Monday, November 11, 2019

My first day as a professional.

About six hours after I had arrived at Estadio de Beisbol Francesco I. Maduro, I found myself in an old flannel uniform, numero veinte, and standing on the alluvial infield dirt which to my rarefied El Norte eyes seemed more like infield pebbles.

There’s an old saying, however, in baseball as in life. You play the hand you’re dealt. There are no do-overs.

Some guys look up at the sun or the lights when they misplay a high outfield fly. Some pitchers blame the long ball on the wind blowing out, or a small trench on the mound that twisted their plant foot. Some managers even blame a long losing streak on cosmic forces beyond human control. It all reminds me of something the great boxing champion Joe Louis once said, “I done the best I could with what I had.” That’s all that can be expected of us here on earth. That and taking it upon yourself to actually say ‘I did it’ when you do something.

I was standing on the infield dirt about smack in the middle between the fringe of the grass and the browned grass of the outfield. Logan Duran, a right-handed pitcher was on the mound and he put his first pitch, a looping curve, toward the plate.

We were playing the Bravos de Leon, if I remember correctly, though I probably don’t. I had hardly met my team-mates yet much less knew the teams and the cities in the Mexican League. All I did know, really, was that I was at third—as I had been so often during my life, and I had a job to do if I could do it.

When I was a kid and at age 14 became the starting third baseman on my high school varsity team, I remember telling my harridan of a mother that I was nervous about it. She consoled me a style that hardly endeared her to me. She quoted Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II. "Uneasy lies the head that holds the crown," she said. That wasn't the last time I wanted a hug and instead got a dissertation.

The Bravos’ lead off man hit a screamer that caught a rock on the infield and hit me dead in the chest. The wind ran out of me as if my lungs were a balloon that popped, but my hands, without my head telling them, knew what to do.

My glove hand drew up to my chest and I corralled the ball in my worn Rawlings “The Finest In The Field!” Brooks Robinson model infielders glove. By the time my meat hand extracted the ball from the pocket of my leather, I had regained my breath and rifled it over to the first-baseman, whose name I had yet to learn. The Bravos’ guy was out by a good two strides and I had made my first play, a good one, in professional baseball.

It took only about 12 seconds for me to make my second play. Duran again threw a soft curve and the Bravos’ batter grounded a slow roller toward Diablo, our short stop, who was playing back. 

The deal when you’re a third baseman is you grab every batted ball you can. On something slow to the short stop, you’ve got the angle and the momentum and you've got to go for the ball.

Even though I could have said the ball was Diablo’s and I might have looked like a young ass cutting him off, I went for it like I had done a thousand times before in my 17 years. I gloved the ball, skipped a step to balance myself, and again chucked the pill hard to our first-sacker. Their guy was barely halfway down the line when the ball popped into our first baseman’s leather. Two down.

I thought I heard my manager, Hector Quetzalcoatl Padilla, who I called Hector Quesadilla not quite being able to wrap my tongue around the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, yell a couple buenos from the pine. I thought I heard a couple of the other boys do the same. There were worse ways to start my career as a Serapero, I thought. Neither play was all-that simple but I had made short work of each of them.

Before I knew it, we were back in our dugout and the Bravos were in the field and we were waiting to take our swats at the pill.
Solis, back row, fifth from left. In an undated photo while playing in a beer league.

Solis at the Cubs' Spring Training in Arizona, 1958.
He was sent down to Ft. Worth.

Marcelino Solis, front row, left.

Solis' one major league baseball card.

Their pitcher was called Marcelino Solis, a big lefthander from a small town in San Luis Potosi state named Real de Catorce, an old silver-mining town 9,000 feet up in the Sierra de Catorce mountains. I remembered Solis for two reasons. First, he had pitched 52 innings for the Chicago Cubs when he was 27, back in 1958, the year after I was born. Though his ERA was over 6.00, he somehow managed to win three games for the Cubs while losing the same number. He then returned to the Mexican League and played on and off for another decade, then made a comeback for the Bravos de Leon in 1975, when he was already 44, 17 of those years as a drunk.

Second, later in the season, when the Bravos were in town again, Solis, drunk, missed his team bus back to Leon. He bunked with me at Hector’s house that night, sleeping on an old mattress Hector had put out on his front porch.

