Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lost in Mexico.

We were playing down in Mexico City, against the Diablos Rojos, perennially the best team in the league by far. Meanwhile, this is before Geronimo Sisto joined us in September and settled us down, acting as another coach, a mentor and a guy who could slash a base-hit coming in cold off the bench, we were trending toward being just about the worst team in the league.

We weren’t in last place, but we were quickly getting there. Going into Mexico City to play the Diablos Rojos, we had lost nine out of our last 12, and were losing by lopsided tallies. 9-1. 11-3. And so on.

We played an afternoon double-bill against the Diablos. And even though we had Orestes “Tito” Puento on the hill in game one, and he would finish the year with 16 wins against only seven losses, that particular afternoon, the Diablos made him look like a rag arm, beating us 14-4.

Things went no better in the nightcap with Triste Tristan Ceballo chucking for us. Ceballo had an arm, there was no doubt about that. On any given day, he was just about the best pitcher you’ve ever seen. But his next game he could be just about the worst. Triste was about as consistent as an old clock. Some days he would run fast, some days slow, some days he wouldn’t run at all.

The thing about Ceballo was he had a major-league arm three days a month and everybody knew it. Coach after coach—even coaches from the big leagues would come down to try to “regularize” him—to steady him. But it was like trying to catch rain in a sieve.

Ceballo got beat badly in game two, with us losing 18-3.

We had just about had it after those two losses. Had it with the club, had it with baseball itself, and certainly had it with each other. To make matters worse we had a 15-hour bus ride slated after the game so we could play the Piratas de Campeche the next afternoon. 15-hours in a rickety non-air-conditioned bus through Mexico City, through the mountains, and through the desert to Campeche, with 25 guys who had just dropped two like we were a JV squad, with everyone of us having about the worst stretch of our lives.

We loaded onto the bus, some of the boys stretched and cursing over rows of seats in the back. Me, in my usual station, across the aisle and one row back from Hector who himself sat one row from the driver.

I sat in my seat and held a small flashlight so I could read a novel I had picked up. Something by Thomas Wolfe, and in English, about not being able to go home again. We headed out of the park parking lot and through the warren of city streets hoping to make it to Route 150D with a minimum of crap.

But when things go bad, they sometimes go bad completely. We were stuck in traffic that was aggressively not moving. I’ve been stuck in traffic in New York, Los Angeles, Cairo, Istanbul, Rome, Guangzhou and Sao Paolo. I can tell you with fervor, there’s nothing like a traffic jam in Mexico.

It seemed the whole country was on the road trying to get to another road. And the whole country was riding its horn at once. We moved about a yard every ten minutes.

After about an hour of this—we had traveled literally a block, and the mood of the bus, which had started dark was nearly pitch black. Little fights were breaking out in the back—we were all looking for someone or something to blame the losing on. And we were looking for something to take the idea that we were losers out of our heads—any sort of diversion we could find.

I was sticking my nose deeper inside Thomas Wolfe, ignoring the mayhem around me. It’s my way of coping; I’ve always done it, I still do. I found a passage I liked and drew an old 19-cent Bic out of my Seraperos wind-breaker and underscored it.

“There came to him an image of man’s whole life upon the earth. It seemed to him that all man’s life was like a tiny spurt of flame that blazed out briefly in an illimitable and terrifying darkness, and that all man’s grandeur, tragic dignity, his heroic glory, came from the brevity and smallness of this flame. He knew his life was little and would be extinguished, and that only darkness was immense and everlasting. And he knew that he would die with defiance on his lips, and that the shout of his denial would ring with the last pulsing of his heart into the maw of all-engulfing night.”

As I underscored those words Triste Ceballo walked to the front of the bus, staggered, if you have to know.

“Senor Hector,” he slurred, finding a place on the bench next to our manager. “Senor Hector. Necesito ir al bano.” I need to go to the bathroom.

Hector looked at Triste, then looked outside at the traffic. Then looked ahead at two miles or more of traffic. Then he took the bat he always had with him, a Pete Runnels Hellerich & Bradsby 32-ouncer that Hector used for batting practice. He balanced the bat straight-upward on two finger and then one, not answering Ceballo.

Finally, we had creeped alongside a bar that abutted the road we were on on our way to Route 150D.

“Go,” Hector said. Gordo Batista, our bus-driver and bullpen coach opened the door. Ceballo stumbled out and down the three steps to the dusty street.

As soon as Ceballo made his way to the bar, the traffic magically disappeared.

Batista turned to Hector. He looked at the door, as if to say ‘we are missing one boy.’

Hector banged twice his bat onto the grooved and rubberized linoleum floor of the bus.

“Vamonos,” was all he said. “Vamonos.”

We sped off into the dark.

Ceballo joined us two weeks later in Aguascalientes and pitched a two-hitter. And the next game he pitched against Torreon, also a two-hitter.

No harm. No foul.

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