Monday, August 1, 2016

El Pulpo.

One late afternoon Saturday in Saltillo, I think in late August or early September, we were scheduled to play an exhibition game before our regular season game against the Leones de Yucatan, the Yucatan Lions.

Like most of the other boys, I didn’t think that much about exhibition games. They didn’t count toward the team’s record or our personal stats. They were usually games against sub-par teams and attendance was almost always sparse. Basically, the only demand such exhibitions placed on us was we had to get to the ballpark earlier than usual. And since I was an early arriver anyway, exhibitions bothered me not at all.

I was sitting on the pine in front of my locker and slowly putting on my uniform when Guilliermo Sisto, the oldest player in the league and a man who had played professionally for 50 teams, sat next to me—at his locker—and began getting dressed.

Though I was just 17 and Sisto was 43 we had become the closest of friends. Sisto didn’t play much, but could fill in just about anywhere in a pinch and still made contact at the plate. He was also the right hand of manager Hector Quesadilla—keeping players in line and Hector’s eyes and ears in the locker-room.

“Un juego de exhibicion de hoy,” Sisto said as he adjusted his sanitary hose. I was lacing up my black Riddell spikes.

“Otro dia, otro peso,” I said. “Another day, another peso.”

“This is no ‘another day,’” Sisto said, standing up and urging me to finish dressing. “Today we face ‘El Siete Dedos,” “the Seven Fingers,” “El Pulpo,” “the Octopus.”

I stared dumbly at the old man. I didn’t know who he was talking about. My knowledge of baseball was limited to the American major leagues. I knew nothing of the history and lore of the Mexican Leagues—except what little I had learned from Sisto himself and Hector on long bus rides through the country. And I certainly knew nothing of the league before it became a feeder to American baseball—before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and players darker than Santa Claus were finally admitted to the bigs.

“Who is the Seven Fingers,” I asked.

“Some call him the Seven Fingers. Some call him ‘the Octopus.’”

“Like Three-Finger Mordechai Brown?” Brown was a Hall-of-Fame twirler during the deadball era of American baseball, winning 239 games against just 130 losses for the Cubs and Cards from 1903-1916. He had lost two fingers on his pitching hand as a kid in a farm-machinery accident. His disfigurement gave him the unique ability to ‘bend’ his pitches in a thousand and one different trajectories.

“El Siete Dedos joined the league in 1930. He was the greatest pitcher the Mexican League ever produced,” Sisto said solemnly. “He was born with seven fingers, including two thumbs on his right hand. He could do things with a baseball like the best whore can do with her tongue.”

The old man spit into his glove and we walked onto the field to have our warm-up catch.

“Today he is almost 70, but he is still great. He would have been another Carl Hubbell or Cy Young, or Juan Marichal, or Bob Gibson, save for the color of his skin. In 1931, he pitched an exhibition game against the best of the American leagues and struck out every batter he faced save for Pepper Martin who bunted to get a single.

“He struck out Chuck Klein, Frankie Frisch, Gabby Hartnett, Pie Traynor, Paul Waner, Lefty O’Doul, Charlie Gehringer, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Al Simmons, Bill Dickey, Jimmy Foxx and Tony Lazzeri. He struck them all out.”

We tossed the pill back and forth. And Sisto continued.

“They called him El Pulpo. And his most famous pitch had the same name—El Pulpo. He could throw the ball so its path to the plate would curve and hop and drop and spin to spell out—like a stunt flyer—El Pulpo. No one could hit him. It was impossible.”

It was now just an hour before game time. The field was teeming with players warming up and the fans were slowly and inexorably filling with fans eager to see El Pulpo.

It was time for our team meeting.

The game would start soon.

Today we would face El Siete Dedos…El Pulpo.

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