Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Death in the Mexican League.

“Estuardo Lambresas,” Hector began. We were on a nighttime bus ride, through the desert going from one ballpark to the next. I don’t remember where we had played, whether we had won, or more likely, lost, or where we were going. It was a nighttime bus ride like a hundred other nighttime bus rides that summer 43 years ago when I played my sole season for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League.

It was dark on the bus, almost as dark as the inky night outside, without much more noise than the pinging clackety of a too small diesel engine propelling a too old bus and two dozen men snoring and coughing and snoring some more through the smolder of another desert night.

I sat in my usual seat, alone, on the driver’s side of the bus, two back from Gordo Batista, our third-string catcher and part-time bus-driver. Mi padre Mexicano, my manager, mi amigo viejo, Hector Quesadilla sat across from me. We lay on our seats, bent at the knees, feet on the floor, feeling the rattle of the potholed road through the linoleum of the floor of the old wheezing bus.

I closed my eyes and thought about the night. I thought about the days ahead of me. I thought about Karmen Rodriguez, my first girlfriend and how I would leave her when the season was over. I thought about my parents back in New York who warned me that going south to play ball instead of matriculating at Columbia in New York City where I had been accepted that Spring would ruin my life, though I was just 17—I had been skipped ahead a year from fourth to sixth grade—and was still ahead of the game, my age peers not going to college for another 12 months. I thought about the games I played that season and the games to come.

Hector lay across from me and began. “Estuardo Lambresas,” he began, “you have heard of him? He was a left-handed pitcher—the best in the league in the mid-60s for the Toros de Tijuana. He was our Koufax, our Marichal, our Gibson.”

“Koufax went four years without losing hardly a game.”

Hector sat up in his seat and grabbed a bat from the green canvas bat duffle on the seat behind him. He took a ball and bounced the ball up and down on the bat 20 times, 40 times, 100 times. I tried the trick myself now and again, and never got to over 14. Hector, who retired with 2280 hits in a Mexican League Hall-of-Fame career, could endlessly go on.

“Lambresas was a smart man. Like you are a smart boy. Like you, he knew the Latin language and also mathematics. But he did not in school learn Latin and mathematics, because his parents could not afford to send him to school in his neighborhood in Mexico City.

“Instead he would climb on top of the school house and listen through the chimney to the teachers teaching below. In this way, through the soot of a chimney, Lambresas became an educated man.”

Hector stopped with the bat and ball and reached into the jacket of his windbreaker. He took out a brightly-colored box of Chicklets and handed me the package. I took two pieces—I couldn’t see the colors and lay back down on my bench seat.

“Why did he not go Norte, Lambresas?” I asked. The bus took a long slow turn and ahead through the front windshield I could see the flicker of lights from a faraway city. Gordo Batista downshifted the bus as the road grew more windy as we headed along. The gears ground like the teeth of a bum sleeping off a three-day bender.

“Lambresas killed a man,” Hector said. He once again picked up a bat and volleyed the ball with it. I counted to 58 before the ball went askew and he caught it with his left hand.

“Leandro Prados de la Escosura was at the plate. He was not much older than you are today and was already in his second season. He was rookie-of-the-year for Torreon the year before and led the entire league with 38 homeruns. No one else hit more than 25.”

I chewed in silence for a minute. Hector ping-ponged the ball off his bat. Up in front of us Batista was wiping the steam of humidity off the windshield with a rag he kept for that purpose near the gear shift. The lights of the faraway city were growing closer.

“Escosura was a stubborn man. And Lambresas matched him for stubbornness. In baseball, the greatest battle is for the inside of the plate. Escosura wanted to keep Lambresas’ pitches out over the middle where his power was. And Lambresas wanted to keep the ball in, where his fastball was dominant.”

“This in baseball doesn’t change,” I said. “No batter likes the inside pitch. Not even the Splendid Splinter.”

“He hit .406 in 1941 because they couldn’t pitch him in.”

The old bus hit a pothole and Hector’s bat missed the ball. It fell to the linoleum floor and rolled down the end of the long vehicle. Hector found another ball and started his game again.

“Lambresas pitched one inside. Escosura did not move. The ball hit the boy in his head. His left temple. We did not wear the plastic helmets for safety that we wear today.

“Escosura went down. One sportswriter for the newspaper said ‘he flowed down like flour out of a chute.’ Collapsed. He looked like a pile of dirt and uniform. A crowd gathered around Escosura, a doctor from the stands, the three umpires and twenty players from each team. He was dead by the time the ambulance came five minutes later.”

Hector batted the ball. I counted his repetitions to 120 before he cued one and caught the ball left-handed.

“Lambresas was ruined from that. He could not any longer throw inside. He was afraid of the death in his arm. His pitches were out over the plate with his pitches and then it became that he could be hit. He lost more than he won. In a year or maybe two, he was out of the league.”

Up ahead, Batista steered the bus into a motel parking lot. Hector banged on the floor of the bus the fat end of his bat. The noise woke up half the team. And they woke up the other half.

As the men walked out, Hector handed out thin envelopes with two 50-peso bills inside. Our meal money. About $12 for the day. 

He shook the hand of each man as he took his envelope. He gave me last my meal money envelope. He shook my hand and held it in his for a long time.

“Cuidado,” Hector said. “Be careful out there.”


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