Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Death in the Mexican League.

When you’re on a ball team, as I was so many summers ago, when you’re tied by the cleats to 25 or 30 other guys, plus ten or so coaches, plus ten or so more hangers-on, you’re always close to someone who’s dying.

It could be the aunt who raised Castro, a small left-hander from a small village half-buried deep under the wispy sand of the Sonoran desert. It could be Gordo’s wife, who two-thirds of the way through the season had a tumor removed from her stomach the size of a muskmelon. Or it could be Bartolo Narvaez, a retired pitcher who played for the Seraperos before I joined the team.

Bartolo had played almost 20 or so seasons in the Mexican League, winning a few more games than he lost, making the Northern all-stars twice, and the league championship three-times, where he won four games and lost three.

By the time he was pushing 40 years old, the Mexican league was expanding from ten teams to 14, and Saltillo, a city of just 200,000 at the time was granted a team. Bartolo joined the Seraperos and went to work for Hector Quesadilla, hoping to play one more season or two.

In the 50s, 60s and 70s when Bartolo played, teams weren’t cautious with their players like they are today. Modern pitchers over the course of a season might throw 150 to 170 innings. Bartolo routinely hurled 250 innings. In his big season, 1966, when he went 22-19, he threw 376 innings, striking out 325 batters. So by the time he got to the Seraperos a year before I did in 1974, Bartolo’s arm was all but thrown out. It doesn’t sound like much, but his fastball had lost a mile or two per hour and his breaking stuff even more, and that meant he was essentially a ragdoll.

All at once, guys who could never do much more than scratch a grounder off of him, were lining balls into the corners and heading into second with a stand-up double. It wasn’t long, about six weeks into the 1974 season, that Hector had to sit Bartolo down and, in effect, remove him from the capital G Game as you’d remove a pitcher from an individual small g game.

“Bartolo, my friend,” Hector said to the right arm that was attached to the old pitcher. “Bartolo, you have in your arm how many games? How many innings? How many curveballs and fastballs and bean balls?”

Bartolo rubbed his strong right shoulder with his left hand. He could feel the socket grate against the joint. He could hear the cracking where his old bones rubbed against each other and cracked like your grandfather’s knees when he stood up from his arm chair.

“I have won 173 games and lost 169. I have pitched thirteen seasons with over 200 innings, three with over 300.”

“That is many pitches.”

“Yes.” Bartolo still massaged his right shoulder. “You think it is too many?”

“I think it is too many.”

“I think it is too many, too.”

“You can leave the team, without leaving the Seraperos,” Hector said, shaking Bartolo’s right hand. “You can lightly throw batting practice. You can coach our young arms. You can sit with me in the dugout because you can see things many players cannot.”

With those gentle words from Hector, Bartolo moved off the active roster of the Seraperos and onto the coaching staff. He still wore his number, 43, but he no longer got his uniform dirty or climbed the mound when the going was tough. Bartolo was a coach now, a special kind of guy that every ballclub has.

Like my best friend on the team, Geronimo Sisto, Bartolo was happy to fill in wherever he was needed. Mostly he stayed with our pitchers. Working on their pitches, strengthening their arms, helping them hone their benders or their pick-off moves to first or even their fielding around the hill.

I first met Bartolo when I tried out for the Seraperos one afternoon in early June in 1975. After introducing myself to our manager, Hector Quesadilla, I picked up a 32-ounce Louisville Slugger and walked slowly to the plate. Bartolo was throwing BP, batting practice, and he was good at it.

He threw neither too fast, nor too slow. He had excellent control, wasn’t afraid to come inside and had an assortment of junk pitches that he could throw from many different deliveries and angles. You don’t throw over 3,000-innings in your career without picking up a trick or two.

I stepped to the plate and Bartolo asked me where my pitch was. I held my right fist high and outside—my power--and Bartolo grooved one in. I smacked the pitch dead down the left-field line. It bounced deep on the outfield grass and rebounded off the maroon-painted wooden-slat wall 330 feet down the line.

Bartolo’s next pitch was two-inches outside and I inside-outed it and went to right. In a regular game it might have been a single, depending on the shift, and I was happy with that. Bartolo threw a few more and I swatted a few more. Then Hector told him to throw me some junk, screwballs, sliders, slow looping curves that started above and behind me and would break over the plate like a breeze on an otherwise still day.

I sprayed those around the outfield as well. And after about twenty pitches, Hector called me over, and Bartolo, and he signed me to the club. Batista, our third-string catcher and full-time bus-driver got me set up with a locker and two home uniforms and two away, and I started getting settled in as a Serapero.

As a third-baseman, I didn’t have much to do with Bartolo after that. He stayed with the pitchers mostly, and pitchers and every-day players don’t often mix. Sure, he’d chuck BP now and again, but batting practice is largely a silent affair, so I never had much to do with him. There was no animus or anything like that. Bartolo had his pals and I had mine, and besides, I was a more head home after the game than go carousing type of a guy and so was he. We just really never had occasion to say much to each other beyond our initial “holas.”

One afternoon I showed up in the locker-room, early of course, maybe four hours, or five before game-time. There was no one else in the clubhouse, and I slowly changed into my workout gear figuring I go for a run, or have a catch once some of the other boys showed up.

I was lacing up my old black Riddell spikes, when Hector walked out of his office. Hector was about the only guy with the Seraperos who showed up at Estadio de Beisbol Francesco I. Maduro before I did.

“Jorge,” he said. “Jorge Navidad.” He directed me with a head-nod into his room.

“There is a problem?”

“Yes, Jorge Navidad,” Hector said. He picked up a thick bat and bounced a ball off its fat part. Ten bounces, twenty, thirty. I tried doing the same with a bat more times than I can remember. My record was 14. But Hector routinely got into the triple-digits.

“Yes, Jorge Navidad. A call I got this morning, from Bartolo’s wife.”

Hector stopped. I did nothing to get him going again. I just let him take his time. Hector once told me that I had ‘the gift of quiet.’ I think about it still as maybe the greatest compliment I have ever received.

“Bartolo did not awake this morning,” Hector said, speaking English for my benefit. “Yesterday he was here.”

“Yes. Yesterday he pitched well.”

“And today he is not here. Today he is gone.”

Hector returned to his bat and ball. He bounced the ball off its end again and again.

“One-hundred and sixty-eight is my record,” he said.

“My record is 14,” I laughed.

“Today I will break my record."

"Today you will break your record," I agreed.

"Yes. Because tomorrow I may be gone.”

I sat there until the ball skidded off the end of Hector’s bat after about 70 bounces. He picked up the ball and began counting again.

“Tomorrow we may all be gone,” I said, heading back to my locker.

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