Saturday, February 21, 2015

A bad night in Saltillo.

Late one September in 1975 as I was wrapping up my one-season professional career playing third base for the Seraperos de Santillo in the Mexican Baseball League, I almost got my head knocked off.

I was tired of playing ball for the first time in my life. I was tired of the routine. I was tired of the dust. Tired of the dripping showers and the rusty shower-heads in a dozen “visitors’” locker-rooms scattered around that sad country. Even tired of the guys, guys I loved.

I was tired, I guess, of being a kid and playing a kids game with a bunch of over-age kids. They were men, but they’d rather put Ben-Gay in a guys jock-strap to burn his balls than read a newspaper or, god-forbid, a book. Though I was just 17 at the time, I knew it was time to put away childish things.

My friends back in the States were starting college and going to tweedy football games at small elite colleges and bonking their tweedy eyeballs out. While I was traveling through Mexico on rickety buses, picking ground balls out of the infield dirt and swinging and missing. What’s more, my right hand had swollen up to twice its usual size with two broken fingers that I was playing through. I had stopped a line-drive with my non-glove paw, knocking it down mittless and chucking the guy out by a yard.

I thought about what my life would be if I hadn’t sojourned south. If instead I was taking Chaucer and macro-economics and doing all those other things that everyone else was doing not because they wanted to, but because, and I suppose this is tragic, they never thought about doing anything else other than what everyone else was doing.

My friend Chris, my first friend when I transferred to a new high-school, would eventually drop out of the college he had been programmed to go to, and give up the life that had been prescribed for him and become a long-haul trucker. He called me in Saltillo one evening, high on amphetamines, speeding his freight, an 18-wheeler stuffed to the gunwales with watermelons from Sacramento to New York. But he, too, eventually returned to the fold and to college, earning, some years later a PhD. In neurophysics or something else I surely don’t understand.

Maybe, I thought, I was always just better at leaving places than staying places. Whenever things got too much for me, which they did often, I would leave. Even in Saltillo—where for the first time I had people around me who showed me love, Hector and Teresa, and at this point in the season, a girl called Karmen, I would leave town for hours at a time and walk in the desert until I was lost or it was dark and then find my way back groping among the cactus and the javelinas.

This afternoon in particular, Francisco Moscow, a journeyman lefthander called on me at my room in Hector’s house. Moscow was a marginal player and like many marginal players was always looking for a new pitch, a new delivery angle, anything that would give him a slice more of a chance to hold on, and maybe become something more than marginal.

A lot of people do this. You see guys who swing and miss curveballs by a good eight inches tinkering with how they hold their bat, how they stand at the plate, even the size and weight of their lumber. No one, through the years, has the courtesy or the honesty to yell at them that schoolyard taunt that soured so many marginals from the game—‘Aunt Jemima makes a better batter.’

No, they’ll tinker till they die. Thinking if only they had done this or that, they’d have accomplished this and that and made it big. I suppose that’s most of life. Years of ‘if-onlys’ punctuated by one big and final ‘never did.’

I headed out to the stadium with Moscow, picking up Uribe, a guy who was always messing with his batting stroke along the way. We decided I would mess around at catcher, Moscow would chuck to me—tinkering tinkering tinkering—and Uribe would work on his hitting.

Why they picked me to catch, well, I dunno. I was never pals with those guys. I guess they just picked me out as a tinkerer too. Only not on my game, maybe, but my life.

I remember seeing, as I jogged out to the backstop, a catcher’s mask, Buentello’s I think. But for whatever level of stupidity I was ensconced in at the moment, I didn’t grab it and put it on. I caught Moscow that afternoon without a shred of equipment on, save a catcher’s mitt that was left in the bullpen and my old Riddell spikes that I had toted down from the States.

Things went ok for about 20 pitches, Moscow grooving them to Uribe so Uribe could get his bat going. Then I started working with Moscow. Even though I was young, I was our manager, Hector Quesadilla’s favorite, his prize pupil, his eyes and ears on the field. The other players, even the older ones, listened to me. I suggested to Moscow that he work his curve straight over the top, rather than dropping his arm and throwing three-quarters.

I inched up from where I was crouching to handle his pitches. And Moscow tried his new delivery. Uribe swung late at the pitch and I had leaned forward out over the plate and then, whack, Uribe’s bat at full-swing met me square on the flat of my forehead.

I fell backward behind the plate and grabbed at the wound, afraid to remove my clutch for the blood. I don't remember if I blacked-out or not, but the next thing I remember is Uribe and Moscow crouching down beside me speaking Spanish and me unable to understand a word of it. Finally, I removed my hands from the point of impact, slowly, tentatively. Like I said, afraid of the blood. But there was none.

The strangest thing was, I could no longer hear anything. I just had Leadbelly’s “Bring Me Little Water, Silvie,” going through what was left of my head.

                        Bring me little water, Silvie
Bring me little water now.
Bring me little water, Silvie
Every little once in a while.

Don’t you hear me callin’
Don’t you hear me now
Don’t you hear me callin’
Every little once in a while.

Don’t you see me comin’
Don’t you see me now
Don’t you see me comin’
Every little once in a while.

As I sang to myself, Moscow lifted me up to my feet. And then he and Uribe got my arms over their shoulders and walked me slowly off the field, my feet dragging in the dust like an old wounded soldier. They lay me on a wooden bench in the still-empty locker-room and grabbed some ice-packs from the old Frigidaire that was in the corner of Hector’s small office..

Hector came in—Uribe had called him from the payphone in the clubhouse—and he got me standing and walking again. When he spoke to me, I still couldn’t understand Spanish. Something in my head had gone haywire and he began speaking to me in his rough approximation of English.

“My son, we ambulance to the hospital.”

“No,” I said, standing on my own, with only one hand gripping a supporting girder. “No, I’m just a little rattle-brained.”

“Rat-brained,” Hector said. “You are a little rat-brained.”

“That’s right, I’ve played baseball too long without a helmet. And it’s made me rat-brained.”

The ambulance came and with it, a doctor. He did the requisite doctor things. Like you’d test a drunk-driver. Shining a light into my eyes, feeling the grapefruit-sized lump on my noggin, having me touch the tip of my nose with the tip of my finger. Everything seemed fine. I was even able to take in Spanish again and speak it.

As you’d suspect, I sat that night, didn’t play. And Hector gave hit me, Uribe, and Moscow each with a 250-peso fine, about $20. But he never collected the money from any of us.

Least of all me.

He had to take it easy on me.

After all, I was rat-brained.

No comments: