DFA: A BLOG ABOUT LIFE ON THE BASEBALL MARGINS: January 14, 2008
DFA, Chapter 7: Between a Taco and a Hard Place
It didn’t take long for my Microbial fever to drop. We were the ’62 Mets, the Italian army and the Democratic party rolled up into a big ball of losing. We were losing squared. We not only lost 18 straight games, but we even lost 15 straight taco races that the Microbios PR people put on before every game (and which all players were contractually obligated to participate in). It was bad enough that we had to on the road. But you have no idea what “embarrassing” means until you have had to race around the infield wearing a giant taco shell costume against a bunch of out-of-shape, unathletic schmos – and lose to a chimichanga. The only game the Microbios might’ve won is “The World’s Biggest Loser,” only we would’ve figured out a way to lose that one, too.
As I told you dudes – and dudettes, as my editor has informed me there are some women baseball fans and some of them might read the Blog Monster, even though I think most of them just watch the games to ogle the players’ butts, mine included, as I have a world-class butt and was once asked to be part of a “Butt of the Month Club” calendar for some queerbait magazine. Needless to say, I turned them down. Also, don’t think I am anti-gay because I use the word “queerbait.” That was the name of the magazine: Queerbait. I kid you not – by the time I got down to Venezuela, the Winter League pennant race was galumphing to its finish. Not that we were in it. In fact, our record was so bad, some wiseguy wrote that we should be relegated to the Uruguayan League, which they don’t have one. The fans, although still raucous, were clearly losing interest, and we’d heard rumors that even El Presidente had started to distance himself from us, because his advisors had told him that he could suffer a loss in the polls by being associated with such a sorry-ass bunch of ballplayers. He’d started turning up at Tiburones and Leones games.
I was playing well, though, hitting for power and drawing my fair share of walks – although most of them were so intentional, that sometimes to speed up the game, the umps, after getting the nod from the opposing manager, would just wave me to first base. (Things are more casual down here in “Zuela.”) In fact, it might’ve been an advantage to play on such a pathetic squad, because compared to them my mediocrity stood out. I hadn’t heard from the Yankee scout, but my manager, Simon Bolivar Balue, said he’d heard through the grapevine that the scout was filing positive reports to Tampa. And the beat writer for El Universal, after raking the team over the coals, would throw a compliment or two my way.
So wouldn’t you know just when things were going my way, ol’ man Fate would throw me a back door slurve.
It happened one afternoon, right after a run-down practice. Balue had ordered it because the previous night we failed to nail a runner who was frozen between second and third, so trapped and vulnerable he might as well have been naked. We made 18! throws – I think every player on our team plus several bat boys touched the ball – before our first baseman (yes, our first baseman) threw the ball into left field, where our left fielder wasn’t playing, because he was backing up the … second baseman. Never mind; you had to be there. The runner scored. We lost. And if you’re scoring at home … well, I don’t know what the number for “usher” is.
Anyway, after I showered, I left the clubhouse and entered an alley that led into Hugo Chavez Boulevard, when a couple of shadowy men approached me. I call them “shadowy” because even though the sun was shining brightly, they cast no shadows.
They wore expensive gray pinstriped suits and alligator loafers. One guy was tall and the other short but muscular. The muscular guy wore a trench coat, though it was almost 100 degrees, and yet there wasn’t a drop of sweat on him. They both had waxed pencil moustaches and long, slick hair and looked like the kind of guys who were not part of their school’s debating society.
“Yo, Griff,” the tall one said.
“Grieff,” I replied.
“He’ll pronounce it however he feels like,” said the muscle. They were Latinos, but both spoke English without an accent, clipped and staccato, like they learned it by rote off a language record.
“We got a proposition for you,” said the tall guy.
“Who are you?” I said.
“What’s in a name?” said the tall guy.
“What do you want?”
“He got a proposition for you,” said the muscle, and then nodded to the tall guy.
“We got a lot riding on you tomorrow. We want to make sure that you … how should I put it – don’t win. And we’ll make it worth your while.”
I stood there speechless for a second as my sweat glands went into overdrive. “Um, I appreciate the offer, but do you really need me to do that? I mean, check the standings; you can see we’re three and twenty-four. It’s almost a sure bet that we’ll lose every game, without even trying.”
“I’m not talking about the game,” said the guy who shopped at the Big, Tall and Menacing Man Store.
“I don’t get it.”
“Tacos,” added the muscle.
“There's action on the taco races?”
“It’s an emerging market,” said the tall guy. “And I’m an entrepreneur.”
The muscle glowered at me. “You have a problem with that?”
“No. Of course not. But why me?”
“Venezuelans, they expect. You, they won’t expect. So, we have a large sum on the burrito.”
“But wait a second,” I said. “There’s four people in the race. The taco, which is me, the burrito, the arepa and the chimichanga. Even if I … you’d still have to make a deal with the arepa and the – ”
“They’re in the bag,” said the muscle.
“So, there’s five grand in it for you to … not win. But make it look good. I don’t care how. You want to” – and here the tall guy used his hands as quotation marks – ‘pull a hamstring’, ‘tear up your meniscus’, makes no difference. You can do that, right?”
