Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Forty years ago last summer, I played my last ball as I held down third base for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Class AA Mexican Baseball League.

I wasn’t the absolute youngest player in the league—there were a couple of 16 year-olds with blazing fastballs playing for the Rojos Diablos, but I was among the youngest at just 17 and a few months.

I was blessed with good fortune that season. Hector Quesadilla, my manager and Mexican League Hall-of-Famer as both a player and a manager adopted me as his son. And toward the end of the season Guillermo Sisto, the oldest player in the league at 44, was assigned the locker next to mine. In short order, we became friends.

Like me, Sisto was an early arriver. Some guys get to the ballpark just two hours or an hour and a half before a ballgame. I almost always arrived a good four hours beforehand. Sisto did too.

Sisto showed me his routine early. He would check his glove, make sure it was well-oiled, well-tied, loose, clean and pliable. He would check his spikes—were they clean, were his laces un-frayed. He would find a bat or three. One, heavy, in case there was a dog on the mound. Another, light, in case we were facing a fire-baller. A third, in between.

We would head out to the outfield and toss, toss long lazy arcs loosening our long, lazy limbs. We would chatter, Sisto in broken English. Me, in broken Spanish. It wasn’t the language of poets but we talked.

“Today,” Sisto would begin, “today I have a good feeling. Today, Senor Navidad,” he would say to me, “today you will hit two homeruns and a double. We will win the ballgame seven to two and your name will be large in the newspaper.

“American scouts will be here and they will buy your contract from Madera and give to you a big bonus. And by the end of the summer, you will be playing for the Yankees of New York or the Pirates of Pittsburgh.”

I laughed. I was as far from the major leagues as Brooklyn is from Broadway.

“And for you, Sisto,” I would say back, “I see great things today. I see you starting the game at first base, filling in for Salome Rojas who had too many warm beers and cold women last night. I see you bunting on with a base hit in your first at bat. Then quickly stealing second, then third. Then when everyone is convinced that the great Sisto is good and loco, stealing home—a straight steal that has Hector jumping up and down like a kangaroo.”

Old and young, we laughed at the games we played.

“One day,” said Sisto, “you will catch a great fish.”

I tossed the ball back to him.

“You are speaking in metaphor,” I said.

“More as an allegory,” he replied returning the sphere with his characteristic zip.

“The fish will fight you. It will pull your chalupa all over the sea. It will pull your chalupa past the horizon until on the darkside of the earth you will find yourself. Just you and the giant fish.”

“It will be a battle,” I said.

“A battle, yes. The great fish is as stubborn as you, Navidad. It’s as if you had become a fish and were fighting with yourself.”

I threw back to him the ball. It was just us two in the outfield. And maybe a grounds’ keeper watering the infield 200 feet away.

“You fight yourself. But only you are as stubborn as you. Only you are as strong as you. Only you can survive you. After weeks at sea, living on nothing but galletas and rainwater, you bring the Jorge fish in.”

“The Jorge fish? I do not know that species.”

The old man ignored my stab at a joke and walked my way. He put his arm around my shoulder and we walked on toward the locker-room.

“It is a mighty fight, a great fish, like a marlin, but with your head, your hair, your ojos azules, and your will. You look into the fish, face to face and the fish speaks. The Jorge fish speaks to the Jorge man, face to face. ‘Let me free,’ the Jorge fish says.”

“A talking fish,” I said trying to change the subject.

“You cannot be hooked, Jorge,” Sisto said to me. “The Jorge fish must be free.”

We had returned to the locker room. There were other Seraperos there now, including Hector who was calling us together to talk about today’s game. Sisto and I changed out of our practice gear and into our flannels. It was still two hours before the game, but we were ready to play.

“The Jorge fish must be free,” he repeated. And he punched my shoulder.

As men do.

He punched my shoulder, then hugged me.

As men do.

No comments: