Monday, January 23, 2017

A rough day in the Mexican league.

Issy Buentello was our regular catcher and the kind of guy every team needs. If we played 140 games that summer—that hot, cold, rainy, dry, happy, sad, long, short and longer summer—Issy was able to suit up and take his place behind the plate in 135 of them. He was a manager’s dream, really.

Hector knew that despite all the tumult and topsy-turvyness of life, Issy, you could count on. You could put him in behind the plate and he’d keep a pitcher calm and steady. You could have him bat sixth or seventh and he’d do the things a batter needs to do, get a timely hit, move a runner over, make the opposing pitcher work. He was someone you hardly had to think about. He was there, he worked and he made things work.

Casey Stengel, the great Yankee skipper, once said that the secret to managing a winning baseball team was keeping the ten guys who hate you away from the 15 guys who are undecided. Issy was the guy who helped there. A mediator, a moderator, a peace-maker.

So when Issy pulled up lame one afternoon in late September, Hector was in arrears.

“He will be out only one game,” Hector said to me, “two games or four at the most.”

Often in the early morning dew of the ballpark before games Hector Quesadilla, the manager of the Saraperos and I would chat. We were both guys who arrived at the ballpark hours before a game. For me, it settled my brain and helped me think about the tasks ahead.

“Who will you put in behind the plate? Batista?”

Gordo Batista was our back-up catcher and bus-driver. To be a little mean about it, Batista was about 15 years beyond a prime he never had.

At 22 he broke into the league for the Sultanes de Monterrey and did well, hitting 15 homers with an average in the low .270s. The next year, his batting average and power dropped. And the next year it did the same. Batista continued getting a little worse with each passing season. He wound up batting slightly over his weight. He was just barely good enough to stay in the league, but not really good enough to regularly contribute.

“I am unsure and uneasy with Batista. As a catcher, he is a good bus-driver.”

I laughed.

“We have no one else.”

“We have you,” Hector said. “You can play behind the plate until Issy gets well. Until his leg and his head are done with their cramps.”

“I am no catcher.”

“Neither is Gordo,” Hector said, walking away and finishing the conversation.

So, that practice, I did what Hector had told me to do. He had put Bustamante, a new arrival on the team, in at third, batting in Buentello’s position, seventh, and shoved me into a dusty squat behind the plate.

I’ll admit, some of this was my fault. It wasn’t unusual for me in practice to shag balls in the outfield, or to run down to the bullpen and warm up someone’s arm, or even pitch batting practice. Hector got used to me loving the game—wanting to play, wanting to horse around, wanting just to have fun, and to be everywhere on the field, looking for, as Hector would say, looking for trouble.

I put on Issy’s equipment—catcher’s gear, the tools of ignorance they called it. And I didn’t beef. I went behind the plate and worked warming up Efren Medrano, a middling right-hander with good heat but bad control.

Looking back on it, feeling the tectonic pain in my joints as an old man, four decades plus later, I can barely believe I was able to do what I was able to do. That is, squat behind a plate, catch a ball, rise to standing, throw the ball, and back to squatting again, over and over for 95 pitches or 120 in 95-degree heat.

But my legs, my joints, my muscles were then like saplings, I suppose. They bent and gave and didn’t break, ache or hurt. And that afternoon, that hot, steamy, nasty Mexican summer afternoon, Medrano was like Koufax or Marichal or Ford or Gibson.

Wherever I’d put my mitt, tight and inside, outside and wide, straight down the pipe and calling for a bender, Medrano would hit it like he was guided by a laser.

Medrano was mowing down the Olmecas de Tabasco—they were a few games ahead of us in the standings—like summer wheat before a scythe.

Of course, we were noodle-bats and weren’t doing much better against their lefthander, a guy whose name I don’t remember. I do recall that going into their last at bat, we had a slight lead, 1-0. We had scored in the seventh in the weakest possible way.

Adame had bunted for a single. Garibay’s long fly sent him to second. Adame stole third, then he went home when the Olmec pitcher threw a curve into the dust that got away from their backstop.

What happened next was typical of the long season. Medrano gave up a hit, a walk and then another infield hit on a badly played slow roller. The Olmecas had the bases loaded with two down and us up one-zip.

Their guy at third was the biggest and fastest guy in the league, Jose Maiz, who was nicknamed ‘El Grande Olmec de Chapultepec.’

Medrano, as I had called for it, threw one low and outside. Their man got wood on it and hit one in the hole between second and first. Adame gloved it, somehow, going to his left and twisted and threw the ball to me at home, hoping to force out Maiz for the out and the game.

Maiz came in full-bore, spikes up, nailed me chest-high and sent me sprawling actually through the wooden wall behind home plate. He scored and in the process, knocked me into the stands, like I said through the wall.

Medrano came running toward home, but no one picked up the horsehide, and another Olmecas runner came in, giving them a 2-1 lead, before we recovered our senses and Rojas ran in from first and grabbed the ball.

Meanwhile, I was knocked out in the stands. Hector came running as did Dr. Jesus Verduzco, our backup shortstop and a third-year med student during the off-season in Mexico City.

There was a crowd around me by the time Hector and Verduzco arrived. Someone put a warm-up jacket under my head to prop it up, and Verduzco opened my eyes and looked into them as doctors do.

“No esta muerto,” he pronounced.

A few more of the boys and the home-plate ump were standing around me now. Someone brought a small cup of water. Someone else brought a pint of medicinal tequila. In about ten minutes, to a smattering of applause I was standing, and being walked into the clubhouse, and then on my way to the hospital to see if there were any injuries that were more serious than just being temporarily removed from my senses.

We lost the game, as you might expect, two runs to one. Medrano, though he pitched a beautiful four-hitter got the loss. 

I was in the hospital for three nights. Karmen and Teresa and Hector came when they could. As did a lot of the boys on the team, including Efren Medran and his brother, also a right-hand pitcher, Leo. 

I rested in the cool sheets and cool air of the hospital, watching Mexican TV and reading the few English-language books they had around the small reading room down the hall from my room.

By the time I got out of the hospital three days later, Buentello was back behind the plate, Bustamante was back on the bench and I was back at third.

I was never to catch again.

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