Friday, August 16, 2019

Winning one for the Gipper.




I’ve sat through a lot of pep talks in my time. 

I’ve never sat through one that actually pepped me up.

Even when I was a kid and ostensibly not as cynical as I am today, I believed in the “truthiness” of pep talks about as much as I believed in the advice of a fortune cookie fortune or Zoltan the Magnificent.

I remember those locker-room meetings before the big game when our football coach, or baseball coach, or badminton coach would gather us around and exhort us about the importance of winning one for the fucking Gipper.

I never much believed in the company line. Whether the company line came from some prognathous coach or some well-spoken corporate chieftain.

Some of my disdain for these attempts at peppy-fication comes from my sense that whoever is exhorting me doesn’t know me at all.

During these speeches, you’re almost always told ‘we have to work harder, work smarter, take that metaphorical hill’ and we, management, ‘have your back.’

As the kids say: fuck that shit.

How about you have my front?

How about you stop telling me how much harder and smarter I have to be. Instead start appreciating me for how hard I work and how smart I already am.

Mostly, I suppose, my issues with peppification has pretty much always been the same.

The people doing the cheering on don’t usually know the capabilities, the talents, the ideas and the frustrations of the people working for them. There’s a lot of talking and not a lot of listening. Or even trying to listen.

And second, there’s a lot of talk, and not a lot of details about the help that’s always seems to be “on the way.”


As Hank Williams used to sing, “I’ve been down that road before.” Like I said, I’ve heard a lot of speeches.

And no matter what's said, no matter what's promised, one thing never changes. When the game is on the line and you’re standing alone at the plate, no one is up there but you. 

And no one can hit that double into the corner but you.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

A fastball in Saltillo, Parts III and IV.


Now we were headed out on a two-week road trip, 12 games in 11 nights, including two double-headers. We traveled without Andre, who didn’t show up and who no one on the team or from the front office knew how to find.
With 484 home runs, Hector Espino is considered the greatest player in the history of the Mexican League.  
It began with a seven hour trip to Tampico to play four games against the Estibadores—the Stevedores—who were managed by the Hall-of-Famer, Hector Espino. Espino was a player-manager in those years, on his way to amassing nearly 500 home-runs in the Mexican League and having his uniform number, 21, retired by every team in the league. We took the first against the Estibadores, and then lost the next three by the combined score of something like 30-9. We couldn’t get out of Tampico fast enough. Espino chased us away with his bat, Carroquillo with his arm.

We then bused south through the night, through Mexico City, on our way to Puebla seven hours south to play el Pericos—the Parakeets. The Pericos played in a small wooden stadium called Estadio de Beisbol Hermanos Serdan which was built in the center of the ancient city.

Aquiles Serdan, one of the brothers after whom the bandbox was named, had campaigned for Francisco I. Maduro for president against Porfirio Diaz. Diaz autocratically ruled Mexico for 31 years, off and mostly on, between 1876 and 1911.

Maduro beat him in the 1910 election, which Diaz (and the Mexican armed-forces) called illegitimate—undoing the results. Madero was jailed and Serdan escaped to San Antonio, Texas. There, he raised 20,000 pesos and a band of exiled Mexican revolutionaries who he armed to fight against the Diaz regime.
Aquiles, gunned down by Federales.

Aquiles, left, and Maximo, right.

The Puebla police chief and troops of men under his command surrounded Serdan’s home. Aquiles and his brother Maximo and nine of their comrades defended his home against thousands of government forces. When the siege was at last over, Aquiles Serdan was dead and the government had lost 158 of its own men. Madero said in a revolutionary newspaper: “It does not matter. They have shown us how to die.”

Puebla in the foreground. Popocatepetl looming. 
In the brothers’ stadium beyond  the rightfield fence you could see the volcanos that ringed the valley, including El Popo—the nearly 18-thousand foot Popocatepetl, which towered 11-thousand feet over Puebla itself.

The air was thin in Puebla. The stadium was small. And their pitchers were ragged. We split the series two games a-piece. In something like 17 at bats I got eight hits, including two homers, raising my season’s average to just under .300—the highest it got during my one pro season.  

From Puebla we headed northwest through the mountains to Mexico City to play a four game set against the team that was perennially the strongest squad in the league, the Diablos Rojos de Mexico. Though we were dog tired by the time we faced the Diablos, we took three out of four from them, giving us a six and six record for the trip. Winning as much as we lost was good for the Saraperos. We usually won much less often.

