Sal Duenas Is a Handball Wizard

The Santa Ana native is king of Orange County's handball courts—but can he go further and bring the sport some much-needed respect?

That's the common image of street handball, Cruz explains, what society sees from a distance. "People think, 'Oh, it's handball. Oh, it's prison ball. Oh, it's poor kids.'" He says that while handball culture can attract a "little bit of a rough crowd," most players are hardworking, top-notch citizens.

"There could be a correlation between gang activity and handball courts, but there's no correlation between gang activity and handball playing," says Cruz, who lives in Newport Beach. "If there's a stabbing on a baseball court at Saddleback College, are they going to get rid of baseball?"

Cruz believes the problem is that courts are being abandoned, used as makeshift storage lots for gravel bags and workmen's supplies, when schools, parks and recreation departments, and YMCAs could be putting them into play.


An example of someone who has partnered with city fathers to show that handball is a force of good is Richard Gomez, a campus-safety officer at Costa Mesa High School. A few years ago, he started a school handball program to keep kids from gang life (see Alicia Lopez's "Helping Hands," Nov. 20, 2009). Today, young players from several cities—Orange, Santa Ana, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Canoga Park—compete for gift cards, trophies and other prizes.

"We need to take ownership of courts," Gomez says. "If you're not gonna spend the time on courts with kids, then go ahead and knock them down."

Dueñas has watched his courts turn to rubble as he's gotten older. "Walls are coming down, and new ones aren't coming up," he says. "Next time, when they want to tear another court down, I wanna show them me. If I didn't have handball, who knows where I'd be—smoking, drinking, in bad health, in trouble? I hope to start a family someday, and I want handball to be here forever."

*     *     *

It's tournament day, an abnormally warm Saturday in mid-January. Handballers from across Southern California flock to the stretch of eight gray-and-white courts at La Quinta High School. They set down lawn chairs and ice chests filled with Modelo Negro on the grassy viewing area alongside the action. Wives lay out blankets for the kids, who wipe their tongues on fruit pops. A man walks around selling tortas.

Dueñas stands behind the registration table under a tattered blue canopy with the words "Orange County Teachers Federal Credit Union" printed on it. On the metal legs, twigs replace the pegs that have gone missing. Players stand in line holding tournament T-shirts over their heads to shield themselves from the sun. The shirts Dueñas made read, "Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime" and feature a mock-up of the Major League Baseball logo, with the silhouette altered so it's a guy about to whack a handball.

The games were supposed to begin at 11 a.m. It's already 1 p.m.

"I just wanna get this day over with," says Ricky Ruiz, 21, one of the best street handball players in Southern California and a frequent Dueñas foe when the two aren't doubles partners.

He turns to Dueñas. "Start the matches now, foo'!"

"That guy didn't wanna play, and now he wants to play," says a flustered Dueñas, a pen behind his ear, staring at the names on the registration sheet and reworking the brackets.

Ruiz shakes his head. "Sal, you have to be like, 'Shut the fuck up, bitch!'"

For Ruiz, who lives in Downey, handball is a job. "It's about the money," he says, hoping to take home the grand prize of $450. "Anybody who says they're here for fun is lying." He, too, had considered sticking with small ball and going pro. But Ruiz makes a hefty income as it is in the parks, and he has decided to focus on other things, like taking over his dad's landscaping business and beginning a career in criminal justice.

"If handball happens to get as big as the World Series of Poker, then I'll do everything to be on top," Ruiz says. "But right now, I'm not gonna stop drinking and going out. It's not that easy. You can dedicate your life to it, but it won't get you anywhere. You can make good money off it, but you can't live off it. By 27, I'll be done."

Frankly, he says, Dueñas doesn't have what it takes to make it as a pro, either. "He doesn't have the aggression. He's too nice. Look at him: He's all smiles. You can't be smiling at a tournament. You have to be ready to go. He needs . . . something."

Samzon Hernanez is also here, and both Ruiz and Dueñas agree the 20-year-old is their superior, the top player on the Southern California circuit. Hernandez wants to make it as a professional handball player—he has already played in Italy—but he has a 1-year-old daughter to care for and says there's just not enough money in the sport. "Well, I'm still gonna try," he says.

His friend and Ricky's brother, 23-year-old Braulio Ruiz, interrupts the conversation.

"You can't do it," he says, putting his arm around Hernandez. "As a homey, I'm trying to look out for you."

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