Thursday, June 2, 2016

Comidas de Veteranos.

We walked into the house, into the comfortable living room where once, long-ago, Hector and I would talk about the game that just was, or the game that was to be, or the lives we were living. Hector would examine every pitch. In that living room, using a rolled-up Saltillo newspaper, his big fist marking the trajectory of the ball, he showed me how to hit a pitch high and tight, my weakness. In that living room, we stayed up late and became father and son.

We sat in the places we had sat 41 summers ago, leaving the big reclining chair in the corner empty should Hector return.

“Karmen Rodriguez,” I said dumbly. “I have missed you,” dumber still.

She shook her head demurely and closed her eyes and laughed. “No. Karman Rodriguez Barranca Costales. I married in Cincinnati German Barranca.”

“I remember. A second baseman, yes? A cup of coffee he had in the big leagues?”

“Four seasons, 62 at bats, 18 hits. Utility”

“That is nothing to be ashamed of,” I said.

We sat, the three of us for three or four hours, talking about where we were in life, talking about old times—maybe better times—talking about Hector. Teresa brought out the lemonade she made, the best lemonade I’ve ever had, and we talked until our eyelids got heavy with talk, and the warmth of the room, and the warmth of our memories, and the warmth of our love made us slow and sleepy.

Around six o’clock, it was time to grab my duffle and head over to the Diego’s, a large restaurant across the street from Estadio del Beisbol Francisco I. Madura where the club was holding their annual comidas de veteranos, Veterans Dinner.

Truth be told, I’d have rather stayed with Teresa and Karmen, I had the feeling we could have spoken all night. But the club had flown me down, and loathe as I am to attend social functions, the comidas de veteranos was one I couldn’t miss.

The first guy who greeted me when I arrived at Diego’s was Issy Buentello. Issy was a catcher back four decades ago and since he hung up his spikes, he ran a popular sports bar in the resort city of Cancun. Next I saw Angel Diablo—drunk, of course, as he was drunk at last year’s dinner and last year’s game. Truth be told, Angel was drunk more than half the time I played with him, so I wasn’t surprised he was drunk tonight. Finally, I saw my old friend Guilliermo Sisto.

Sisto joined our team late in the seasons and had the locker next to me. He was the old man on our squad, an extra coach for Hector and a guy who could plug any hole in the field and stroke a line-drive against almost any opposing arm. He played for a total of more than 50 teams for 25 seasons throughout various Mexican leagues. Sisto was in his 80s now and creaky but still moved with surprising touches of grace.

That was about it from the guys I knew. A few younger old-timers. Fewer older. And a few guys who were still affiliated with the club who would look me up when they were passing through New York and I had met through the years.

The comidas itself was like these things usually are. Too many men with too much alcohol. Before long there were 60 or 80 ex-ballplayers, too well-lubricated with cerveza or sauza or mescal or just plain old whiskey.

Though dinner was barely served, and speeches not yet begun, I snuck silently out before the real festivities began. For as long as I remember, I’ve always been the first to leave almost any party I’m forced to attend. It’s not that I hate people—I’ve often been called a misanthrope—it’s just that I’m happier and more myself when I’m with smaller, closer groups.

With that in mind, after only about an hour at the comidas de veteranos, I hailed a taxi back to Teresa’s house, a rattling green Toyota Corolla with a row of fuzzy yellow balls ringing the top of the windshield and loud Mexican music cacophoning from the radio.

The lights were out at Teresa’s when I arrived. I knocked softly on the front door and shoved it softly open.

Karmen was there.

“I was hoping you would return,” she said, kissing me gently on my right cheek.

“I couldn’t stay away,” I said.

She shut the door and led me inside.

“Neither could I.”

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