Friday, July 18, 2014

Back to the Mexican League.

Estadio Francisco I. Madero, back in the day.
Call me Jorge.
Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would travel about a little and see another part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get away as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to a baseball.
39 years ago I was fresh-faced and fresh from high school doing what I lived, at the time, to do. I was playing professional baseball in the Mexican Baseball League.

I went down to Mexico to play ball for two or three reasons, the first, of course, being that I loved to play ball. Second, I did not feel like going straightaway to college. I had graduated high school early, at 17, and was a year younger than a lot of my friends. I figured I could bum for a year, playing ball, hunting girls, without doing too much damage to my future prospects. Third, and this was a balm to my harridan of a mother, I would learn Spanish. In entropic and chaotic New York where I grew up, it paid to be able to say "take my money, just don't hurt me," in as many languages as possible.

I showed up in Saltillo, Mexico, nicknamed then and now "the Athens of Mexico," with one small suitcase, my Wilson A2000 glove and $200 in traveler's checks. Rather than finding a place to live or calling home I went right to the Estadio Francisco I. Madero, tried out for, and made the team, the Saraperos.

At that moment I also shed my given name and took the moniker Jorge Navidad as my nom de Louisville Slugger. I was given a too-large flannel uniform, a hook in the locker-room and was told there was a game that evening and I should be at the ballpark by five. The game would start a couple hours after that.

There was no negotiation of salary. There was no contract. There was no chatter or discussion. Show up and play ball.

My start for the Saraperos was nothing if not auspicious. The first professional pitch I ever saw (outside of my try-out) I laced for an opposite field stand-up double. My next at bat, I pulled the ball and got another two-bagger down the left field line. In all, I went three for four, two doubles, one rbi and one run scored.

I stayed hot through my first ten games in the league, going 16 for 44, or hitting .363. Soon however word got around the league about me. I could be beaten inside and had a hard time with off-speed pitches. My average and my ego quickly returned to earth.

My sojourn down south lasted just three months. Then the season ended and as I promised my finger-wagging termagant of a mother, I returned to New York and proceeded to grow-up, as ordered.

At one point I tried to write a book on my time with the Saraperos. Of being paid, once with two live chickens and once with a dirty map which would lead me to 'the Treasure of the Sierra Padre.' I tried to write of Hector Quesadilla, the Mexican League's Casey Stengel, the wise old professor of Mexican baseball, but no, nothing came of it. I had accumulated a store of stories, like the time I raced a bull from home to first, but maybe not enough for a real chronicle.

I played for love, really. Like today I work for love. I could make more money doing something else, but I love what I do, and that's the only way to be.

So, to be honest, I put my beisbol experiences away in the bottom drawer of my memory. Some thing this morning, maybe it's the warm hazy blue sky or the muddy melody of the Hudson River flowing by, brought those months to mind again.

I coulda been a contender.

Not really.

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