Wednesday, August 26, 2015

One night, long ago in Saltillo.

The first pitch I saw as a rookie third-baseman for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League 40 years ago this summer, came in big as a grapefruit, up and out over the plate. I couldn't have called for a fatter meatball. It was right in my power and I swatted it hard to right-center, between their rightfielder and their centerfielder and it hit the green plywood wall on one bounce, right beneath the large white numbers that read: 404, then below that in slightly smaller type, the distance in meters, 123.

There was no play at second, and no chance to making my hit a triple, but I took a pop-up slide into second nonetheless, mainly just to get my flannels dirty. I could hear in my head my old high school coach, Coach Babich yelling at me to do so. Babich didn't believe you were in the game, that you were in it to win, unless you looked like you stepped out of a 1934 photograph of the St. Louis Cardinals' 'Gas House Gang.'
Four dusty Cardinals of the 1934 'Gas House Gang.'

I obliged Babich's voice and stood like De Soto looking at the Mississippi on second. There was a smattering of applause from the Saltillo crowd, a smaller canape of the same from our bench. I had just joined the team that morning and none of the boys knew me yet.

Clemente Bonilla, our big rightfielder was next to the plate and he smacked another opposite field hit, a seeing-eye grounder that dribbled slowly between the first and second basemen of the Tabasco Olmecs. 

When I saw Bonilla's hit going through, and the Olmec rightfielder playing deep, I went full around third, saw the third-base coach waving me in and I scored my first professional run just two or four minutes after tagging my first professional hit.

If I had had parents, or anyone back home in New York who cared, I would have written a postcard. "Dear Mom and Dad," I scribbled in my head. "A double in my first at bat. A run scored a minute later. Major Leagues, watch out."

But I had no one to write to, seldom have. I've always been as lonely as an ice floe, and I like it that way.

To be honest, I don't remember much of the rest of the game. You don't remember your second of anything like you remember your first, and the rest of the evening seemed to pass without event. I've tried to look up the boxscore on the internet. But the Mexican Baseball League was a ramshackle affair in those days--as were most Mexican newspapers, and I haven't been successful in finding an archive that would help me recall the subsequent happenings on that day in June, 1975.

I got back to the dugout that evening, having gotten a hit, having scored a run, and a few of my teammates introduced themselves, welcomed me and shook my hand. Later on that night, our stubbly catcher Isael Buentello sat down next to me on the pine. 

Issy put his arm around my shoulder. "You are welcome here," he said slowly in English. "Thank you," I said to him, tentatively in Spanish. Soon, he became my first and closest friend. He and my manager Hector Quesadilla, well, I became their little brother, or their little son.

I'm not sure why these thoughts are washing back to me now.

Maybe it's that I am beginning to feel at least partially settled in a new job, with a new bunch of people. Maybe I feel like they know or are beginning to know--after two of the most intense weeks of my working life--that I can hold my own at the plate, that I can line a double that makes the fence on one bounce, that I can field my position, run the bases, dust-up my uniform. 

That I can, strange as it may seem, be one of the 'guys.' One of the go-to guys.

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