I paused; I’d never been on the DL in my life.
“Or do you want my friend here to help take the guesswork out of it?” He nodded toward the muscle, who discreetly slipped from under his trench coat a Louisville slugger. It was an Alex Rodriguez model.
“Uh, when would I get the money?”
“We’ll find you. We know where you live.”
“Guys, I’m an American citizen. Something happens to me and the guy in charge here --”
“The ambassador? He’s too busy trying to overthrow Chavez. And the cops, well, they’re cops. You know what I mean? … So, are you going to play ball? Or do we have to give you some griff?”
“Grief. Give me some grief.” That was my father’s bragaddocious line, and suddenly his image appeared before me, but it was murky and undulated like in a bad movie dream scene. Dad’s ape-like features started to merge into Charlie Lau, the old hitting coach, who until now I didn’t realize he resembled. The muscle took a couple steps toward me. The tall guy took out his wallet and pulled out a wad of Bolivars (named after the independence fighter, not my manager). He counted some off and handed them to me.
“Here’s an advance,” he said. “You get the rest tomorrow. After the race.”
They turned and started walking away. I counted the bills, which amounted to about five hundred bucks U.S.
That night, I paced in my little apartment in La Tarantula as the odor of smoked meat tendering the oil stink drifted through the window. I didn’t know if those guys were agents of some octopus-like organized crime gang or just small-time knuckleheads. I didn’t know what to do about their “offer.”
Should I pretend to pull a muscle during the race, like the tall guy suggested? But if I did, Bolivar might not let me start the game, and I needed every opportunity to impress the Yankee scout. If I pulled out of the race and the guy who took my place happened to win it, they’d shoot me, knife me or trade me to some crazy-ass Amazonian tribe where I’d end up with my tiny-ass head hanging from somebody’s hut. I couldn’t ask one of my teammates to take my place and throw the race without revealing everything, and who knows what they’d do or who they’d tell? And the cops were clearly in on everything.
I had nobody to talk to. I’d only been in Venezuela a few weeks and so far, no friends. I had no steady girlfriend either here or in the States. If you’re wondering why a guy who even though he looks like a backup catcher is still a professional ballplayer doesn’t have a steady girlfriend, don’t get the wrong idea. Not that I care one way or another who wants to stick what into where, as long as they don’t do it in front of me. (And listen up, dudes, I’ve had more than one gay teammate. I even had a gay roommate once who thought he could hide who he really was – even when I caught him in the bathroom, his pants down around his knees, and a copy of Colt magazine in his hand. He tried telling me it was about horse breeding. Some day there’ll be an openly gay major leaguer and there’ll be a big fuss and ten years later there’ll be a dozen or more and then a hundred and fifty years later all the big league teams will wear pink patches in honor of the gay Jackie Robinson.)
I just prefer women, although I’m not sure if that’s really such a smart bet these days. They seem really confused – sort of like the Microbios when they catch a guy in a rundown. They don’t know what to do with him and so they make 18 throws and the last one goes into the stands. A perfect example was Kara, this certifiable skirt who I was stuck on back in New York. But I’ll tell you about later in the Blog Monster.
I heard loud music wafting up from the street, and the hubbub of people having a good time. I went over to my only window, which had a top-to-bottom crack that looked like a bolt of lightning. Directly across the street was a liquor store that sold a cerveza named Polar and rum to make Cuba libres, which was the ‘Zuelans’ favorite cocktail. Right outside, four or five drunks reeled around each other, as if doing a folk dance under instructions from space aliens. It was some sort of street fair or festivity, and a salsa band had started playing on a jerry-rigged platform. Other street vendors set up their carts. One sold pabellon, the national dish, which was a stew of rice, beans, bananas and shredded meat. Another sold a fish soup. Other carts offered tacos, arepas and chimichangas – but no burritos. Was this some kind of omen?
Sweating, I made my way down to the street. Though it was dark, the heat – from the ground, the carts, the music, the people – hit me like an oven blast. Everyone was dancing – men with women, women with women, women with small children and one old man with a pig up on its hind legs. I think both of them were drunk. Then everyone formed a circle and some old woman grabbed my hand and pulled me around. I’ve never been much of a dancer and didn’t know the moves, so I tried doing what an old teammate in the Cape Cod League called “the Nantucket crawl.” It was a clumsy, hokey-pokey-ish kind of move that in his words, “only white boys do.” Still, I was swept away in the music, the young women in their tight, low-slung jeans and halter tops like in the States …
… Until I spotted the tall guy and the muscle in the circle, diagonally across from me. My body went limp, but the momentum of the circle carried me with it. The tall guy looked like he was in ecstasy. He wore a huge grin that showed off a diamond in his teeth. He hadn’t so much as cracked a grin earlier. Our eyes met, and he grinned at me as if our “meeting” had never taken place. Then I locked eyes with the muscle, who also smiled at me and gave a little bow of – what? – Respect? Courtesy? A warning, like the Godfather who kisses the guy he’s singling out for a hit?
I broke away from the circle and climbed back upstairs. Later I found out that they were celebrating Paradura del Niño, the last day of Christmas. And the tall guy and his muscle were expecting me to play Santa Claus.