PORT CHARLOTTE – The demands of being a single mom were challenging enough.
Kim Arroyo kept her job on the casino floor at the Hard Rock after the divorce, working 10-hour day shifts with nearly an hour commute each way to have scheduling flexibility along with money to pay the bills.
They moved often, from a mobile home to apartments to a shared rental house. Some mornings she'd find herself parked outside the day care, waiting for the door to crack right at 6 a.m. so she could drop her son off and race across Tampa on time.
When Christian was old enough to start at Westchase Elementary, the routine got more complicated. "I'd pick him up out of bed, drop him off at my friend's house to sleep on her couch and she would bring him to school,'' Kim said. "It was crazy.''
After school meant after care, activities and a network of family and friends to pick him Christian up, shuttle him where needed or keep him until Kim made the rushed drive home.
That was easy compared to the baseball part.
Starting as a 4-year-old with Town and Country Pony Baseball, Christian quickly showed an affinity for the game – and ability.
"It was like his second year, and his coach said, 'We're going to be reading about him one day,' " Kim recalled. "I was like, 'What, how would you know? He's just a little kid.' "
Kim, a Land O'Lakes High grad who came from an athletic family, was determined to help her son get better.
She listened carefully to what the coaches were saying. Read the Ted Williams manual, The Science of Hitting, and a Cal Ripken book. Watched instructional videos. Slipped into a coaches' clinic at a Tampa batting cage – "Why not?" – where she may or may not have been the only woman. Got hit by a few line drives along the way.
"She was kind of the one that showed me the ropes,'' said Christian, now a 22-year-old promising infield prospect for the hometown Rays after being acquired from the Giants in the Evan Longoria trade. "She was the first one I played catch with. She was the first one who threw me BP. She was the first one who ever hit with me. …
"It's not your typical story. Most kids, they grow up and who do you play catch with first? You play catch with your dad, you hit with your dad. My mom was my dad, too.''
Baseball became another facet of their close bond.
Christian was two when his parents split up, his father, Israel, going into the military and then moving away. As Christian grew up, and started hanging out at friends' houses, he eventually figured out he had a different arrangement with just a mom at home.
"We'd go to the movies every Friday and get pizza, we'd go to Disney together on the weekends,'' he said. "That's when I really realized it was just us two. Us two against the world, if you must.''
They continued that way until Kim remarried, after moving from Tampa to Spring Hill, when Christian was 11 and in sixth grade, finding their way together.
"She did everything she could to make sure we never were struggling, and I never knew we were,'' he said. "There were sometimes where I'd see her break down and cry and stuff. I used to go, 'It's all right mom, I'll give you all my money,' though I didn't have much.''
Kim insisted it wasn't that bad, and that she had lots of help from her family and friends. Her large support system chipped in as Christian progressed, covering some training and equipment costs.
Christian said Kim deserves so much credit for what she did, instilling values and priorities that shaped him on the field and off. "Really, the foundations of everything in my life have kind of gone through her,'' he said.
Israel lives in Ohio with his new family, and came out to see Christian play when the Giants were in Cincinnati.
"I talk to him a little bit here and there,'' Christian said. "Not like all the time; I talk to my mom every single day. It's a little different. It is what it is. He's still my father, I still love him. We don't have that close of a relationship as my mom and I do. That's kind of the nature of it. It's hard – I was with my mom for 21 years, what else do you expect?''
As Christian got bigger and better and threw harder, Kim could no longer work with him on the field. They enjoy telling the story of her shagging balls while eight months pregnant with her now 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, "running around with my big old belly.''
Instead, Kim channeled her energy into being Christian's biggest fan, never missing a game. And he usually put on a show. Arroyo played travel ball mainly for the Bandits, then working his way from Powell Middle to Springstead High for a year and then to Hernando, playing for Tim Sims and graduating as salutatorian, with all A's and plans to study engineering at Florida.
Until the Giants made him a somewhat surprising first-round pick in 2013, 25th overall, and signed him for a $1.87 million bonus. Arroyo moved through their system, spending most of his seasons far, and some further, from home, Kim following best she could on the Internet given the time difference.
Which brings us to the morning of April 24, 2017.
Arroyo was in Sacramento, playing well for the Giants' Triple-A team, when he got a call from manager Dave Brundage to come to the field for early work.
After a couple teasing sentences, Brundage broke the news: Arroyo was starting at third that night – for the Giants in San Francisco. After breaking down a bit himself, Christian made what he figured would be the best phone call ever.
Except that Kim thought he was kidding.
"She didn't believe me,'' Arroyo said, "I'm kind of sarcastic, and I mess with her a lot. So, she's like, 'Christian stop messing with me. It's not funny.' And I said, "Mom, I swear, I'm not lying to you. I'm being serious." And she's like, "Oh my God!" And then she started crying.''
And didn't stop, scrambling to get herself, husband Ken Drummond and daughter cross country the next day. "I think I cried for 24 hours straight,'' Kim said. "When we got out to California my eyes were so swollen. I just couldn't believe it.''
Though they missed Arroyo's debut, they saw his first big-league hit on April 25, a first at-bat single off Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (yes, he has the ball), and his first homer the next day (a two-run shot off now Rays teammate Sergio Romo).
The family stayed a week. Arroyo stuck around for a month, playing every day but having trouble making adjustments, his .192 average and .548 OPS leading to a demotion back to the minors.
That didn't go well either, as he got hit by a pitch on his left hand after
playing a week, came back for one game and got hit again, this time a break ending his season, leading to surgery, then a second procedure, which he spent most of the off-season recovering from.
Better news came Dec. 20, when Arroyo was traded to the Rays, the team he grew up rooting for, often wearing his Rocco Baldelli jersey. Christian was excited, Kim beyond that.
Though impressive early in camp, he seems likely to start this season at Triple-A Durham, then join the Rays at some point. Assuming he can hit as he has at every level on the way up, Christian is expected to stick around for a while as part of the new Rays' core, playing third or second.
"There's so many benefits to him being in our backyard,'' Kim said. "It's going to be a really cool experience for all of us. And I'll probably cry at his first game here. It's going to very emotional.''
She's earned that.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com Follow @TBTimes_Rays