Wednesday, June 26, 2019

With Liberty and Justice for All

 Dedicated to Barbara and Michael Sedano: just another fork in the road.                                                                            
America's Pastime and Cultural Crossroads
    In his final year of Little League baseball, the boy knew every bump in the field, played every position, hit off fastest pitchers, and, when he pitched, his fastball blew right past the strongest hitters in the league.
     It was the day of the championship game. His coach told him he’d be on the mound. Before leaving for work, his father had said, “Don’t go out with your friends. Stay home and rest.”
     At 2:00 P.M., his mother had prepared his favorite meal, nopales and chile verde. By 3:30, she’d ironed and spread his wool uniform, socks, and undershirt on his bed. At 4, he began dressing. He took a deep breath. Inside his stomach, butterflies had begun to stir and little knots formed.
     He stepped out of his jeans. Stripped to his shorts, he stood before the full-length mirror nailed to the back of the door. He turned to look at his thin body. Slowly, he took a step back and sat at the edge of his bed.
     He raised one leg and slid the thin, white legging up to his knee, running his hands up along his ankle and calf, removing the wrinkles from the soft material. He repeated the same routine with the other leg. Below the knees, he attached elastic garters to keep the leggings from slipping down.
     He took the baseball socks, green with two white stripes round each, and slid them over the white leggings, stretching them tightly. He stood and moved to the mirror. A lot of people would be watching.
     He stepped into his wool trousers, a green stripe down each side, buttoned the fly, bent over and bloused the bottoms, so the hem barely touched the top stripe. He stood up straight, guided the black leather belt through the loops, and tightened.
     His parents had found the money to buy him a new undershirt, white with long green sleeves. He put his head in first, then his arms, and pulled down on the tail. He picked up his wool baseball jersey, same gray as the trousers, Tigers, in green script, sewn across the front. He placed an arm into each sleeve, pulled the shirt over his shoulders, and buttoned the front. He tucked the shirttail into his trousers, lining up the buttons of the shirt with the seam of the fly, broken only by the black belt, just like his dad had shown him, the way, he’d said, they did it in the Army.
     He took one last look in the mirror, picked up his old gym bag, his glove and shoes inside, and walked to the living room. The butterflies fluttered and the knots tightened.
     His dad arrived home early from work. The family jumped into the car, a clunky ’53 Chevy, and drove to the field. In the front seat, his parents chatted. He heard nothing. His sister hummed as she looked out the window. Twenty minutes later, his father pulled onto a narrow dirt road leading to the parking lot, tall weeds growing on both sides. The car bounced, the springs squeaked, the steering wheel spun from one side to the other, as his father maneuvered around the large potholes, and found a parking spot, between two shiny new cars.
     He played in a league with kids whose parents had big homes and a lot of money. After the last game each season, he and his family attended a team party in the hills where one kid’s home had a pool, a diving platform in a massive oak tree, and a baseball diamond out back. He was one of the few Mexican kids in the league. When he’d once asked why he couldn’t play baseball with his friends at the neighborhood park, his dad had told him this was an official Little League, like playing in the big leagues, grass infield, an announcer’s booth and snack bar. Besides, his older cousins had played here. It was family tradition.
Inspiration or Indoctrination?
     His father turned toward the back seat and said, “Go ahead. We’ll be right there.” As the boy stepped from the car, his father added, “Mi ‘jo, good luck.” His mother motioned him close and gave him a peck on the cheek.
     Bag in hand, the boy walked through the crowd, past the Senior League field, and the snack bar. As he neared the field, people he didn’t know called out to him, words of encouragement. His friends’ sisters waved at him. A senior league coach approached and told him how much he’d like him on his team next year. The boy smiled, shyly. Some of the eight and nine- year-olds, minor leaguers, stepped aside to let him pass.
     He walked through an open gate and onto the field, stepping down into the dugout where he removed his high-top Converse tennis shoes and slipped into his baseball shoes, tightening the yellow laces, and folding back the long, leather tongue. His manager came to his side, sat down, and offered some last-minute advice. The butterflies and knots collided.
     The boy walked from the dugout and made his way down the sideline to the warm-up mound along the left field fence. The catcher was already waiting. His team took the field for warm-ups. A light cheer rose from the audience.
     As he threw the ball, his muscles loosened. More people called to him. He heard a familiar voice, his uncle Joe. He turned and saw his uncle standing along the center field fence, a worn straw gardener’s hat shading his face. The boy smiled.
     People filled the bleachers. They lined the outfield fences. An announcer called the starting lineups. The PA boomed. The coach signaled for him to return to the dugout.
     As he put on his windbreaker to keep his arm warm, he turned to see a group of men surrounding his father, who looked gleeful and happy, even after a full day of lugging cement on his shoulders. They shook his father’s hand, as if he was the one pitching. Women, like the mothers straight out of Good Housekeeping, chatted with his mother. She beamed. He glanced over at the opposing team as they warmed-up. The boys appeared bigger, stronger. He whispered a prayer.
     At 6:00 P.M., his team stood on the third-base line, the other team along the first-base line. A summer breeze blew in from the west, the flag waving high on a pole over center field. He heard hundreds of voices say, like a prayer, “With Liberty and Justice for All.”
     The umpire hollered, “PLAY BALL!”
     He walked to the mound, picked up a bag of resin and squeezed, releasing the soft golden powder. The umpire tossed him a new ball. The boy ran his fingers over the slippery white leather and the hard, red stitching. He read the words Official Little League stenciled on one side.
     He reached down, grabbed a handful of dirt, and rubbed it into the ball, for a surer grip. He kicked at the dirt in front of the mound, loosening it for better traction. He threw the ball to the catcher, slowly at first then harder with each pitch.
     The first batter stepped to the plate, digging his right foot into the dirt, clenching his bat, holding it out over the plate, measuring the distance. He took a practice swing, positioned himself in the chalk-lined batter's box, and pulled his bat back over his shoulders and waited.
     The boy looked for the catcher’s sign. He nodded, his eyes glued to the mitt, never losing it, not for an instant. He wound up, his body moving like an acrobat, his arm a slingshot, flinging the little white ball towards the plate. The butterflies rested, and the knots vanished.

Excerpted from Shifting Loyalties, Daniel Cano’s 1995 novel, published by Arte Publico Press


msedano said...

we have enjoyed millions of golden moments, most come and leave with no fanfare. this collection of memories feels good, Daniel. thank you. mvs

Andrea Mauk said...

Each detail described in this memory piece adds to the vividness of time and place gone by, and shows pride building in your character. I picture this so fully, as my ex would often take me up to the North Venice Little League field to reminisce.