Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Long days and longer nights in the Mexican League.

Even though we played something like 120 games in about 135 days, when you play baseball for a living, as I did some 42 years ago, you remember less about the games you played—the hits, the catches, the whiffs, the wins and losses—and more about the space between games.

You remember the dripping water pipe that ran just under the ceiling and past your locker, dripping on the bench that ran alongside the row of cubbies. You remember the hours in the clubhouse, slowly getting ready for another game—a game that might not begin for two hours or four. You remember the late nights alone in a strange city, with little to do but get into trouble. You remember the eleven hour bus rides through forgotten towns and rutted roads to a new city and another ballpark where the morass of timefulness—that is, the state of having too much time on your hands—could sink you like a cherry pit being washed down a dirty drain.

In Mexico City, where we played the Diablos Rojos in their giant stadium before their ardent fans who would throw coke bottles at us if we got a hit or stole a base, I found, one afternoon in a tourist hotel, a small library of abandoned books that guests had, across a span of years, left behind. Finding a book in English, a silent companion that would travel with me during those long silent bus rides was like magic.

I had brought with me to Mexico just two paperbacks in English. “Look Homeward, Angel” by Thomas Wolfe and “Moby Dick,” by Melville. In my preternatural alone-ness, I finished the two in about a week, and searched everywhere for something written in English.

Those were, of course, pre-internet days, and most every town had a bookstore I could browse in, but Spanish only. And most every hotel, except the really seedy ones, a small cigarette stand they called a gift shop. But finding books in English, well, that was like a desert caravan finding water.

In that hotel library with two rickety bookshelves, I found an English edition of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.” I found a dog-eared copy of “A Clockwork Orange,” with the glossary sliced out with a razor blade, and a heaven-sent copy of a 900+ page compendium called “Three Novels of Old New York” by Edith Wharton that contained “The House of Mirth,” “The Custom of the Country,” and “The Age of Innocence.”

A month’s worth of reading. Twenty bus trips between Mexican cities. And 30-nights alone in a cheap hotel.

Many of the others, I’ll admit, were whoremongers. They would no sooner leave one city, say Aguascalientes, or Torreon, when they would find the red light district of the next town. There they would find a place and draw the curtains and with some girl who never knew their name, would find an hour or two of un-loneliness.

Julio Romeo, a back-up infielder was the worst of a bad bunch. He made little more than I did, maybe $225/month and would spend it all on girls and salve—the salve for after he came down with the clap, and before Hector insisted he see the team doctor who shot him through with miracle drugs and made him promise to be more careful next time, only Julio never was.

Still on those long trips or long hours in the clubhouse, Julio would sing:
My name it is Pancho
I live on the rancho
I make two dollars a day
I go and see Lucy
She give me some pussy
And take my two dollars away
My name it is Pancho
I live on the rancho
I make two dollars a day
I go and see Nelly
I bounce on her belly
She takes my two dollars away
Many nights it seemed all of the boys, even the married ones, would head out whoring. And often they beckoned me to go along. And some nights I did, but only to have a cerveza with Gulliermo Sisto at the cantina in front, and never to go to the back behind the plastic beads or the nylon curtains with a fat girl who would love me very much.

Sisto and I would drink our beers and the boys would pick their girls and then Sisto and I would leave—before the drinking and the fighting, and worst of all, the cops would come to settle things down.

We would walk back through the quiet town to our hotel, Sisto and I, and talk about the game, and our lives and loves, and even our dreams.

Sisto was a good but not great ballplayer who had played for a fame that never came. “My name,” he said by way of self-deprecation, “was never engraved in bronze or on a marble plaque in centerfield. It was engraved instead on a block of ice that sits outside in the August sun. My fame will not last long.”

I told Sisto of a girl at home that I loved but who no longer loved me, the most painful of pains—even at 17.

“Ah, but now you have Karmen,” he reminded.

And yes, I had Karmen, but I also had college and New York and growing up calling and that negated all the cervezas and the chatter and the whoring and the fighting and even negated Edith Wharton and negated Karmen, too.

We found another bar, this one without girls, and we had together yet another silent beer. I watched Sisto empty his, and he watched me empty mine and together we emptied the sadness out of the evening, and returning to our hotel rooms, we found a newsstand and bought a paper and read of that day’s game and checked the standings just to see if we were still in the league.

Sisto went to his room.

“A letter I will to my father write. I have not for a month written,” and we shook hands goodnight—as men did in those days. I walked up two flights to my bed and I read until I slept and another day would once again begin.

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