chris Valaika played at UC Santa Barbara and was drafted by Cincinnati in the third round in 2006. Matt followed Chris to UCSB and was picked by St. Louis in the 34th round in '10. Pat went to UCLA and was taken by Colorado in the ninth round last June. Nick committed to the Bruins after his sophomore year.

Over the winter the brothers were taking grounders at Hart when they heard a familiar voice. "Now there's a picture!" shouted Trevor Matern, who played short at Hart in 2007, the only person to beat out a Valaika for the job in this century. Pat returned the position to the family the next year.

Jeff and Ilona bought an ad in Hart's current media guide that reads THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, but there are too many to list. They saw Chris homer in the majors. The saw Pat win an NCAA championship. They also got the call that Matt had fainted in a batting cage at spring training with the Cardinals and was forced to retire because of an aneurysm on his aorta. "What is the school going to do after they leave?" asks Phillies outfielder and Hart alumnus Steve Susdorf.

Pat poses a more pressing question: "What are my parents going to do?" In the past 20 years they've never taken a vacation unrelated to baseball. On Opening Day, Ilona told Nick, "I can't believe that it's ending. I'll probably cry."

She peers at her youngest, a three-year starter, in the on-deck circle. He is 6'0", 185, but she sees a four-year-old slipping a piece of gum through the fence to his big brother. "This is a chapter in life for every parent whose kids play sports," Ilona says. "We've just been blessed that our chapter lasted so long."

There is still baseball to see, blankets to knit. Last weekend the Valaikas met in Arizona to visit Chris at the Cubs' camp and Pat at the Rockies'. But Chicago is using Chris all over the infield, and Colorado has talked with Pat about different positions. At Hart they were always together, at short. "When I die," Ilona says, "I want my ashes scattered right there." She points at the strip of dirt between second and third. So what if she missed some Hawaiian getaways? This is heaven on earth.

Since 2000, Hart High has reared about 70 major-college and pro baseball players, but a single family has owned the most prized real estate: between second base and third.

Is there a first family of sports in your town?

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PHOTOANN JOHANSSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDILLUSTRATION