Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A night in Havana, long ago.

This weekend, this busy Thanksgiving weekend, amid family, festivities, fun and, of course, the concomitant bickering that such weekends bring, the landline rang.

That surprised me for two reasons. For one, Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie were already over. And two, there are no politicians currently running for anything. Landlines, after all, are used only by ancient relatives and by politicians—for whom conventional laws like ‘do not call’ rulings do not apply.

“Jorge,” a raspy voice said through the crackle of distance. “Jorge Navidad.”

No one has called me Jorge Navidad in over forty years, save for one account guy I used to work with about a decade ago whose father knew something of my Mexican Baseball League exploits.

“Si,” I answered, dusting off just about the only Spanish I still knew. 

“Tu viejo amigo, estupido, Gulliermo Sisto.”

We chattered for a moment or two in what is known in New York as Spanglish.

“You have escuchado las nocitias?”

“What news?”

“El Jefe esta muerto.”

“El Jefe?”

“Fidel is dead.”

And that’s how I learned of the Cuban leader’s demise. From a phone call with Gulliermo Sisto, a team-mate of mine—the oldest guy on the Seraperos when I was just 17 and the youngest.

Sisto was 43 when I knew him—and in his 26 years in the Mexican Baseball League he had played for a total of 50 different teams. He and my manager, Hector Quesadilla had been team-mates some years before and in Hector’s capacious mind, Sisto was exactly what the Seraperos needed as we mediocred our way through our long and doleful season.

Sisto was a wise man on the bench, a guy who could come in and advance a runner or scratch a base hit, and a guy who could field any position without hurting you and maybe even pitch an inning hurting you only a little.

Sisto had the locker next to mine, and in short order he and I became the Mutt and Jeff of the team—our disparity being age, not height. And now, a lifetime after we played together for my one sad but glorious season, Sisto was calling.

I went into my bedroom—away from the cacophony of visitors in the rest of my apartment. I shut the bedroom door against the noise and sat in my worn leather arm-chair.

“Many years ago, when I played for the Rojos Diablos we flew to Havana to play a series of exhibition games against the Havana Sugar Kings.”

“The Sugar Kings were a team.”

“It was the best of Cuba against the best of Mexico. And of course, at such a series of juegos, it was only natural that El Lider would be there with the rest of his Barbudos.”

“The Bearded Ones. Fidel’s team. He was the pitcher, yes? And their best hitter.”

Sisto laughed into the phone.

“If El Lider says it, it must be true. But his pitch had lost its fire and his bat was soft like a noodle of vermicelli.”

“The man and the myth,” I said nonsensically.

“After we lost our games to the Sugar Kings—the best team I have ever played against, we played against El Commandante’s squad. A ragtag game in the twilight with no lights in Estadio.”

“So you played against Fidel?”

“Si, yes. Each of their nine—the Barbudos—the Bearded Ones played while smoking a foot-long cigar which they did not even while they were batting or running the bases or even pitching remove from their mouths.

“They played with the vigor and the laughter of young boys and you could not help but like them, even with machine gun soldiers guarding every move.”

“And how was Fidel? I had heard he was drafted by the Yankees of New York,” I said as if I were Hemingway’s Old Man.

“Fidel pitched well. Though a double off him I hit. Stand-up straight down the leftfield line.”

“You wounded the Barbudos.”

“Yes, and I scored a run a moment later, sliding into home and a cloud of dirty cigar smoke.”

We talked for a few moments—in a desultory fashion.

Then Sisto grew quiet.

“But Fidel, Jorge Navidad, Fidel was the last batter that day. The last batter for the Barbudos.

“I forget who was on the mound for us—maybe it was Triste, perhaps it was El Lacrimosa—the teary one, Estaban Portugal, who cried as he pitched. Maybe it was the Fat One.

“Whoever it was he threw El Lider a corkball, twisting the ball out of his throwing hand like a corkscrew. The ball, like a top to El Commandante flew.”

“The corkball,” I said. “A notorious pitch.”

“The worst. Three men on the Rojos Diablos could throw it—maybe once, maybe twice a game. After that, your arm would fly off like an old branch in a windstorm.”

“Three men could throw it. And no man could hit it.”

“But Fidel hit it.”

We paused.

“He let out from his cigar a puff of smoke like steam from a locomotive. And he swung heavy from his heels.”

“He was a big man,” I said, adding nothing.

“Yes. Taller even than Jorge Navidad.

“Fidel hit the ball straight into the sky. 1000 feet up, through the cigar smoke, through the trees, through the sky, and through the clouds. And we, the Rojos Diablos looked up, looked up for the ball in the estratofera. We looked, we looked, we looked and we waited and waited some more.”

I was on the edge of my leather seat.

“And then?”

“It never came down the ball. Fidel said ‘It has gone to Heaven to be kissed by the gods.’ And no one, to tell you the truth, no one that day had a better explanation.”

Sisto stopped now. He’s 85 and he seemed out of breath from telling his story.

“You’re ok, Sissy?”

“Yes, mi amigo. Si. But I know one thing.”

I gave him the courtesy of a pause.

“That corkball that Fidel hit. It is rising still. It is rising through the heavens to be kissed by the gods.”

The old man hung up the horn.

And I went into the living-room, giving everyone there, my kids, my wife, my niece, Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie, a kiss.

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