Feeling ok with our road record, we wrapped our final game against the Diablos at about 10PM. By 11, we were back on our bus. Me in my usual seat, two back from Gordo Batista, our bus-driver and third-string catcher. And across the linoleum’d aisle from my manager, Hector Quesadilla.

Despite the tired that hung over the team, the back of the bus was raucous. German Barojas, a relief pitcher had taken up drumming, and brought three pieces of his drum-set and arrayed it in front of the long bench seat in the back. Leon Cardenez, another bench player, had brought his guitar and the two men played Mexican blues for hours.

Once in a while, Barojas and Cardenez would break into something that sounded vaguely like a popular song, and then the entire back end of the bus would sing and wail, using the handle-end of their bats as microphones. Some version of “Guantanamera” went on for half an hour, at least, and then one of the boys--it could have been “Angel” Diablo, began with a nasty version of “Barnacle Bill, the Sailor,” in gutter Spanish that could make your hair curl.


Quien llama a mi puerta?
Quien llama a mi puerta?
Quien llama a mi puerta?
Dijo la doncella justa!

Our painted-white school bus with “Saraperos” painted on the side in various colors like a sarape and an oversized baseball adorned with a similarly colorful serape, chugged out of teeming Mexico City. The old bus’ engine added our viscous diesel exhaust to the thick soup of haze that settled over its sprawl. A filthy wet cover of monoxide that ran in the rivers, the gutters and in the very veins of the people of the giant city.

It was ten hours to Saltillo, through the mountains of San Luis Potosi, ten-thousand foot peaks that the Spanish raped for silver, enslaving the world around them along the way.

The music from the back petered out in the wee hours. I slept with my feet on the floor, my dirty leather glove a pillow against the vibrating steel of the old bus’ structure.

I woke up around six as the sun began breaking over the mountains, past Batista’s shoulders and into my eyes.

“Donde estamos,” I asked Gordo.

“Sabes donde no hay lugar? Estamos justo en el centro de la misma.” “Do you know where nowhere is? We are right in the center of it.”

I laughed and fell again back to sleep, this time with my teal Saraperos cap pulled low over my eyes against the vicious sun.

The grinding of the gears of the old bus woke me as we drove through Saltillo and down a cratered road to the stadium. Hector was awake, and of course, Batista, but the boys in the back were still asleep when we pulled adjacent to the galvanized steel door of the stadium that led to our locker-room.

“La policia federal,” Hector said as the bus stopped alongside a cruiser.

Two cops got out of the car and tapped on the door of the bus.

“You have a pitcher,” one asked “Andre Nadeau.”

“He has pitched for us. He is not with us now. He did not make this trip.”

The other cop, older and taller, pushed in.

“No, he is with us. He is arrested and in jail. He was almost dead with heroin.”

“Do you want him?” The other cop asked.

“He is yours,” Hector said. And he walked away.

Here ends Part III.

Part IV.


That was the last I had heard of Andre Nadeau. That was the last any of us had heard. Like a summer romance, or maybe a summer cold, he came in, had a small impact and then was gone and 99% forgotten. Hector never brought him up to me. And neither did any of the other boys.

The season continued as seasons do. We won some. We lost more. We hit the ball hard and fielded it clean. And other days we couldn’t hit a grapefruit with a tennis racket and corral a slow bouncing grounder.

In late October, we packed up our lockers and said our goodbyes. Some of the boys loaded up beaten old American station wagons and drove through the dust to their homes. Others hung around the with women they found or who found them in the bars that lined the streets near Estadio de Beisbol Francisco I. Maduro.

Most of my teammates would be returning to their full-time homes, where they’d find jobs selling cheap burial insurance or work as bouncers in bars. Or maybe they’d just run around their hometowns wearing an old sleeveless tee-shirt chasing all-day chickens out of their scrubby front yards and chasing all night senoritas with deep eyes and sultry laughs.

I alone would be headed to El Norte, to New York, where I would matriculate, a year after my high-school classmates, into college. I would be leaving behind my first and second loves: Karmen Rodriguez, a ticket-taker for the Seraperos who had moved in with me when I moved in with Hector and Teresa Quesadilla. And my second love, baseball.

This was it for me and baseball. After playing the game my whole life, I was done with the sport. Done with the aches and the pains, and the monotony, and mostly done with the empty pointlessness of trying to be almost a man yet stuck on playing a boy’s game.

