After two open-heart surgeries, one Scottsdale boy gets his big break on the baseball field

Austin Lugo, 9, dreams of playing baseball professionally and now is playing little league for first time ever after two open heart surgeries last year.

At Scottsdale’s Chaparral Park baseball field, families and friends gathered to watch the Black Bulls face off with the Gray Bulls in a McCormick Ranch Little League “minors division” game. Parents chatted in the stands, older siblings were on phones and gossiping, little kids ran around squealing and playing tag.

At the start of the third inning, Austin Lugo, wearing No. 3 for the Black Bulls, took the pitching mound and excitedly waved to his mom.

“Mommy, hey, mommy, hey, hey, mom,” Austin yelled, wiggling on the pitcher’s mound before the inning’s start.

Like a lot of boys his age, 9-year-old Austin dreams of playing professional baseball.

“Maybe for the Yankees,” Austin said; his favorite team because his dad likes them.

While his coach rotates players through all the positions, Austin likes pitcher best because he likes getting people out.

Despite wanting to play baseball since age 4, this season is the first time he has been able to play any sports.

At 5 years old, he was placed on sports restrictions when doctors discovered a heart murmur and diagnosed him with a heart condition known as subaortic stenosis membrane in the chamber leading to his lung.

The condition is caused by a build-up in the aortic valve, which can lead to anything from shortness of breath to death in severe cases. Sometimes this blockage can reduce in size and not be a problem, but for Austin it continued to grow.


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This led to an open heart surgery in June, and a second surgery just 10 days later after he went into congestive heart failure as a result of the first surgery.

His mother, Renee Lugo, said this can be common after open heart surgeries, but usually within a few days —not 10 — making it a dangerous situation where her son almost lost his life.

A hardworking player

During warmups Austin hopped, skipped, jumped and ran through the dirt, kicking up dust along with his team with a huge grin on his face. He kept toward the front even in warmups.

“Austin!” his coach, Nick Metzger, yelled with a wave, gesturing him toward the dugout. Austin looked up and sprinted over, panting as he came up.

Metzger said Austin is a hard worker who always listens.

“I have a lot of respect,” Metzger said. “He has a great attitude.”

Austin rotated around the field that night, starting at third base, then outfield and finally finishing up the game as pitcher. In the field, Austin was alert on every play. As a runner on third base tried to inch forward off the base, Austin slyly grinned and inched along with him.

To onlookers, Austin was like any other player on the Black Bulls. Like many of the boys on the field, he could be seen fidgeting with his feet, adjusting his hat, even occasionally spitting on the ground.

In a sea of teammates in the dugout, he sheepishly admitted that his favorite part of baseball was “everything” — or maybe the sunflower seeds.

“You see him and you would never guess, but of course if you lift up his shirt, you’re amazed because his scar is his whole chest,” Renee Lugo said.

He still is limited in what sports he can play to just baseball, and he can’t play catcher because he can’t get hit in the chest. Under his jersey he wears a chest protector for extra protection.

Mental recovery is tough

Renee Lugo said her son has always had a generous and loving heart.

“I always told him they had to release and give some of that love and generosity from his heart by doing the surgery,” she said.

For Austin, getting through the surgeries was just the first step. He doesn’t want to go to another doctor or be at another appointment. Currently, he has to go in for checkups every six months.

Renee Lugo said her son worries the problem will come back, despite doctor’s beliefs that it won’t.

“We think of the physical part of surgeries and injuries, and not the mental part,” she said.

Austin’s mom said this year on the way to get a flu shot he grew hysterical, and she tried to calm him down, reminding him the shot isn’t a big deal, especially compared to two heart surgeries. When he calmed down, he offered an explanation.

“‘Mommy, you just don’t get it,’” Renee Lugo recounted her son say. “’I just want a break. I’m just sick of getting poked and prodded.’”

Austin kept his eye on the prize through the surgeries, with baseball as his motivator.  He knew going in that once he had the surgery, his sports restriction would be lifted.

Always had his head in the game

In the first inning that Tuesday night, when his team was up to bat, Austin grabbed his bright red helmet and patiently waited for his coach to assign his lineup spot: fourth.

“He’s the clean-up,” several members of the crowd joked to Renee. He peeked out of the dugout, watching the game as he waited even while many of his teammates joked around.

Being in the dugout is a dream come true for Austin, who said hardest part about his surgeries was not being able to play baseball. Still, not having played for so long has caused frustration and nerves.

“He was so determined and focused that he knew that once he got through this and once he healed he was (able to) as he put it ‘be a boy.'”

When he found out he could play, he said he was “so happy, so excited.”

Renee worries that his skill level could suffer because of missed years, but is confident Austin knows the game. Despite previously not being able to play, her son has intensely studied the game.

Now as a player, Austin can be seen studying and calculating everything around him during games.

“What he’s been doing all these years is watch the game, minors, majors, college,” Renee said.

She believes he knows the game better than a lot of people. He already wants to play next season, and Renee Lugo said her son might achieve his dream to become a professional someday.

“With what he’s gone through, he may follow through, and that may be what he becomes someday,” she said.

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