Whenever the Bonita Vista High baseball team takes the field, the players hang up a navy blue uniform with vegas gold trim in the dugout. The name “Jake” is stitched across the back above the number 25.
The jersey will never be worn. It’s a memento to honor the memory of Jake Palet, the youngest son of Barons head coach Dave Palet.
Jake was supposed to be an assistant coach in his father’s inaugural season at Bonita Vista, but the 20-year old died in October from a fatal dose of fentanyl.
He had been treated for depression as a teenager, but those closest to Jake say he was thrilled to help coach the Bonita Vista team.
“Jake was extremely excited about it,” Dave said. “He made it to the first two (offseason) practices, but then things obviously went straight downhill.”
Dave said his son’s tragic mistake involved Xanax, a drug used to treat anxiety disorders, and fentanyl, a powerful pain reliever.
“Somebody gave him a pill and said, ‘Here’s a Xanax. It’s going to help you relax,’ ” Dave said. “That Xanax pill had fentanyl in it and it killed him. He had no idea that he was about to take his own life. He was playing video games and took the Xanax pill and died — just fell over on the bed.”
The county ruled Jake’s death accidental fentanyl intoxication.
Dave Palet, 48, and his oldest son, Josh, 25, are still coaching the Barons and have received emotional support from the school, parents and community.
The Palet family had dreamed of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach the game they love together, but those dreams have become nightmares since Jake’s death.
“I know how excited Jake was about the fact that he was going to be able to coach,” said Rita Palet, Dave’s wife and the boys’ mother. “He was very much looking forward to doing that with his dad and brother.”
Coaching provides a medium for Dave and Josh to somehow feel closer to Jake. They long for the days when he’d make the team laugh and keep the atmosphere light in the dugout and on the field.
“The only place life feels normal is when we’re on the baseball field,” Dave said. “Otherwise it feels like we’re falling apart every second. You feel like you can’t breathe because your kid isn’t here.”
Eastlake Church was filled to capacity for Jake’s memorial service. Family, friends and old teammates attended. Parents of the Bonita Vista baseball players were among them.
“He was a cool guy, really funny,” said Barons pitcher/outfielder Nathan Nankil. “Jake told us this was the team that can win CIF.”
Before the season started, parents and players designed a logo with the initials “JP” that would be placed on the shoulder of team sweatshirts, made as stickers for batting helmets and put on a banner that hangs on the fence behind home plate at the Barons’ field.
“(Parents) wanted to honor Jake at the field as well because he was one of our coaches,” said Roann Gobeil, a team assistant to Dave. “We asked for Dave’s permission to do that, of course, and all of the kids loved the idea. They all wanted to wear the ‘JP’ patch.”
Jason Murphy, Bonita Vista’s athletic director, said Dave Palet has inspired that type of support during his brief tenure as coach.
“He’s brought so much to the table already and the (players) already love him,” Murphy said. “They’ve really had an outpouring for him and it’s great to see. There’s been a very positive vibe around here right now.”
Murphy saw Dave Palet as a fit for the job because of his 10 years of experience coaching high school baseball in addition to running a youth travel ball organization called the California Bears.
All the while, Dave has worked locally as a sports radio talk show host. He still hosts a popular podcast with his longtime friend and radio partner, Jeff Dotseth.
Josh Palet graduated from Eastlake High in 2012 before pitching for one year at UC Riverside and eventually playing football at Alabama in 2015-16.
The Barons have started the season with a 7-4 record, including a stretch in which their pitchers allowed only four hits over 14 innings with Josh’s help as pitching coach.
“Not being able to coach with Jake has been super tough,” Josh said. “But the fact that my dad and I are still able to do it together makes it worth it. If I didn’t have this then I would be pretty torn up.”
Jake’s time coaching youth baseball with the California Bears had helped him grow and mature personally, his father said.
“Through all of his depression and sadness he went through in high school, the last year of his life is when he was winning,” Dave said. “That’s the good part and the sad part — in the last year of his life he was on the right track and he had finally figured life out.”
The Palet family is in the early planning stages of establishing JakesProject.org — a nonprofit whose goal is to raise money for youth sports and children who don’t have the means to participate.
“I know that Jake would have been very proud coaching,” Rita said. “He had a big heart and I know he would have been there for those boys. The fact that Dave and Josh are continuing on despite losing a piece of themselves is very special to me.”
Jake’s jersey will be in the dugout today when the Barons take the field for practice.
Ramirez is a freelance writer.