I worried about college. About, after having lived a life in Mexico, so unlike any life I would ever live again, that studying Moby Dick or The Mayor of Casterbridge or even Don Quixote in Cervantes’ original Spanish would be more than I could deal with. I worried that college would seem like a movie set. Unreal and well-lit with a plasticene phoniness that would make a television gameshow look like something raw and shaky and shot by Kubrick.

I worried about drunken boys who had beered and drugged themselves into thinking they were alive and living all at the top of their lungs. I worried about girls with field-hockey legs in too-tight cable-knit sweaters that they wore on football weekends and at frat parties as they searched for something they called real.

I worried about my parents squashing me and squeezing me and squelching me away from Mexico and once again into them. I worried about life away from Karmen, and Hector and Teresa—the people I loved.

I worried most about myself, about how I was better at leaving places and people than arriving. And would I ever find a home again now that I had given up the only one I ever had.

I worried about all those things but in just a few weeks I worried about none of them. I became one of those drunken boys living at the top of my lungs. I dated, or slept with those field-hockey legged girls and removed their too-tight cable-knits. I Mobied my Dick and Don’d my Quixote. I was as dumb as I would have been if I never went to Saltillo and never played ball. And I forgot about Karmen, and Hector and Teresa as if I never had.
*

I arrived at Columbia less than a year after the city very nearly defaulted on its loans and the nation’s unelected president, Gerald Ford told the city, according to New York’s “Picture Newspaper,” to “Drop Dead.”

Now we lived in a city that seemed to be following that directive. There were on average almost three murders a day in the city. And the Bronx, particularly the South Bronx was burning. Between 1970 and 1980, seven census tracts in the blighted borough lost more than 97% of their buildings to fire and abandonment. 44 tracts our of the Bronx’s nearly 300 lost more than half their buildings.

Manhattan, too, was crumbling. The Times reported in May, 1979, “An 18yearold Barnard College freshman out for a walk last night was killed by a chunk of masonry that fell from the seventh floor of a building near the campus.

“The student…was hit in the forehead by a 1- by 2foot piece of concrete. Suddenly there was a big, crack on her forehead. She screamed and went down, choking and bleeding. It didn't take more than five minutes and she was dead.”

The subway was even more threatening than concrete falling off of buildings. For fear of being mugged, you’d never get in an empty car. And you considered yourself lucky if your train went out of service while it was in a station rather than  between stations. At least then you could get out and walk home. Not wait in a dark tunnel until help came.

With all that, I was only mugged once. I was grabbed from behind walking across campus late at night. I had had a heavy book bag over my shoulder and I wheeled around, swinging the bag bulging with English literature and caught my assailant in the head with about fifteen pounds of Moll Flanders. He ran off into the dark streets before he could do me any damage.

  
There are those who are nostalgic about the old days in New York before the billionaires and chain-stores moved in. But I remember a city where it seemed like one person in four was looking to mug you and remove your pancreas with a grapefruit knife for the China trade. I don't miss that a bit. Or the rats.

I was on the number one train one night. The rickety number one train one rickety winter night. It wasn’t especially late. But late enough so that the suburbanites had escaped the city and the muggers were out.

It was early December and it still got cold in those days. That was the winter, in fact, the Hudson froze over, and two kids robbed a bodega on 113th and Broadway and beat it across Riverside Park. There the cops gave chase and the kids leaped over the chain-link and ran across the river to the Jersey side, only the ice cracked in the middle and the Hudson sucked them in. They were rescued by a tug, turned over the the cops and that was that.



The train wheezed into the filth of the 50th Street station and the crackle of the loudspeaker came on. “This …out…of…service.” The airbrakes let out steam, the train’s lights flicker on and off, mostly off, and everyone on the train, except for the sleeping and the dead groaned and exited onto the platform.

There, sleeping between a girder, fifteen pounds of pigeon dung, the redolence of a thousand streams of piss and an overflowing waste bin, was Andre. He was long-haired and bearded and wrapped in his green fatigue jacket with the faded area where his sergeant stripes had been ripped off. He was shrouded in an old green Army blanket he must have gotten from a shelter. He smelled like cheap wine and dirt and sweat and whatever heroin smells like.

"Andre, man," I said to him.

He didn't recognize me.

I crouched down like a catcher and put my face close to his.

“What’s it to you,” I said “Andre Nadeau.”

He didn't recognize me.

I was making $2.30 an hour in those days working as a night guard in the Barnard College student center. I reached into my pocket and took out most of what I had, $20 out of $25. I put it inside one of the pockets of his jacket.

“What’s it to you, Andre Nadeau?”

What's it to you.









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