When Will Soto steps into the batter's box for the Humboldt Crabs, his first thought isn't about what pitch might be coming. He's thinking about his mother, Mary.
When Soto takes his defensive position, his first thought isn't about where to play that particular hitter. He's thinking about his father, Dave.
Each time the 20-year-old steps to the plate or takes his position, he etches his parents' initials in the ground.
The gesture is Soto's way of saying thank you.
"I write my mom's initials before I hit every time," said Soto, an Elk Grove High School graduate who plays for Sacramento State. "And then, when I go on the field, I write my dad's initials. It's something I started this summer. They've always been there for me. They're the reason I'm here, and I thought it would be cool to dedicate my play to them."
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound left-handed hitter, who plays everywhere on the field, is a throwback with a philosophy to match. And he's definitely playing for the right team.
Based in Arcata, the Crabs are the nation's oldest continually operated summer collegiate baseball team and have played every season since they were founded in 1945.
"I'd like to say I play hard and play the game the right way," Soto said.
Soto's the kind of player who feels he hasn't done his job if his uniform is clean at the end of the game, and he makes sure he gets his money's worth with every at-bat.
"He's fun to watch," said manager Matt Nutter, whose club won the Far West League with a 16-4 mark and is 33-9 overall. "When he swings, he hits the ball hard."
That was evident when Soto homered twice off Zach Morgan, a Sac State teammate, in a Far West League independent game against the Southern Oregon Riverdawgs, which also included several local players: catcher Clint Brill (Woodcreek, Sierra), infielder Chris Lewis (Sac State) and outfielder Chris Streeter (Rocklin, Sierra).
"I know when we get back to school ball, Will is going to heckle Zach about that," said first baseman Clay Cederquist, a teammate of Soto's at Sac State and the Crabs. "I'm happy to be his teammate. I've been lucky enough to spend all school year and all summer with him."
Soto has been surrounded by other familiar faces. His Crabs roommate is Jared Deacon. They have played together since their 2003 Elk Grove Cal Ripken team won the 11-year-old California State Championship and qualified for the Pacific Northwest Regional in British Columbia.
As high school players, they played on Elk Grove's varsity team in 2008 and 2009. They were called up from the junior varsity team in 2007 when the Thundering Herd won a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title.
Soto graduated in 2010 with a .415 career batting average. Deacon graduated in 2009 with a .373 career average and accepted a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton.
Soto and Deacon are just two of several Elk Grove players on California independent league teams, and it was never more obvious than when the Crabs played the Marysville Gold Sox earlier this season.
"Because we have a bunch of Elk Grove players Justin Charles (2007-09), Patrick O'Rourke (2006-08) and Brooke Brooks (2008-09) this year, when we played the Humboldt Crabs it was like a Thundering Herd reunion," Gold Sox managing partner Tom Lininger said.
Soto, Cederquist and right-hander Jason Hampton (Rocklin, Sac State), Pacific infielder Riley Drongesen (Granite Bay) and Deacon give the Crabs a distinct Sacramento-area flavor.
Soto and the defending champion and 2012 regular-season champion Crabs played in the FWL playoffs this weekend.
The Atlanta Braves released pitcher Charlie Robertson (Bella Vista).
Kashka Dudley (Sacramento City), Blake Grant-Parks (Yuba City, Sierra), Malik Pruitt (Laguna Creek) and Franklin's Josh Pigg, Payton Simmons and Riley Simmons are playing for Team Cali in the Inner City Classic and Black World Series in Richmond, Va. The event is sponsored by Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs).
Five players from area high schools have hit three homers in a major league game: Sacramento's Alex Kampouris (1937 for Cincinnati), Kennedy's Greg Vaughn (1999 for Cincinnati) Placer's Jeff Blauser (1992 for Atlanta), Cordova's Geoff Jenkins (2001, 2003 for Milwaukee) and Woodland's Dustin Pedroia (2010 for Boston).