Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My early days in the Mexican League.

When I was just 17, I did what none of my friends did. I didn’t graduate high school and head to college.

I had graduated high school early—I had skipped from fourth grade to sixth, so I was a year or more younger than most of my classmates. And while I had gotten into college, I was to attend Columbia University about 14 miles from my parents’ home, I decided to defer my admission for a year and try to play professional ball in Mexico.

My parents fairly bludgeoned me for my decision. Telling me they wouldn’t support me, and that I was ruining my life—their lives, too, somehow. They went months without talking to me. Then worse, they went months of talking to me. We would have heart-to-hearts incessantly. All to get me to see the world their way, the right way.

Nevertheless, I had saved three-hundred dollars and taped it inside into an old pair of tennis shoes and ran-away down to Port Authority on 42nd and 8th, the world’s epicenter, in 1975, of bestiality and other carnal offenses, not to mention drugs, crime, prostitution and god knows what else. From Port Authority, I took a 42-hour bus-ride  to Corpus Christi, Texas.

From Corpus Christi, I took a Mexican Greyhound, the painted dog on the side of the dusty streamlined bus wore a tilted sombrero, to a small city called Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. Saltillo had the worst team in the Mexican Baseball League (AA), el Seraperos de Saltillo, the Saltillo Serape Makers, and I had figured if I could play anywhere in the Mexican League, I could play there.

Worn out when I arrived in Saltillo, I found a small dusty room with a full-sized bed and a ceiling fan missing one of its three blades. I checked in and paid a month’s rent, $35, and then got directions from the cigarette at the front desk for the Estadio de Beisbol Francesco I. Maduro, Francesco I. Maduro Stadium, where the Seraperos played.

I banged on the clubhouse door, the entrance from the street, and in my bad schoolboy Spanish coaxed my way past the guard and into a tryout. I had had a letter of recommendation from coach Babich, my high school coach, translated by Senor Cowan my high school Spanish teacher.

I introduced myself to the manager and handed him the note. It told of my success in el Norte, how I was one of the best high-school baseball players in New York. It said I was a big, strong boy with power and speed who listened to his coaches and had a good work ethic. The manager told me to grab a bat and he would see what I could do.

Barely in Mexico for six hours, not counting the long bus ride through the desert, I changed into an old Seraperos away uniform, then found a Hillerich and Bradsby, a 32-ouncer like the bat I used in school. I dug in against their batting practice pitcher.

The first pitch he grooved over the plate and I put it deep into left-center, on a line and it bounced against the old maroon-planked fence.

“Mas rapido,” said Hector, the manager to the batting practice pitcher. “Mas caliente.”

The ball came in like an aspirin and I corkscrewed around on a swing and a miss. Some of the Seraperos were watching, like they’d watch any newcomer, and they laughed a bit. There’s something funny about a swing and a miss. The futility in public. Another pitch came in and this one I tipped—a small victory—back into the backstop.

Finally a third bullet came in, a bit up and out, right in my power, and I lined it hard, swinging from my heels, just over the low right field fence.

“Su nombre,” Hector said, calling me over.

“George,” I said.

“Jorge,” he corrected.


“Christmas tree,” he said in English, “Arbol de Navidad. Su nombre es Jorge Navidad.”

“Jorge Navidad,” I tried it out.

“Su posicion?”

“El rincon caliente,” I answered. “The hot corner—third base.”

Hector sent me out for some infield and I did well enough. I knocked down everything in front of me, a dove to my right to catch a screamer hit down the line on one hop and still made the long throw to first.

“Jorge Navidad,” he said to me.

Hector walked me into the club-house and he sat me down in his small cinderblock office. I signed a contract that would pay me $200 a month, plus two chicken dinners a week at Tino’s just two blocks from the stadium.

Batista, our third-string catcher, bus-driver and equipment manager handed me a Seraperos-aqua duffle bag with a couple of sweatshirts, a home and away uniform, some sliding pads and a few other necessities. They gave me a locker on the end—there was an empty one next to mine, below a leaking pipe.

About a month after I arrived in Saltillo, Mexico, after having played just 25 or 30 games for the Seraperos (and doing fairly well in the offing) I got a telegram at the stadium that my old man needed to speak with me.

One of the many reasons I had sought to play ball south of the border was to get away from parental demands like these. My parents, when they wanted something from me, could be as oppressive as a sauna in Houston in August. Now, obviously, my father needed something from me—was demanding something.

“Son,” it read in telegraphic terseness, “call me at work, person to person. Dad.”

“That’s funny,” I said to myself. “I never thought of him as a person.”

But I called. I had to. I was raised to be obedient, to be the Good Son, so I followed his imperative.

“Your mother has left me,” he said when I finally reached him.

I was in the middle of a short hitting streak to start my professional career. Like I said I was tearing up the league. After my first month, my line looked like this:

G         AB      H          R         2          3     HR      RBI     BB        SB      AVG
27       114      40        19        8          0      4         21        11         3      .342

“Where is she,” I asked.

“I need you to come home. I need you now.”

“Dad, I can’t come home, I just got here.”

“Baseball isn't your future. What are you making down there?” He said caustically.  “$200 a month.”

I corrected, “$200 a month and two chicken dinners.”

He begged, the old man did and I hung up the horn.

I scanned the 8’x10’ room I was flopping in. It wasn’t much to look at. I slept on a tiny cot and had my few belongings stuffed willy-nilly in a cardboard bureau. There was one small window girded with some ratty brown plaid curtains.

“Nothing to stay for,” I said aloud.

I threw my shit back into my duffle bag, put a dog-eared copy of Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” in the back pocket of my Levi’s and I walked to the Estadio de Beisbol Francisco I Maduro—about two miles from my small rented room. I figured I would pick up my glove, my spikes and say goodbye to my manager, Hector Quesadilla. Then I would take the bus—whenever the bus came—to Corpus Christi, and then make it home from there.

I arrived at the clubhouse—it was three hours before game time—and Hector was there. He came over and put his arm around my shoulder. I’ve never been much of a hugger, not then, not now, but I took Hector’s arm in stride.

He must have seen me with my duffle and put two and two together. We had just started a homestand and weren’t due to travel for at least a week.

“You no go,” he said.

In my rudimentary Spanish—I’d yet to pick up the language—I tried my best to explain what was going on. Not only was I needed elsewhere, well, this was the end of the line for me baseball-wise.

Hector knew all this. Somehow.

He took my duffle from me and brought it to his office.

“You will stay. You will stay en mi casa con mi esposa.”

“Si,” I answered.

Hector led me into his tiny office and pointed to his phone.

Hector stood beside me as I sat in his chair and called my old man.

I told him to go to hell and hung up.


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