There were three old ballplayers in the house that night, Hector, Solis and Gulliermo Sisto and one young player, me. Sisto was the league’s oldest player and close friends with Hector. Hector brought him onto the Seraperos about 30 games into the season as a wise old man who could fill in anywhere, stroke a hit or two, and serve as an extra coach as well. Sisto lived alone in a small cinderblock home just 100 yards from where Hector lived with Teresa. And when we were playing at home, Sisto and Hector and Teresa and Karmen, my season-long inamorata, and I would sit and eat and talk and laugh about our lives. That night, after Solis missed his bus, he sat with us in Hector and Teresa’s small kitchen.

Teresa served a large glass pitcher of lemonade sweetened with too much sugar and two steaming pots of rice and beans mixed with roasted chicken and spices, or some fish with its head still on, its eyes staring like a junior high Vice Principal. Solis looked around for a cerveza, but Hector and Teresa kept a dry house, as did Sisto, and Solis reluctantly made due with lemonade.

“In Chicago,” he said, “when I pitched for the Cubs, I was a boy from a small town of just one-thousand people, high in the mountains. It was in among the old Spanish silver mines and there was dust and poor everywhere. The mines left when the silver was gone and they left behind only poor and slag. They took all the rich and left behind only the poor.”

Solis got up from the table and looked again for a beer as if one had materialized out of the atoms in Teresa’s avocado green refrigerator.

“I had been in Mexico City, of course. So I had been in a big city. But Chicago took my head off. I was alone on the team with no English and no one who spoke my language at all. Into my room at night after our ball-games ended I would go to my room alone and think about being home and being alone.”

Solis picked up a fish head from Teresa’s stew and ate the meat off it with tiny bites like he was eating corn on the cob. “I would buy a bottle and drink it alone and then because I was still alone, I would buy another bottle and I would drink alone. Soon, though I still had my fastball and I still had my control, I also had a problem. My problem was I was enjoying being alone and with a bottle more than I had ever enjoyed anything before.

“Soon, I enjoyed being with a bottle so much, I lost my fastball and I lost my control. Soon I lost even caring. When I played for Fort Worth before the Cubs bought me, I was 15 and 2 with a 2.44 ERA. Now I was a drunk and a rag arm.”

Solis dropped the fish head onto his plate and went outside to the porch and laid on the mattress Hector had put out there. “Now I am 44 years old,” he said through the untorn screen door, “and a drunk and a rag arm who misses his team bus and wishes he had a bottle.”

Solis was a rag arm that day I faced him on my first day as a professional. I was batting sixth for the Seraperos, and by the time I had my ups, we had two runs in, two men on base and only one down. I didn’t know anything about who Solis was when I stepped into the plate. I only knew to do what I had done so many times before.

I went looking for a mistake. I went looking for something that was a little too over the plate, a little too up in my power. I went looking for a curve that didn’t break or a slider that didn’t slide. I went up to the plate like so many people go through life—I went looking for someone else’s weakness I could use to my benefit.

Solis’ first pitch was just what I was looking for. He tried to come inside on me, but he got out over the plate and I smacked at the sphere like I was felling timber. The ball shot off my bat and in a second or two crashed into and through the dark red wooden fence 303 feet down the left field line. Actually through the fence, smashing the old slats, brittle with age and the relentless Coahuila heat, and through it like a cartoon fat man running through a door leaving nothing behind but his smashed-out silhouette.

The umpires called it a ground rule double and it scored the guy who’d been on second and pushed our guy who’d been on first over to third. A minute later, Buentello, our catcher knocked me in.

I sat on the pine breathing heavily from my sprint on Buentello’s grounder and I thought of the postcard I would write to my parents, if I had had parents who would have cared.

"Dear Mom and Dad," I scribbled in my head. "A double in my first at bat. An RBI. A run scored a minute later. Major Leagues, watch out." I thought for a minute about actually buying a postcard and sending one. But I saw it laying picture side up on my mother’s kitchen countertop, unread for three days, and I talked myself down.

That all happened in one inning over 44 years ago. One inning of a nine inning game. Ten minutes out of 150 minutes. But it’s all I remember of that night. I don't even remember if we lost or won. What does that matter, anyway? 

Whatever happened, it’s enough. It has to be. There are no do-overs in life. And I done the best I could with what I had.

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