Saul Bustos pulled a blue card from his pocket, as he stepped toward the equipment closet.
“Here’s the magic key,” he joked, swiftly sliding it into the crack of the door to jimmy the lock free, before stepping into the dark to grab basketballs and tennis balls for his final-period P.E. class.
The students had already done their stretches to start the class, going through push-ups and jumping jacks in a circle on the basketball court floor at Bustos’ instruction in the center, and they were bounding out back for the rest of a laid-back period on the last day of school before spring break.
Out there in the sun, Bustos looked over the yard, then kicked up familiar West Texas dust as he stepped across to a group gathered on the swing set on the other side.
“Alright, who wants a push?” he called out — just a heartbeat before all the students hooted right back with hands raised.
They didn’t realize what kind of push they were giving back to him.
Bustos was an All-American baseball player at Texas Tech in 1994 and a 12-year pro until his retirement in 2005, and he is a bona fide hometown legend who stood out on the diamond at Permian and Odessa College before climbing to All-Southwest Conference and All-America honors in Lubbock — and he is, school workers can admit, unlike any other P.E. coach they’ve had lately at Odessa Christian School, the small outpost next to Bonham with an enrollment of about 170 students going up to eighth grade.
Yes, peering over the resume, one probably wouldn’t expect to find him in his first year of coaching basketball, volleyball and track at a school without any varsity programs. Bustos was drafted by the Chicago Cubs’ organization in 1994, and later traded to the Montreal Expos before continuing a successful career in the independent minors through the turn of the century and the early 2000’s. He retired as an All-Star in the Can-Am League in 2005 to focus more on his training center, Hitters Row Academy, which he had opened in Lubbock and then ran successfully for more than a decade.
But at the school, here back in his hometown for the first time in years, between fidgeting with equipment closet doors and going through elaborate home-plate handshakes with his middle school students, Bustos said he fit right in.
“It’s something that’s just filling my heart,” he said, during that P.E. period on Thursday.
Bustos returned to Odessa last summer, and it wasn’t the happiest homecoming. He had just finalized his divorce. He closed Hitters Row Academy. He left Lubbock. He came to Odessa to stay with his brother.
But that’s when he got back up onto his feet, taking up baseball and softball training sessions again, and joining the congregation at Sherwood Church of Christ, where he learned about the opening at Odessa Christian School.
Fast forward, and he’s about to finish his first school year at OCS, teaching science and P.E. and coaching its sports teams.
“There’s a reason that I came back to Odessa, and I’m seeing it now,” Bustos said.
“It’s really waking me up, and giving me confidence, and just a boost,” he added.
Of course, in turn, Bustos is bringing his own boost to OCS.
“In the past, the school being a private school, being a Christian school, has never had anybody of his stature,” said Kevin Adkinson, a school do-it-all and assistant to principal Nancy Campbell.
“I’ve seen a difference,” he agreed.
Standing in the school foyer and looking out the front windows Thursday, Adkinson admired the serendipity. This year, Bustos seemed to find a little bit of what he needed when he needed it most, and so did the school.
“This place has a great academic reputation, and we want to grow,” Adkinson said. “And I find it funny that he shows up at about that time, and he builds us up a little bit.”
Bustos has previous experience as a teacher, working at schools in the baseball offseason during his playing career in the 1990s, but he hadn’t taught in a classroom since 2000 before this school year.
Still, in the halls of OCS, Bustos’ skills from a career of coaching, training and working with young people shine through, Adkinson said.
And in those halls now, before his afternoon lessons with players now carrying a legacy in his hometown, Bustos said he’s found something special off the diamond.
“It was a life-changing thing,” he said of the shakeup last summer. “Luckily I found Odessa Christian School. This is a great experience.”
It’s an experience, part of something whole again — and home again.
“It’s a community. It’s a group that you’re with now,” Bustos said.
“You belong to a school system, a community, a church,” he paused.
“I feel good about it.”