Ricky Romero is living the American Dream … in Canada.
He grew up in a working-class, Mexican-American family. He avoided the gangs in his East Los Angeles neighborhood. He earned a baseball scholarship to Cal State Fullerton and pitched his team to a College World Series title.
He became the Toronto Blue Jays’ first-round draft pick in 2005. He signed a $30.1 million contract extension last year. He made the first of what could be many Opening Day starts earlier this month.
Oh, and one more thing: He’s dating Miss USA Rima Fakih.
“I’m living the American Dream, playing the game I love,” Romero said at his locker on Tuesday, before the Jays opened a series against the New York Yankees. “And meeting her obviously has been awesome.”
So, basically, Ricky Romero wins at life. And he’s winning in a way that will inspire fist bumps, rather than jealousy, from men whose wives or girlfriends don’t have tiaras.
Many professional athletes would rather not discuss their personal lives, for reasons I completely respect. Society has gone goofy. Privacy isn’t what it used to be. Romero, though, reacted as an average 26-year-old might, when he was approached with some decidedly non-baseball questions.
He smiled. He shrugged. He acknowledged that, yeah, life is good right now.
Ace pitcher. Ace girlfriend.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said with a grin.
Romero isn’t looking for publicity. He said our conversation was the first time he had spoken about Fakih in a formal interview. His responses were refreshingly matter-of-fact. “We have a fun relationship, a loving relationship,” he said. “We’re not worried about what people say.”
“It’s kind of crazy,” he continued. “I never thought I’d be doing an interview about it.”
And yet, the logic is quite simple: If your buddy was dating an internationally known beauty queen, do you think he’d refuse to talk about it?
“People here (in Toronto) didn’t know we were dating,” Romero explained. “We’ve been dating since August. More people started finding out about it on Opening Day. One of our TV guys came up to me and said, ‘Is it true? Do you mind if I say something (on the air) while you’re pitching, if she’s going to be here?’ I said, ‘Not at all. Go ahead.’
“I’m not looking to be in the news everywhere we go. I’m low-key, and so is she. I go about my business. My priority is baseball, coming out here, working hard every day, and winning ballgames. Her priority is the Miss USA crown, making sure she does her job. At the end of the day, when we talk about our lives, it’s interesting, and we’ve gotten to know each other really well.”
The couple met in New York last August, not long after Fakih (pronounced fuh-KEY) became the first Muslim and first Arab-American to be crowned Miss USA. Mutual friends introduced them while the Blue Jays were in town for a series at Yankee Stadium.
Fakih, who lived in New York for much of her childhood, told Romero that she was a Yankees fan. He invited her to attend his Aug. 3 start, anyway. She was unsure initially, Romero said, but he won her over. Good thing, too: Romero, perhaps channeling Kevin Costner’s character in For Love of the Game, beat the Yankees with a complete game.
“That,” he said, “made it even better.”
Now, the task is lining up the travel schedules of two busy people who don’t live in the same city. Fakih resides in New York, in conjunction with her duties as Miss USA, and Romero returns to California each off-season.
“It’s not easy being away,” Romero said. “(Other) guys that have girlfriends, they’re seeing them every other week. But I also understand. She has a job. I told her from day one, that’s never going to bother me. When two people really care for each other, they’ll make it work, no matter what. So far, we have.”
The irony, of course, is that Romero’s employment by a Canadian team might actually help the couple maintain a sense of normalcy when they are together in public. Romero is indeed one of the best young starters in the American League. But he’s not a nationally recognized figure in Canada (because he doesn’t play hockey) or in the U.S. (because the Jays haven’t reached the postseason since 1993).
If Romero were pitching for the Yankees or Mets, photos of the two would be a Page Six staple. Or they might be scrutinized in the way that Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp and pop star Rihanna were last year. “I’m sure it’d be a little crazy if I was in New York, or if I was in L.A.,” Romero said. “I kind of like it like this. We’re under the radar.”
Well, not completely under the radar. Fakih is a contestant on WWE Tough Enough, a wrestling reality show that airs on USA. Romero watched only the first episode and is aware of the criticism that followed after “a little incident where she cussed on the show.” Romero did sense more people taking notice of them last weekend, when Fakih visited Boston during the Jays’ series there. “But it’s never been out of hand – never where we’re walking out and see flashes,” he said.
Because I couldn’t resist, I asked the question: Which one of them is more famous?
“I’m not going to answer that,” he said.
Then he reconsidered quickly.
“Her,” he corrected, his tone resigned. “It’s OK.”
Perhaps. But these days, we have a way of measuring such things. And on this morning’s Twitter scoreboard, @RickyRo24 led @TheRealMissUSA by a count of 18,681 to 17,960.
“And,” Romero added, “I’ve had it for less time.”
Throughout the interview, Romero’s lighthearted tone suggested that he is truly enjoying all of this. And why shouldn’t he? He’s off to a solid start to the season (1-2, 3.12 ERA) and insisted that his relationship with Fakih hasn’t been a distraction. “Never has,” he said, “and I don’t think it ever will be.” Romero, honor graduate from the Roy Halladay School of Focus, appears to know how to keep everything in balance.
“You know how rumors can get started about different celebrity couples, this and that, but I don’t consider myself a celebrity – and I don’t think she does, either,” he said. “I’m normal Ricky Romero, baseball player for the Toronto Blue Jays.”
Normal? Well, that might be a stretch. Ricky Romero isn’t merely sitting on top of the world. He’s reclining there on a chaise lounge beside his own personal ocean with, uh, Miss USA by his side.
And you know what the best part is? It sure seems like he deserves it.