When I joined the Seraperos de Saltillo so many summers ago, when I was alive with the full-sinewy bloom of muscle and youth, the equipment manager, bus-driver and third-string catcher, Gordo Batista brought me to my locker on the afternoon I had joined the team.
It was the last locker in a long row of lockers, and a well-shellacked wooden bench was bolted to the floor just about two feet away. The bench ended right in front of my cubby, and there was no one in the space just to my right, so I had a bit of extra room on either side of me, and a little room between me and the rest of the guys, which suited me just fine. I've always liked a little room between me and the rest of the guys.
Above my head ran an insulation-wrapped pipe painted mint-green. It hissed now and again with steam and dripped rusty water through the insulation and onto the dull concrete floor. It didn’t drip enough to cause a disturbance, but there was semi-permanently a tent-shaped yellow piso mojado sign sitting astride the small puddle that collected just alongside a steel grate like Emma Lazurus’ new Colossus.
Late one afternoon, I was about twenty games into my 140-game season playing el esquina caliente, the hot corner, for the Seraperos, Hector Quesadilla, my manager, and Gordo Batista walked over to my spot with a third man of similar hoary vintage. It was still about three hours, maybe four before game time, and virtually none of the other boys were yet in the clubhouse. I’ve always gotten places early and settled in. I did back then, I do today.
“Jorge Navidad,” Hector called out. “This is the great Gulliermo Sisto, el Cohete de Coahuila, the Coahuila Rocket.”
I shook the old man’s hand. He looked hardly like a rocket to me. He had a squat, Indio build, with too-broad, heavily muscled shoulders and short, bowed legs.
“It was many years ago,” Sisto said, “that I was a rocket.”
“He jugado durante 50 clubes de béisbol,” he went on. “I have played for 50 baseball clubs.
“Many seasons, I played for six or seven clubs. And I have never made the big leagues,” the old man said. “I played with Hector Quesadilla, the great Hector Quesadilla, when he was a young man and was coveted in the Major Leagues. The Pirates of Pittsburgh wanted him, not Clemente.”
He unloaded his stuff from his blue-green team duffle bag into his locker. His spikes looked like a boxer who had lasted too many rounds in the ring, against a Frazier, or a Louis, or a Marciano. Someone who would pound you and cut you.
“I played and played and played. For club after club. In cities that have now been reduced to towns. And in towns that have grown into cities. In towns where the air has grown brown and sulfurous. I have been playing in the league since 1948.”
That was a full ten years before I was born. I looked at his glove as he unpacked it. It was one of the old models with short, stubby fingers like sausage from Wisconsin. It was like the glove my father had used when we had catches when I was a boy.
We dressed alongside each other, getting ready for some warm-ups before that evening’s game.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, studying me.
“Baseball I have been playing for 28 seasons. 28 seasons for 50 different clubs. From cities you have never heard of. From cities,” he rubbed my cheek with his hand, “from cities that haven’t seen a white face since the Conquistadores left. Old cities, sad cities, broken cities, small cities that are no more than a collection of broken shacks.
“I have played everywhere. Always trying to do what was asked of me. When a team needed a second-baseman, I played second. An arm from the bullpen, I would be in the bullpen. Pinch running, pinch hitting. Playing outfield. Or just riding the pine just in case.”
“50 teams,” I said dumbly. “I didn’t know there were 50 teams.”
“There are a million teams,” he answered, lacing his spikes. “Good teams and bad teams. Big teams and small teams. Maybe for each of them I will someday play.”
I laughed at that.
“Here is the truth, I will tell you, Jorge Navidad.”
We were dressing now, lacing up our black leather spikes that would clack clack on the concrete as we left the clubhouse and trotted up the ramp to the field. In moments, we stood thirty or forty feet apart and did what ballplayers have been doing since they were using stones rather than horsehide: we tossed and limbered up with a light catch.
“I was never much of a ballplayer,” he said. “But I had a secret that I learned many decades ago.”
We exchanged the ball a dozen times. Then a dozen more.
We exchanged the ball a dozen times. Then a dozen more.
“My secret,” he said, “is a simple one. And Hector tells me that you, too, have the gift. It is the gift of quiet. The gift of seeing the field. The gift of hiding what you have and setting up decoys so no one knows where you keep your failings.”
“Hiding,” I repeated dumbly.
“That is the secret. To hide what you have. To hit to the opposite field. To hesitate, then take the extra base. To set up decoys.”
We were deep in a rhythm now. Catching, throwing, catching, throwing like the diamond version of a perpetual motion machine. He threw with a sweet sweep of his right arm and had a pop on his tosses. Maybe he was showing off.
“I was never much good,” Guillermo went on. “But the game I love. So, I play, always hoping for one more game. Always looking to find an angle.”
This time, he zipped one in. It popped in my glove and stung my hand. El Cohete, I thought.
"Maybe this is my time," he said, “maybe this will be my time.” And then he jogged off—tilting slightly to the left—into the coming twilight.