By JAMES COOK email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY —You might not know it, but reigning Frontier League MVP Jose Vargas is a bit of a joker.
The Traverse City Beach Bums slugger usually keeps a straight face in public.
But around his host family, it’s another matter.
“There’s a lot of practical jokes going on in the house,” said Sharon Higaki, who hosts three Beach Bums players this year along with her husband Wayne. “I have to be on my toes, absolutely. At first with Jose, it was like, ‘Is he kidding or is he serious about something?’ And then he’d just flash that smile of his and I’d go, ‘You got me again, didn’t you?’”
Vargas is in his third season with the Beach Bums — and also his third year staying with the Higakis.
In 2011, Vargas and Hector Bernal arrived home from Wuerfel Park one day. They groused about having to walk five miles in the summer heat to the Higakis house on South Airport Road.
Sharon went for it and told them they should have called her and she would have picked them up. Then Jose started smiling.
“He asked about helping me with cooking,” Higaki joked. “He hasn’t done it yet, but he asked about it.”
One time she got him back when he texted her to say he was returning to the team for another season. She replied, asking who he was staying with.
“He said, ‘Can I stay with you?’” she said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I was kidding. Of course you’re staying with us.’”
On the field, Vargas is no joke. And pitchers take him very seriously.
The free-swinging third baseman hit 29 home runs and drove in a Frontier League record-tying 100 runs. In two years, he hasn’t missed a single one of the Bums’ 192 regular-season games.
“That was a pretty special year,” manager Gregg Langbehn said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen again. But if it does, that’s pretty impressive.”
What’s scary is that Vargas doesn’t think he’s tapped all of his potential yet.
“One thing I tried to focus on was just trying to perform better than I could — up to my potential,” Vargas said. “I worked on my body a lot this year, especially my eating habits. Hopefully, it turns into something good this year.”
Vargas’ reputation precedes him with pitchers across the league.
“He’s a very dominant hitter,” said Chris Kaminski, a right-hander with the London Ripper last season. “Very good power and a great swing. He takes some great hacks up there. As a pitcher, I’m always saying, ‘You’ve got to keep it down, keep it down.’ Because if you leave one mistake up to him — obviously you can see his numbers from last year — he didn’t miss any mistakes. And he hit it far, too.”
“I remember throwing him a lot of change-ups,” said Shawn Marquardt, a lefty for the Frontier Greys. “I think I walked him the first time I saw him, because the day before I watched him hit two or three home runs off of us. I was definitely cautious with him. He’s a presence in there.”
He also hit .290 with six triples and 18 doubles, resulting in almost one-half of his 119 hits for the season being of the extra-base variety.
“It was a phenomenal year,” Langbehn said. “He was locked in and had incredible stretches where you couldn’t get him out. His production as a whole was ridiculous for a 96-game season.
“There were actually times last year when he would drive in more runs and I’d look at Chase (Burch) in the on-deck circle and Chase would be laughing as he walked up to the plate, because all the runners that were on base had just scored.”
In three years in affiliated ball, he hit 25 home runs. He had more than that last season alone, hitting in one of the Frontier League’s most pitcher-friendly parks.
“He provides more than just offense,” Langbehn said. “He’s great at third base as well. And an incredible person.”
The Beach Bums 3-4 punch in the lineup of Vargas and Burch were also 1-2 in MVP voting.
“Jose was very, very humble,” said Higaki, who also hosts Burch and reliever Matt Miller. “It was almost like he was embarrassed with all the attention he was given. You could tell he was proud of his accomplishments and his family was very, very proud of him. And yet he really downplayed it.”