Former Fitch baseball star shares cautionary tale of what drugs did to him
Groton - Joe de la Cruz was looking through his tools for a hammer drill about six months ago when he realized it was missing.
Then he noticed other tools were gone, too.
When he asked his son about it, "he started crying right away," the town councilor recalled. Joey Gingerella, 23, had pawned the tools for money to buy drugs.
De la Cruz drove to Yankee Peddler & Pawn in Groton, and an employee handed him receipts showing his son's driver's license, his signature and pictures of thousands of dollars in tools and jewelry pawned, with the dates and times.
One receipt was for a ring de la Cruz had given his wife shortly after they married.
And right there, de la Cruz broke down and cried.
"I didn't care one thing about those tools," he said. "I was just scared he was going to die."
Gingerella, a former pitcher and all-star baseball player for Robert E. Fitch High School, is de la Cruz's stepson, though de la Cruz refers to him as his son. The family has been together since Gingerella was 2 years old.
Last week, de la Cruz, Gingerella and three-time NBA All-Star Vin Baker, who now coaches at Carl C. Cutler Middle School in Groton, spoke to more than 200 parents and students gathered in the Fitch auditorium for spring sports night.
All athletes who register for spring sports are required to attend, and most go with their parents. De la Cruz talked it over with his wife and son, and they decided to speak publicly about what their family was going through, to help others who might be suffering privately in the same situation, and to warn parents and students how quickly addiction can take hold.
De la Cruz hoped that by coming forward, his family could help remove some of the shame that people sometimes feel and that prevents them from getting help.
Fitch Athletic Director Marc Romano announced that a "discussion" by special guests would take place, but little more. Groton Schools Superintendent Michael Graner was also supportive of de la Cruz speaking to students, he said.
"It proves to me that they're there for the kids," said de la Cruz, who works as a foreman for Hillery Co., a custom metal fabrication company in Groton.
He and his wife, Tammy, arrived at the meeting shortly before it was scheduled to begin, but their son was nervous and wanted to take a separate car. Another former Fitch athlete who had also planned to speak did not attend.
Baker, who played for six NBA teams, was also asked to speak about his struggle with alcohol and said he feels so strongly about sharing his experience that he went, even though it was short notice.
Gingerella also had potential for a promising athletic career. He won a New England wrestling championship at age 9, made the varsity team at Fitch in his sophomore year and pitched for two years, de la Cruz said.
In 2010, the Eastern Connecticut Conference awarded Gingerella an all-star honorable mention in baseball. Students at Fitch knew Gingerella and his father; de la Cruz coached wrestling, Little League, Babe Ruth baseball and wrestling in town.
Gingerella told the audience he planned to major in criminal justice and play baseball in college, but failed a pre-algebra class at Three Rivers Community College so he couldn't play.
"And the second I failed it, I knew that I wasn't going to be playing baseball for at least a little while (and) I would have to stick around community college, and that really bugged me," he said. He figured he had some time before he'd play ball, so he could relax.
He started using marijuana, then began selling to support his habit. He ended up being around other drugs, and one day he took Percocet, a brand name for oxycodone, a prescription pain reliever.
It made him sick, but he tried it again and liked it. After that he didn't stop taking it for even one day, he said, and lost three years of his life.
"I did some things to my parents, which I really wouldn't have done if I didn't do drugs or alcohol," he told the audience, his voice breaking. "And the fact that I've never stolen anything in my life from anybody, except for my parents, which is, obviously, really tough."
"The whole thing here is that I'm a really good kid, and, like, everyone in this room is a really good kid. Every parent in this room is a really good parent and really good person. And it can happen, just like that," he said.
Looking back, de la Cruz said he realizes he missed signs his son was in trouble. Gingerella had lost almost 30 pounds. His father thought at first his son was getting in shape, then suspected an eating disorder.
Drugs were not even on his radar, de la Cruz said. When his tools went missing, he initially thought they'd been burglarized, and called his wife, Tammy.
Once they found out what the problem was, they had to make a wrenching decision. De la Cruz said he had to do what he had promised himself he never would: threaten to call the police on a member of his own family.
He, his wife and her father confronted Gingerella with an ultimatum: Go to rehab or go to jail.
"My son was screaming and yelling, saying I didn't love him," de la Cruz said.
Even now, remembering it makes him want to cry. But he hopes that by hearing what happened, students will realize it takes only one mistake to get trapped by drug abuse.
"There are no boundaries to this drug," he said. "And we found out the hard way."
The pawn shop gave de la Cruz the option to buy back what was pawned, but he didn't do it. He wanted to spend that money on his son's recovery, he said. Gingerella spent 28 days at Marworth Treatment Center, an alcohol and chemical dependency program in Waverly, Pa., then attended 90 meetings in 90 days. He now lives at home and works full-time for a heating supply company.
"We're very proud of him," said de la Cruz. He looks at the battle with addiction as he would a battle with cancer, and he's not ashamed to help his son fight it every day.
Last week, as students and parents filed into the Fitch auditorium, Joe and Tammy de la Cruz waited and looked for their son. He'd been so anxious about speaking that at one point Joe de la Cruz thought he might have decided against it. Then Gingerella came in the side door.
Baker, who grew up in Old Saybrook and won a scholarship to the University of Hartford, told his story first: In 1993, he was the eighth overall draft pick in the NBA by the Milwaukee Bucks. He was a member of the U.S. team that won a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics.
Baker said the expectations, stardom and fame went to his head and he started to smoke and drink. After the NBA lockout in 1998, he walked back onto the court and his body shook because it needed alcohol.
"Before I knew it, I was a full blown alcoholic. Full-blown alcoholic," he told the students. "All starting from the thought of partying, hanging out, 'I'm an all-star, I've got a lot of money, what's the big deal?'"
"Those choices cost me my career, cost me my fortune and cost me a lot of my friends and family who were very close to me," he said.
On April 17 he expects to mark his fourth year of sobriety.
Hearing Baker may have been just the boost of courage Gingerella needed, de la Cruz said. He recognized more than 100 people in the audience. Gingerella saw them too, but stood up and told his story.
After he spoke, friends, staff and parents approached him. Some hugged him.
"That was brave, man," one said.
"I've never been more proud of Joey than I am right here, and right now, for what he did today," de la Cruz said.
The de la Cruz family can be reached at email@example.com.
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