After a six-hour drive through the desert, I arrived in Saltillo and found the Quinta Real Hotel. In the years since I left the town after my lone season down there in 1975, there is barely anything left that I recognize. A few of the landmarks are there, the tall tower of the 18th Century Cathedral, the Plaza de Armas fountain still trickles, as does a thin gush from the ancient aqueduct bringing water in from the mountains, 40 kilometers away.
But the city itself is different. It is noisier, for one. With the clatter of trucks from the auto factories, the cacophony of blare from a million cars and their radios, and just the general tumult of a million people living where when I lived there, there were only 300,000.
I think the world is noisier now, no matter where you are. Even in New York, a city I am used to like my fingerprints, I notice more noise than ever. It’s because, I chastised myself, I am less tolerant of it that I hear more of it.
I saw not a store I used to go to. Not a newspaper stand. Not a movie theater or a restaurant. Even Rico’s, the little diner where I ate so many meals and downed so many cervezas frias and was always so busy you could hardly get in is gone. I had been looking forward to their chicken dinner with rice and beans. I’ve been to some of the best restaurants all over the world, and no one has ever made a chicken dinner—and given it to me free two times a months, like they did at Rico’s. Gone. Even Hector’s house, which of course stands on the same rocky lot I remember, is twice as large and much more elaborate than it was so many years ago.
I walked around Saltillo for a while, I started around six in the evening and didn’t find my way back to the Quinta Real until just before ten. Buentello, Willie Arano, a light-hitting utility man and Angel Diablo, another light-hitting infielder, were all in the bar sopping in the cervezas. I pulled up a stool and got myself a gin with a whole lime squeezed in, over plenty of ice.
Buentello, who had always run to fat had to be well over 300 pounds now, and even Diablo, who couldn’t have weighed 130 dripping wet when we played together 40 years earlier probably weighed 200. Arano still looked like he was around his playing weight. I was somewhere between Buentello and Diablo.
I drank my gin. And watched the boys laugh.
“Tomorrow,” I said getting up to leave, “let’s meet at ten and get some batting practice in at the stadium. I don't want to embarrass myself.”
I hugged my friends good night, knowing full well I’d be the only one up and out at ten.
I don’t want to embarrass myself.