We were losing, as we were so often that summer. This time we were down against the Vaqueros Laguna, the Laguna Cowboys of Torreon, Coahuila, just a four or five hour drive due west from Saltillo, past Matamores on old Route 40, through the desert.
I've always been a window-looker-outer--and this was the era before iPods and streaming video--the Golden Era of looking out of bus windows. Some guys jabber on a team bus, others sing, or play the seat in-front of them as drums. Others do a crossword, or read a paperback. Most sleep. Me, even today, I look out of windows.
The desert on either side of Route 40, I thought to myself, was probably the loneliest place I'd ever seen. Just dust and scrub and every so often a saguaro or a clump of sage. Lonely sage, like the left-behinds from a lost civilization. You'd see a shack once in a while, abandoned, which only made you wonder. What was someone doing out there in the first place? Why? How? What were they hoping for? What had they thought they could accomplish? And where had they gone now that they were no more.
We would pass through dusty little towns that rang like sad bells in the dust. A bodega. A painted sign reading "cerveza," or Coca-Cola. And political graffiti on every paintable surface. We would pass through these towns in our team bus with the words "Seraperos de Saltillo" painted on the side with a baseball wrapped in a colorful Serape, and children would laugh and wave and run after us. If we stopped for gas or for water for the radiator, the men would come out holding three beer bottles in each hand, or four, balanced like ballerinas between their fingers and the women would come with fruits or little fried cakes dusted with sugar that I still, I'll admit, on occasion crave.
These scenes were better, to me anyway who was seeing them for the first time, these scenes were better than anything on TV. They were life unvarnished and unadorned, without the gloss of Hollywood, without the pall of a laugh-track.
We arrived in Torreon, with its industrial smoke and its dust and its still lagoon, a sick brownish green from algaed water simmering still in the heat. We passed the tall marble memorial to the 303 Chinese coolies killed by Revolutionaries in 1911 and we arrived, finally, our throats dry with dust despite the beers we bought along the way, at Estadio Revolucion--Revolution Stadium, where Pancho Villa led the masses, until he was shot dead, shot 40 times with dum-dum bullets in his 1919 black Dodge, nine of those bullets hitting him in the head and chest, scattering the pumpkin seeds he was nibbling on as he drove.
We arrived at the Estadio Revolucion and peeled out of our sports-jackets and slacks and fell into our away grey uniforms. In minutes, just minutes we were out in the field playing pepper, turning major-league double plays and slugging the batting practice balls for the wooden fences or the benches not yet black with people.
I was back at third that evening. Clemente Bonilla was back in right, his hamstring was no longer pulled and the blazing rookie who replaced me at third, Gonzalo Bustamante, who had shown such promise just weeks before, had come back down to earth with a thud. His .400 batting average was now a terrestrial .250 and soon he would, like so many others, be beating the Mexican bushes, or saguaro, looking for work--and for a way to hit a curve.
We were down three to zip and couldn't touch their guy. He had mown us down four frames in a row, with no one even marking him, no one hitting the ball with any strength. I came up in the fifth determined to get on and when a pitch came inside, instead of turning to avoid it I stuck out my left elbow and got myself nicked.
I was on base, our first runner of the night.
I saw her, again, as I led off the bag and took my lead to second. She was wearing the same white dress as she had on in Reynoso. And she sat not on one of the wooden bleachers but on a beaten valise she had placed in the aisle. I looked at her and tried. Tried to get her attention. Tried to see if she was there only by coincidence, or even if it was the same girl.
I led off first and our bats came alive. Buentello stroked an opposite field single sending me to third. I came in when Angelo Diablo squeezed a bunt down the line. He made in safely to first, Buentello to second and we were down 3-1, with two men on and none down.
We kept hitting the ball. Javier, batting for Valenzuela in the ninth slot, knocked in Buentello and moved Diablo to third. Then hit hit hit. And we were up 5-3 and batting around when it became my turn at the plate.
Hector Quesdailla our manager yelled a cheer he had created from the dugout.
"Jorrrrrrrrrrrrrrgeeeeeeee," he chanted, elongating the syllables.
"Navidad," responded our bench, clipping the word.
Garibay was on second, two down. And their guy grooved one high and tight but a little less tight than it should have been. It was right where I had my power. In a moment, the ball I had slugged was sailing over the forest green outfield wall.
"Jorge Navidad!" I heard the girl yell as I trotted my circuit. "Jorge Navidad."
That's the way the game ended and we were ebullient in the locker-room. The games didn't matter that much anymore--we were firmly entrenched in seventh or eighth place, but a win is a win and a come-from-behind win even moreso.
When I left the locker-room for the bus back to the hotel, the girl was there. She was sitting on her valise, waiting for me.
"Jorge Navidad," she said.
Her name was Karmen. Karmen Rodriguez and in the ten minutes we spent talking, me in crappy Spanish, her in crappy English, we were deep in love. It was my first love. Perhaps unfortunately, not my last.
She was a ticket-taker at Estadio de Beisbol Francisco I. Madero, our home ballpark. She told me she loved me. Words I hadn't heard before. Ever.
Hector came out of the locker-room and headed for the bus. He looked at her. He looked at me. He turned back to her.
"This is my son," he said. "You be good to my son."
"Your son," she whispered with her large brown eyes lowered demurely, "I love for him."
With that, the three of us boarded our team bus to our hotel. Salome Rojas, my roomie, tripled up with Buentello and Cesar for the night. Karmen and I had my room alone.
"Jorge Navidad," she whispered as I locked the door for the night. "I be good to Hector's son," she said. And she shut the light. "I love for him."