Sports teams don’t usually use players from a visiting squad as a selling point for games, but hours before the El Paso Chihuahuas began a four-game series against the Reno Aces on Monday, the team did just that, sending an email with a spirited “HE’S BACK!!!” as the subject line.
Fans knew who “he” was: Cody Decker, who played with the Chihuahuas in 2014 and 2015—their first two seasons in El Paso. The first baseman was returning for the second time as a visiting player. From the atmosphere outside the stadium on Monday, it was almost as if he had never left. Before the game began, Decker signed autographs outside the Aces’ first-base dugout. His mother, Terri, and wife, Jenn Sterger Decker, who had both flown from California for the series, joined him in this pregame ritual. As he put his autograph on a Cody Decker bobble head—issued by the Chihuahuas in 2016, the year after he left the team—Aces catcher Anthony Recker walked by. “Hey Reck. What, you don’t have one of these?” Decker teased.
As Decker continued to banter with the crowd gathered around him, eleven-year-old Jonathan Escobar made his way through the scrum and tentatively handed over a baseball. Decker signed it and exchanged a few words with Escobar, who was seven the first time he saw Decker play. “I just like how he plays the game,” Jonathan said, autographed ball in hand. “He’s my role model, and I want to play like him.”
When the Chihuahuas polled fans about their all-time favorite players at each position earlier this year, Decker received twice as many votes as the next closest player. Decker earned that loyalty through time devoted to his fans. During his two years in El Paso, he was known to hang out for a couple of hours after a home game to talk with fans. He would routinely invite El Pasoans to join him for lunch to talk baseball or life. When he went on the road, hundreds of people would tune in to his Periscope account, where he answered questions on a live stream from his hotel room.
“Communities with minor league teams know the drill: the players are transients and if they can move up and out, they’ll be gone faster than the Roadrunner in the cartoons,” said veteran sports broadcaster Keith Olbermann, who featured Decker and the Chihuahuas on his ESPN2 show during their inaugural 2014 season. “So if a player puts down any roots, actually decides he lives there, no matter how briefly, the connection becomes indelible. And if that player happens to be a larger-than-life guy like Cody, the connection is now greater still.”
Decker, who stands five-foot-eleven and is a muscular 218 pounds, has had a successful minor league career, but never quite earned a regular spot on a big league roster. The twenty-second round draft pick by the San Diego Padres in 2009 out of UCLA has had 194 career minor league home runs as of Monday, more than any other active player. And yet, he was released by the Padres at the end of the 2015 season.
After being cut by the Padres, Decker played for six more major league organizations. Since his last game for El Paso in 2015, he has worn the uniforms of seven different minor league teams and played (for the second time) on Israel’s national team, the Cinderella team of the 2017 World Baseball Classic in South Korea and Japan. Over his ten seasons as a professional baseball player, Decker has donned thirteen different jerseys.
But those two years with the Chihuahuas, a member of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, were special to Decker, and to El Paso. “Mutually beneficial is not a good phrase because it sounds like a business arrangement,” he said in an interview on Monday, three hours before the first pitch of his homecoming. “But this city’s been so good to me and my family and really embraced everything. I’ve said this before — it sounds like a cheap sound bite — but I’ve been embraced by fans before, but never to the magnitude of this place.”
Chihuahuas General Manager Brad Taylor remembers Decker getting off to an inauspicious start with El Paso. He played on the Padres’ 2013 Triple-A team that was based in Tucson before El Paso business leaders bought and moved the franchise. Taylor announced in October 2013 that the team would be christened the Chihuahuas, which drew mixed reactions in El Paso and elsewhere. In Santa Monica, Decker seemed unimpressed.
“I remember somebody showed me a tweet he sent out that said, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to play for a team called the Chihuahuas.’ I’m thinking, I’ve taken enough heat the first 24 hours, I don’t need your help too,” said Taylor.
