Somewhere in Alabama. I am watching the first baseball game I’ve seen all season.
Eighteen Latino boys are playing in a shabby ball field of stubbled grass and red dirt. They have a few spectators, mostly adults with snacks, fold-up chairs, and surgical masks. The parents here are speaking Spanish. They also speak English, but you don’t hear any of it spoken tonight.
Except by me.
This is not sandlot baseball. Neither is this a suburban Little League game where parents scream at kids while suffering psychotic breakdowns. This is béisbol.
One of the Mexican mothers helps me with this word. It is pronounced: “BAZE-bowl.” Whenever I try to say it she laughs at me.
In every way this is the same gentle game my father taught me to play in an alfalfa field. The same game his father taught him.
But these boys play with more squint-eyed sincerity than I ever did. They are an underground ball club. Meaning: they aren’t doing this for anyone but themselves. They aren’t advertising it, either.
“We started playing because they cancelled baseball,” says first-basemen Miguel (age 10). “With no games on TV, hey, we had to do something.”
Every boy lives within bike-able distance from his teammates. They are close friends who play in vacant lots, backyards, public parks, empty playgrounds, and school fields.
But what really impresses me is that they all chip in to pay a middle-aged guy to umpire for them. They call him “Chaparrito” because he is only five-foot six. He is not Latino, but fair-skinned, blondish, and originally from Muncie, Indianna.
“I’m not a real umpire,” the man says. “I actually work in pest control.”
But the boys tell me everyone looks up to Chapparrito because, rumor has it, he played minor league ball once. Chaparrito refuses to deny or confirm this rumor by winking at me.
Because he is not being hired by these boys to talk about his glory days. He is here to be impartial, to make hard calls, and to run a clean fight.
I meet a mother in the crowd, still wearing a cleaning-service uniform. She says, “When they cancel béisbol for this coronavirus, it was very hard for my son. He loves this game.” She nods to the pitcher. “Thass him.”
The pitcher is exceptional. He is a 13-year-old. All legs. Lean and sinewy. So skinny he’d have to stand up five times just to make a shadow. He is pitching from the windup with nobody on base.
“See how he staring at each batter?” says his mother. “He likes to scare them. That is how I look at him when he is no doing his homework.”
The pitcher leans forward. He nods at a catcher who shows three fingers. Behind him the boys in the infield punch their gloves and shout, “Hey batttabatttabattta!” with very American accents. Most of the boys were born in the U.S., and speak more English than I do.
They might not belong to a formal league, but they are filled with more love for the game than I’ve ever seen.
On the field are many caps with pro-team logos. Mostly Braves hats, some Rangers caps, a few Astros, a smattering of Dodgers blue. Only one Cardinals man in the bunch. Bless him.
When Major League Baseball decided to postpone the regular season this spring, it was a blow to boyhood. Organized ball has been running since 1846 when the first officially recorded innings were played in Hoboken, New Jersey, between the Knickerbockers and the “New York Nine.”
Since then, the game of our fathers has been the glory of childhood, the benchmark of youth, and the reason my lower back hurts in the mornings.
But this year our pastime got scrubbed because of the virus. So instead of Major League games at utopian ballparks, we had social-distancing at family reunions, and Charmin toilet paper shortages.
But these boys are not fazed. They are very excited for baseball to return. And there isn’t a kid on the field who isn’t talking about it.
“It’s coming back,” says one boy. “I can’t wait to see Ronald Acuña, he’s so good.”
“I like Ozuna,” says another.
They know televised ball won’t be the same with the coronavirus. For example, there will only be 60 games this season, instead of 162. There will be empty stadiums, surgical masks, no sunflower seeds, no high-fiving, and—worst of all—canned crowd noise.
Even so. You cannot dampen the spirit of children.
A blooper to right.
The small crowd claps for the boy who trots the bags. They shout Spanish phrases with voices muffled by surgical masks. One man blows a little plastic trumpet and shouts “Vaya!”
A mother claps so hard she almost breaks her own wrist. “This is my son who hit that ball,” she says in a heavy Mexican accent.
She is an American citizen. It took a lot of hard work to become one. Her English is limited.
“When my son was born,” she says, “first thing I do is buy him a glove. ‘Cause in Mexico, my brothers would play every day, but we could no afford gloves. So I always tell my son, I say, ‘Mijo, I buy you gloves and hats because I love you. I love you so much. And I gonna work hard to make you a good life I never had.’”
I find myself overcome by the sincerity in her voice, and by the water that gathers in her coffee-brown eyes.
And this, dadgum it, is why I love béisbol.