Friday, August 2, 2019

A fastball in Saltillo. Part I.

When I was a kid, so many summers ago, and played my one long professional season of minor league ball for the Saraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League, I was the only one from El Norte on the club.

Hector Quesadilla, my manager and mentor, had taken my right name and quickly made it more palatable to the fans south of the border. George became Jorge, and Tannenbaum (Christmas tree in German) became Arbol de Navidad, then shortened to Navidad. In roughly the time it takes to swing and miss, I became Jorge Navidad.

After I had settled into the routine of the club, after I had made friends and started speaking Spanish with passing skill (I’ve since forgotten it all) a guy showed up at Estadio de BĂ©isbol Francisco I. Madero, our home field. He found Hector and asked for a try-out.

This was not entirely unusual back then in the Mexican League. Almost weekly there was a kid with long arms and a broad back who could throw a lambchop past a wolf or tear the cover off the ball. Most of these boys were looking to escape something at home. The brutal poverty of their villages. A father who hit them not with an open hand. Or they just needed to say goodbye and try something they hadn’t tried before.

Sometimes saying goodbye is the best thing you can say. If only because it gives you the chance to go somewhere else. It hardly matters if that someplace else is better. Sometimes it only needs to be different.

The Saraperos were out on our field, limbering up, loosening our arms, lightly jogging and playing pepper when this guy shows up. I was standing at third, and Hector was alongside me. I was fielding grounders and making long looping parabolas to Batista, who was manning first base.

“Andre Nadeau,” the guy said. Nadeau was pronounced Nadoo. To reinforced that Andre said, “Just remember, ‘What’s it to you, Andre Nadoo.”

Andre had long dark hair, almost to his shoulders and wore a green army fatigue jacket unbuttoned over a t-shirt. On the sleeve of his jacket, you could see where his sergeant’s stripes were ripped off.

He was about 6’4”, he towered over Hector, and had the build of a long-distance runner.

“Yeah,” he said to Hector. “I can pitch.”

Hector gave Andre a ball and someone, maybe Abreu our back-up middle-infielder, tossed him a glove. Andre didn’t even take off his old army jacket. He walked up to the hill and started throwing—throwing from a full-wind-up with an old Juan Marichal kick-step. His first pitch cracked into Buentello’s fat mitt.

“Caliente,” the catcher muttered.

“No warm-up,” Hector asked Andre in English.

“That was warm-up,” Andre said.

The right-hander continued throwing aspirins to Buentello. Issy shook his glove hand in pain.

“Es maximo rapido,” the catcher said.

“You have a bender?” Hector asked him.

“A curve, a slider and a change.”

Andre demonstrated with 15 more pitches. By the time he was finished with his try-out, Lizcano, the assistant General Manager handed him a contract to sign. It was that simple. The game wasn’t as regulated and orderly as the game north of the border.

All of us, it was getting close onto game time, headed back to the clubhouse to put on our game uniforms and settle a bit before we faced the Tabasco Olmecas at eight. Andre took the locker to my right and we dressed for the evening. In a minute, Hector came over.

“You can tonight pitch?”

Andre didn’t look up from tying his spikes.

“I suppose I can go a few innings. I haven’t pitched a full-game since I got back.”

“Ok, you go tonight. Buentello will tell you the signs. He knows the Olmecas and will tell you how to pitch them, especially Cardinale.” The Olmec’s centerfielder was the league’s best hitter. Early into the season he had already hit 24 home runs.

“Since you got back from where?” I asked.

Andre still didn’t look up from his shoes. He spit “Vietnam. I got back in ’73.”

The war was that close. I was still using my older brother’s draft card as a fake I.D. He gave it to me for that purpose when Nixon lied the war into closure.

Nadeau finished getting dressed and together we trotted out to the field and tossed the ball around loosening our wings. Even casually throwing his arm had zip and the ball cracked into my glove.

It cracked into Buentello’s too. And zipped past the Olmecas. Nadeau set them down one-two-three in the first, while we scratched a quick run when Adame singled and Garibay doubled him in.

Nadeau continued on his skein, holding the Olmecas and Cardinale hitless through six.Then, with the Saraperos up four zip, Nadeau faltered in the seventh. Cardinale finally connected on a curve that didn’t but that was all the damage done to Nadeau. We won running away five-one.

There was beer and handshakes and horsing around in the clubhouse, but Nadeau was out—gone—before I was dry from my shower. Though a bunch of the boys were off to Tino’s for dinner and more were off to a place with no name but the neon cerveza in the window. A dirty ugly place where that cerveza and a girl cost pretty much the same.

Nadeau didn’t show up the next day either, or the next. But on Friday, we were getting ready to play the Piratas de Campeche when Andre showed up in his beaten army jacket and told Hector he was ready to throw. Angry as he was Hector couldn’t pass up a pitcher who could throw a one-hitter. And he gave the ball to Nadeau.

Here ends Part I.

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