Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Baseball Annie, 1947.

I don't suppose it's unusual, especially among men of a certain age, to have thoughts about what it's like being a professional ballplayer. 

After all, the writer James Thurber said so many years ago, "The majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees."

I suppose I can entertain thoughts of what it must be like to play ball today. An era of trillion-dollar contracts, first-class travel, celebrity status and firm-buttocked women fairly falling over you.

When I played ball for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League (AA) way back in 1975, the world was very different. 

Various crime scenes around Estadio de Beisbol Francisco I. Maduro.

For one thing, I was just seventeen years old--I was barely shaving--and I was probably paid less than nearly any other player in the league, just $200 a month with two-chicken dinners a week at Tino's, a small hut of a restaurant not far from the friendly confines of Estadio de Beisbol de Francesco I Madura. 

The real bus was teal with a Seraperos logo on each side, and slightly larger,

For another, we traveled over the rocky crags of that benighted land by means of a 27-year-old retired American school bus. Porfiro Diaz, Mexico's putative emporer from 1876 to 1911, said it this way and he was right: "Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios y tan próximo a los Estados Unidos."  Poor Mexicoso far from God and so close to the United States.

Yes, it was poor. And dark. And brutal. And mean.

And silent. And funny. And loving. And warm.

So just maybe, despite all that cacophony the best single year of my life. Most of that year was not playing games or hanging with the fellas or canoodling with my summer's inamorata, Karmen Rodriguez, the girl in the white dress,

No, most of that year was laying down along the green vinyl seat of the team bus, gears grinding through the Sierra, Gordo Batista cursing the old bus up a crag, and listening to Hector Quetzalcoatl Padilla, Hector Quesadilla, my manager tell me the tales of the game.

I suppose I might have become an academic--an English professor--as I had set out to become. I suppose I could have read acres of Melville and Dreiser and Wharton and various James' and Faulkner and Hurston and Chesnutt and made a lifelong study of their morphemes and phonemes. I could have, maybe, published--not perished--and read and read. I could have gone that way for sure. 

But I never would have heard the stories as alive as those I heard on that darkened bus, gears grinding through the mosquito night, twenty men snoring through their beer and stubble as we pistoned our broken way to another broken city in a thoroughly beautiful but thoroughly broken world.

These stories were told in a mix of Spanish with a teaspoon of English when Hector thought it would help. They lodged, I didn't even know it, in the lonely gauze of my brain. And now, almost half a century later, a story will seep out, like the ooze from a silent wound, slowly sneaking through the guarding, careful cotton, instigated by what, I don't know.

"Many years ago," Hector began one evening as we were dieseling from one sad dusty city to one even sadder and more dusty, "Many years ago, when I was just a young ballplayer, we had with the club a hanger-on. I was probably 20 then. Just five years playing in the league. But already a star. Estuardo must have been 70."

Hector was one of nine boys--the youngest. His father left when he was nine to become a ball-player. All his brothers became ball-players and Hector too, at just 15, left his two-room home where nine boys and one mother slept cold on four mattresses, to become a ball-player.

His brothers returned to the village. A step too slow. Too ham-handed to field, or with too-much of a Swiss-cheese bat, but Hector prevailed. He played for three decades in the Mexican League, and became a Hall-of-Famer, as a player when I knew him, and later on as a manager.

"Estuardo had been a player in the early days of organized ball in Mexico. Before there were big stadiums. Before the major leagues were aware we were alive. When Porfiro Diaz was the king and had sold our land and our resources and our peasants and our oil and our railroads to the Americanos.

Diaz ruled like a god for five decades.

From the peasants they took. To the rich they gave.
Like el Norte today.

"As Diaz's soldiers killed the Zapatistas. And Madero's soldiers shot back. And the US helped Diaz shoot back with even more machine guns because the American money insisted, and bodies were piled high in the streets and the dead outnumbered the living, all because of the love of a filthy buck, Estuardo did what so many of us do."

Madero fought Diaz. Madero fought the Americans.
But Madero was killed.

One million were killed in the Revolution.
99 percent of them died in the only clothing they had.

"During times of revolution," I asked. 

Ours were the only voices in the dark. Besides the screams from the scrub of the desert of a trillion angry cicadas.

"It is always the time of the revolution. The world has been shaven by a drunk holding a straight razor. A drunk. Blind. And we are all bleeding from one-thousand places."

I felt my still whisker-less face for blood.

"We do what we do. We put on our pants and we look at the deep brown eyes of the woman we are with. We see them and we think of bellies that are empty--ours and hers and bellies that may someday be bellies. We think of that emptiness and we grab our lunch in an old small bucket and we go off to work. 

