Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A night and a day in Uruapan.

In the little town of Uruapan, the Avocado Capital of the World, we were to play nine local men in an exhibition baseball game.

We had just bounced through a five or six hour bus ride, and many of the Seraperos already found themselves two or four cervezas to the wind. What's more, we had just played a four game set against the Charros and were heading to another four game set against the Diablos Rojos of Cuidad Mexico.

In other words, we were hardly at fighting trim. Nevertheless, Hector Quesadilla put together a lineup of sorts, and as four o'clock rolled around, those of us sober enough to play, were suited up and ready to face the Uruapan pick-up squad.

Our line-up read like this:

Teolinda Acosta, 2B.
Jorge Ibarra, LF.
Jorge Navidad, P.
Hector Quesadilla, 1B.
Gordo Batista, C.
Fernando Perez-Abreu, 3B.
Dr. Jesus Verduzco, SS.
Genaro Andrade, CF.
Refugio Cervantes, RF.

Not only was Hector--the legend--playing, Gordo Batista, our bus-driver and Jesus Verduzco our team doctor were too. Additionally, I would be pitching, so as to save our regular arms, and Genaro Andrade, who had just joined the team a day or so earlier would be playing center. He was called up to the team when Juan Macias, one of our usual substitutes went on the injured list with a fish-hook through his throwing hand.

Suffice to say, it was not our primo line-up. But I cared not a whit. First off, I loved to pitch. Secondly, I would at last get to see Hector play in an actual ball game, something many of my teammates had witnessed in their youths, but of course, I had yet to see.

The Uruapan squad took the field and they were as you'd expect. Fat men in shorts and black socks trying for two hours to summon whatever ball-field glory they had once been a part of. They chattered a bit in the field, and tossed the ball around with some gravity. But when their arm started warming up from the hill, I knew they were done for.

In short, he was the best they had and he had no stuff. Not even batting practice stuff. I knew against him, even our make-shift line-up of team doctors, scrubs and newcomers could bat around endlessly. 

For whatever reason, I thought of a poem by AE Housman, "To An Athlete Dying Young," that Mr. Pike, my English teacher had made me memorize in 9th grade.

There wasn't a lot of glory left on the field that day. 

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose….

Acosta took the first pitch that came his way, then he drilled the second pitch deep into right-center. Acosta, who had hardly hit the ball out of the infield all year, Acosta, who weighed about 165 and wasn’t batting his weight, looked all at once like Willie Mays.

Ibarra, up next, hit the Uruapan arm’s next pitch in more or less the same place as Acosta’s. Three pitches into the game and we were already up by a run. I took a pitch, just to see one, and then sent the next pitch deep down the right field line. I landed at third, having driven in our second run.

Next Hector came up, 15 years and 40 pounds off his playing trim. Like the rest of us, Hector took a pitch, then swatted pitch two, hugging the line on left. I came in easily, 3-0, and Hector chugged like an old locomotive into second.

Gordo Batista, our bus-driver, and a catcher retired from playing for 20 years, also hit one down the line, easily bringing in Hector and wheezing into second with our fifth stand-up extra-base hit in a row. At this point in my life, I had played thousands of games—from pick-up to scholastic—no team I had ever played for had ever romped like this before.

Hector came in on Batista’s two-bagger and sat next to me on the bench. We were up four-zip and had not yet even fouled one off or swung and missed.

“Let’s play lefty,” I said to the old man. “Let’s make it respectable.”

So, we switched to our distaff side and let the Uruapan nine back into the game. Our offense went, as you’d expect, south and with me pitching lefty and our fielder now favoring their weak wings, Uruapan slowly crawled back. At the end of three full innings, we led 5 to 4.

And then it rained.

Rained a rain it could only rain in the highlands, in Mexico. It rained buckets with the buckets included. Rain like water out of a fire hose. We ran for cover—all of us—to a small ramshackle painted white cinder block building that served as the municipal center. We entered the large main room which was decorated with streamers and bunting. The town of Uruapan was celebrating Reina del Festival de Aguacate—the Queen of Avocados Festival.

The contestants were all there, eleven avocado girls, each wearing a colored sash over a pastel gown, each representing another precinct of Uruapan. On stage, they practiced their speeches, they practiced answering questions, they practiced in the hopes of being named La Reina.

One avocado girl caught my eye. She was wearing, appropriately, an avocado-green pinafore and had across her chest a sash that read “Xicalan,” which represented the district she was from.

Castenadez, the mayor, put some music on the radio, and soon the avocado girls, their helpers (mostly their mothers) and ballplayers from both the Uruapan squad and the dozen or so still sober Seraperos—still in uniform—were doing a rough approximation of dancing. I danced with Tess, Senora Xicalan, until the music stopped and we were called inside.

Soon the Festival de Aquacate began in earnest. Castenadez asked Hector to be an honorary judge, and Hector turned to me as his assistant, which made me, in my opinion one of the luckiest men in Uruapan, if not in all of Mexico. Judging a beauty pageant where the contestants wore, in at least one competition, little more than avocado skins on top.

In the end Tess was crowned La Reina.

Our bus was repaired the next morning.

We bounced our way to Mexico City, where we split four with el Diablos Rojos.

Tess, the Queen of the Avocados, I hardly knew ye.

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