But Taylor would soon become close to Decker and his family, as would the rest of El Paso. Decker’s online presence helped cement his bond with El Paso. On April 12, 2014, two weeks before the Chihuahuas’ first game in the new Southwest University Park, he tweeted a link to his video documenting what is, perhaps, the greatest prank in baseball history. Through spring training and into the start of the Pacific Coast League season, Decker and his teammates had convinced outfielder Jeff Francouer, a former major leaguer, that pitcher Jorge Reyes was deaf. The video, “On Jeff Ears,” has had more than 1.5 million views on YouTube. “Cody was there when the franchise was new. He not only helped put the Chihuahuas on the community map, but that Francoeur video put them on the national map,” Olbermann said.
Decker said he knew something special was happening in El Paso on August 3, 2014, when the Chihuahuas had their first Bark in the Park night, a fundraiser for animal rescue groups. Fans were invited to bring their dogs to the game, and the players wore uniforms emblazoned with a giant chihuahua mug. “When we did that, so many guys on the team were complaining. I thought it was the funniest jersey I’ve ever seen,” Decker said. Olbermann wore the jersey on his ESPN2 show, bringing the Chihuahuas national attention. The promotion also led Olbermann and Decker to connect with a small animal rescue outside El Paso called From the Heart, which specialized in rehabilitating and placing disabled or injured animals.
That year, Olbermann took up the cause of a chihuahua puppy named Chia, whose back legs were paralyzed. His donation helped From the Heart order a 3-D printed set of wheels that allowed Chia to walk. In 2015, Decker fell for a Chihuahua-mix puppy named Scooter, who was born without front paws and dumped in a trashcan. He signed autographs and sold t-shirts so that From the Heart could raise the money to buy Scooter a set of wheels.
In 2013, the year before the Chihuahuas started play, From the Heart brought in about $63,000 in contributions. By 2016, that had grown to $97,000, according to tax records. “When Cody threw in his support for us, Scooter got his wheelchair in like seconds flat,” said Brandy Gardes, a retired federal prosecutor who founded From the Heart. “I’d go out in the community and somebody would see Scooter or one of our other wheelchair dogs, she’d go, ‘Oh yeah, I heard about you on Cody Decker’s Twitter feed.’”
Terri, Decker’s mother, said Cody hit it off almost immediately with El Pasoans. “After the games, he would just hang out with fans and just talk,” she said. “Everybody was really nice, they were baseball savvy. He enjoyed it. So he’d be hanging out after the game for an hour or two just talking to people.” Terri and Jay, Decker’s father, still watch games in El Paso, sitting in the ballpark’s club area, where they are warmly greeted by fans.
While Decker’s charm has endeared him to El Pasoans, it hasn’t advanced his career. His wife, comedian, writer, and former sportscaster Jenn Sterger Decker, said that what makes Decker popular with fans—his sharp wit, his gregariousness, his social media presence that sometimes veers into politics—makes baseball executives nervous.
“We’re so used to everyone in this game being tight-lipped and old school. But I think he just brings something fresh to the game,” Sterger Decker said. “You know, it both hinders him and helps him. Because it endears him to people, but I think sometimes [baseball] organizations are scared of it.”
Even though he plays for the opposing team, El Pasoans still cheer for Decker when he comes back to town. He faced the Chihuahuas one previous time, in August 2017, while playing with the Las Vegas 51s. “My first at-bat, I got a really good ovation. That was really, really nice; it was exceedingly touching. And then by the end of the series they really turned on me, as they should have. They were very much rooting against me and I got some boos,” Decker said with a laugh.
He got a repeat performance on Monday. El Paso fans welcomed him with a loud ovation in the first inning, which turned to jeers in the eighth when he hit an RBI double that pushed Reno’s lead to 8-6. That’s how the game ended, but El Paso baseball fans won’t stay mad for long.
“I think there is an authenticity to Cody Decker that appeals to El Pasoans. He came to this town and embraced the people and culture,” said Jaime Abeytia, a labor and political organizer who frequently attends Chihuahuas games. “People in this town can spot a fake a mile away. Cody Decker was embraced by El Pasoans because he embraced El Paso. This is the town where people give abrazos, and I think he gets that, literally and figuratively.”
Olbermann figures that Decker’s El Paso legacy is set. “They’ll be building a statue of him some day. Maybe not life-sized, but it’ll be there.”