"We go off to work and we try to make our pesos because we have to eat and to have a roof and to have a beer at night or a cigar or a woman and for that we must work and have money."

Hector, though he had no formal schooling to speak of read books like an old salesman would read a train schedule. Books were life to him. Almost as much as hitting a curveball. "We can't be like Henry Thoreau and live by a pond and raise peas."

"No, peas have there place. But we must do as Estuardo did. Like what you and I are doing now. We do what we know how to do. Estuardo played ball."

"Was he good, Estuardo?" 

"He was good enough to play but not good enough to remember but too good to let go. Estuardo just kept coming to the ballpark. He was, in a way, like Gordo."

Gordo, driving the bus, sitting six feet from us, honked the wheezy old horn twice.

"Gordo is our third-string catcher. He plays maybe eight games a year. He is our first-string bus-driver. He can fix a bus, too. He is our equipment manager. If a boy from a small desert village comes and can play, Gordo finds him a not-too-dirty uniform. If he needs shoes, as so many of these boys do, Gordo finds him a pair, matching usually, of spikes. And because the boy has no friends and nowhere to sleep, Gordo helps the boy there, too."

"He handed me my first uniform. And somehow knew, without asking, that I preferred the number twenty."

"Gordo knows. You looked like a twenty. And one day, when someone is aching and cannot swing, I will say to Gordo who has grown thick with cerveza and sitting, 'you must bat today.' And Gordo will play in the outfield, and maybe hit a double. He will not embarrass us. He can even pitch if we need a wing."

"Estuardo was like that?" I asked.

"Not at 70. Not anymore. But still every day to the ballpark he came. He would fungo to the outfielders. Ground sharply to the infielders. Warm up the pitchers and maybe throw one-hundred pitches of batting practice. Estuardo would do anything."

"Like Gordo."

"But no bus-driving," Gordo yelled from his seat as he down-shifted into a long descent.

"In baseball, there have always been baseball Annies. Pretty girls who like the pretty players."

"Karmen?" I asked.

"She is no baseball Annie. She is a girl who is like a house made of stone with a deep foundation. Baseball Annies are more like tents on a windy field."

"They blow with the wind."

"And they are gone with the wind. Usually leaving behind a hurt and sadness and the pain of loss. Baseball Annies are those things that come too easy. It is the things that come too easy that hurt the most when they leave."

I thought about a girl, Beverly, from eleventh grade who had done the same to me.

"Estuardo had a baseball Annie, half his age or less. They were in love, he believed, for three weeks, then five, then twelve.

"Even though he was 70, he wore always a uniform. And then we returned from some cerveza city and Annie was gone."

"Like a tent on a windy field," I said.

"Estuardo in the locker room was a dead man. He stood in front of the large mirror and his uniform he removed. Leaving on nothing but his shorts, his sliding pads."

"Though his sliding days were over."

"He examined his body, like a doctor or like a woman. 'Here,' he said inspecting his arms, 'used to be round and hard like a polished stone. Now it is flat and gone.'

"He moved down and looked at his belly. 'Here,' he said, 'used to be flat and tough. Now it is round.' And then he said what I will always remember. What I will always fear."

"Fear? I've never seen you fear."

Hector laughed, nervous. "Fear is that which we don't think about."

"What did Estuardo say""

Gordo down-shifted again. Someone in the back of the sleeping bus screamed from a nightmare. Probably Geronimo, who was beaten as a boy.

"Estuardo said, 'I know. Old is this. Everything that was round is flat. And everything that was flat is round.'"

Up ahead in this mountains we could see the twinkle of the lights of Oxaca, like Denver, Colorado, a mile-high city. 

Gordo honked the bus horn again. A celebration on driving through the mountains at night and arriving without dying. 

In a moment we were in the cool air of the city. Turning down old Spanish streets to find our old pink-neon hotel. Hector took a bat and clubbed twice the floor to wake the boys from their sleep.

"We are here," he yelled. "We play tomorrow at seven. We leave for the stadium at three."

The boys with their teal green duffles shuffled off the bus and to their rooms. I waited and left after they had all gone, leaving just ahead of Hector.

The small, dim lobby was empty when we got there. The Seraperos had gone to bed or to a bar down the cobbled avenue.

Hector stopped me and hugged me. 

Unusual. We weren't huggers. 

And then he laughed a laugh from the back of his throat.

"Everything that was round is flat. And everything that was flat is round."

We climbed the stairs to the second floor of the small hotel. Hector turned left to his small room. I turned right to mine. 

The game the next night was to begin at 7PM. It was just before midnight. Nineteen hours.

We might have gotten three hours' sleep between us.

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