Sunday, April 20, 2014

Jorge Navidad.

Short-stop Emilio Burrito, 3rd from right.
Just an hour ago I got an email from a friend of mine from almost forty years ago. His name was Emilio Burrito and he was a star short-stop and my best amigo back in the 1970s in the Mexican league. He would be in town, he was laid over in JFK, and was it possible for me to visit him while he was waiting for his next flight.

I’d have done anything to cab it out to Kennedy, but my wife had made plans that I couldn’t extricate myself from and, I assured him, we’d have to do it the next time he flew through town.

When I was 17 and had just graduated high school, I was one of the better baseball players in the New York area. Much to my parents’ anger and rage, I decided to forgo college, so I could continue playing ball and perhaps achieve my dream of making it to the major leagues.

My parents did their harshest to harangue me out of such a plan. First they threatened to cut me off without a cent. Then they reminded me of how few ballplayers actually make it to the majors and how few of the few that do earn a good living at it.

This was the mid-1970s, pre-free agency where a good insurance salesman could make more than a major league utility player.

Nevertheless, I am as stiff-necked as they come. I insisted on pursuing my dream. And so after weeks and weeks of fighting, we somehow reached a compromise.

I would defer my admission to Columbia in New York for one year. And I would try out for teams in the rough and tumble Mexican leagues. Not only could I live relatively cheaply south of the border, the quality of competition was high and while I was there (this was my mother’s idea) I could pick up Spanish fluently.

On June 17th, 1975 I arrived in Mexico City with a letter my coach had written and my Spanish teacher, Senor Cowan had translated. It described my strong and resilient arm, my speed on the base-paths, knowledge of the game, as well as the local acclaim I had earned as a high-schooler. Mostly, however, it described the prodigiously long home runs I had stroked throughout my years as a Rye Wildcat.

I headed to Saltillo in Coahuila, Mexico, where their team the Sapareros had just entered the league only five years earlier. I arrived at the small stadium, found the coach and requested a try-out.

He handed me a battered helmet, had me pick out some lumber and had me go up against the Sapareros’ star pitcher Carmine de Sapio. De Sapio was throwing aspirin pills that morning and I immediately swung hard and missed at a couple of his fast ones. That futility earned some laughter from the onlookers. But I stayed dug in and lashed a line drive, then another and another.

De Sapio pulled out the stops and I lined one into the short rightfield stands. The hit another long one that fell just short of the seats in center.

The coach called me over.

“Su nombre,” he said.

I told him and he choked on “Tannenbaum.”

“It will be better,” he said, “if we give you a Spanish name. George, Jorge.”

That was easy enough. Jorge was already my high school nickname.

“Tan nen baum, arbol de Navidad.”

“Yo soy Jorge Navidad,” I confirmed.
Jorge Navidad. Second from left.

I played for the Sapareros for the remainder of the season, 66 games in all. And I did ok, batting in the low .270s with good power. I was never much of a man with a glove but I held my own.

But I’ll admit, the charm of life as a ballplayer in the Mexican leagues quickly wore thin. It was obvious that I was not going to be the next Mickey Mantle and as the season closed, college beckoned and I returned to the States, retiring Jorge Navidad and hanging up my spikes once and for all.

Emilio, if you're reading this, next time you're in town, give me a little notice and I'll show you a good time.

But as for now, mi amigo, vaya con dios.

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