I had played ball all my life, and in the summer, endlessly from sun-up till about an hour past sun-down, when it would finally be too dark to play. But even then, we'd find the occasional field that was lit, or a stick ball square that was illuminated by a nearby street lamp.
I had played ball all my life, but I never played as much ball as I played when I played for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League 41 long summers ago. We played hundreds of games in just about as many days and in-between games, we played more games--intrasquad games, exhibition games that earned the club extra pesos, and most of the boys some extra meal money or, at the least, cervezas frias. We played four-inning mini-games. Twi-light games. Early morning games. Games of pepper. Double-headers. Even an occasional triple-header.
Playing that many games is a battle against pain. After the 20 or 25 games you'd play in high school ball and the 30 or 40 you'd play in summer leagues, there would be pain. But after hundreds of games, everything hurt. Bending down, standing up, pulling out a dresser-drawer or twisting open the bottle cap of a beer, everything hurt.
There was, in the locker room, a big, couple-gallon drum of a liniment called "Atomic Balm." Most players would slather it over their joints and limbs. My old man, with a rare glimmer of wisdom, had warned me off the stuff.
"It only masks the pain," he told me. "You'll feel better, then do yourself real harm."
So instead, I taught myself to throw like a trout. By that I mean, I lowered my arm-speed like a trout in the winter lowers his pulse and I looped the ball from third to first without a trace of crackle. I lowered my arm-speed playing catch, lowered my overall mien and temperament until I got to the point where I essentially had crammed my muscle-skeletal woes into the bottom drawer and slammed the drawer shut not to be opened again.
Slowly, I worked my arm back in. Tossing only lightly and moderately, maybe making one throw every game or every other game with any real velocity. And that was enough. I bit my lip and told no one my wing was essentially dead.
Today, I had an MRI for pain in my shoulder that's bothered me for two years. I'm working full-time now. I'm not slaving for a day-rate that I'd miss if I were cut and patched. So, with insurance card in hand, I got ahold of the best shoulder man in New York and he's having his way with me.
The abatement of pain, of putting it away, of suppressing it, of not admitting it into your frontal lobes, is something you learn along the way. You learn it at work--every crisis is not really a crisis. You learn it raising kids, staying married, paying the bills, paying taxes.
You learn to hide the hurt and throw without your usual snap. Until the pain ebbs and you're back to where you ought to be.
I don't know if I'll need to be put under the knife to mitigate the aches of the last 41 years. I don't know if they'll insert a titanium ball and socket and wish me well. I don't know if at my next Juego de Viejos--old-timers' game--down in Saltillo over Memorial Day weekend, if I'll be able to chuck the pill the 130 or so feet from third to first.
I do know one thing: I might wince, I might shudder, I might cringe. But I will get through.