Baseball as the Antidote
There were a lot of great things about being a Deadhead, but hardly any of them were as good as December 26.
The day comes at the end of the onslaught of Thanksgiving, Christmas shopping, short, dreary days, hideous music on the radio -- why do radio programmers think we're going to like listening to Bing Crosby and Perry Como in December when we ignore them the rest of the year? -- and of course the shots of greed, dysfunction and frozen masks that are Christmas itself.
The Grateful Dead would set up shop at the Oakland Auditorium on the 26th and play five shows in six nights, leading up to the lysergic Mardi Gras of New Year's Eve, which was always the toughest ticket of the set. But the most fun to be had, I always thought, was on the 26th. The Antidote to Christmas. Deadheads would come grinning into the auditorium, shed of a whole month of freakiness -- or at least the wrong kind of freakiness, from their point of view -- and the Dead always seemed to play a sweet and gently exuberant show.
The Dead are gone, of course. (Though The Other Ones do a pretty convincing job of occasionally filling their shoes.) Baseball, oddly enough, can fill the same role that the Dead did, but games are a little hard to come by in November and December, so that hasn't been an option.
This year, though, I was unusually desperate for a little distraction. My family planned a Thanksgiving reunion in San Diego: thirty plus people, all of whom I was related to, almost all of whom I hadn't seen in twenty years, in one room. For the love of god, just stake me to an anthill now and get it over with, man.
There is baseball in November, it turns out, in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela -- until the league was forced to shut down in the wake of the slow motion, U.S.-sponsored coup that's taking place down there right now -- and the Dominican Republic. The winter league in Mexico has a franchise two hours east of San Diego, and as luck would have it, they were playing at home the night before Thanksgiving.
Which is how I found myself this past Nov. 27 walking through a brutal concrete, steel bars and barbed wire border crossing, one that makes Stalinist minimalism look positively baroque. I was going from the tiny, U.S. border town of Calexico into the large, troubled Mexican industrial town of Mexicali.
After what should have been a short taxi ride -- the driver didn't know where the ballpark was and led me on a merry chase through the streets of Mexicali, and then tried to rip me off by charging me 200 pesos, or about $20 -- I arrived at Nido de las Aguilas, the home of Los Aguilas de Mexicali. (The Mexicali Eagles.)
The Mexican Pacific League occupies an odd sort of strata in baseball; the level of competition is somewhere in the AAA range, with Americans rehabbing or at either end of their major league careers joining players who play in the excellent regular season Mexican League. It's the minor leagues, but with older, smarter, more experienced players in general. It's what I imagine the old Pacific Coast League was like.
It's old-time in another way, too: a game in Mexicali is a refreshingly casual experience. A seat over the dugout costs eighty pesos, about eight dollars. Before the game, players can be found eating their concession stand dinners on picnic tables at the entrance to the stadium. The players talk to fans in the stands during the game. Besides the normal array of packaged food, people roam the stands offering homemade items. The batboy and infield practice shagger for Culiacan was a midget with soft hands and a good glove. A woman in the front office, Irma Bernal, couldn't have been any nicer when she heard about a visiting American journalist. League record books, rosters, statistics, etc., all instantly and graciously provided, offers of interviews with the Mexicali manager I cared to chat with, whatever I wanted.
Inside the stadium, I could have been in Modesto or Akron or Everett or any one of the dozens of minor league baseball parks all across the United States. The ballpark even had Diamond Vision -- which unaccountably played that night's "The West Wing" before the game -- and every once in awhile I'd get absorbed in the game and forget that I was in another country. A strikeout and a pop-up and a line-up card exchange are the same no matter where you are.
There were some things that looked and sounded odd to my eyes and ears, of course. The PA was in Spanish, a language I don't understand, so the announcements consisted of a long strand of gibberish punctuated by the occasional recognizable name, like Rick Short, an outfielder for Mexicali. (The Mexicali announcer did far better with the American names, by the way, than American announcers do with Latino names.)
And it turns out that there is no way to translate "shortstop" into Spanish, so they don't. They just render it "shortstop" in the same way an American would. It's very funny in context.
My favorite reminder that I was someplace different was the first baseman for Los Aguilas de Mexicali, a native Southern Californian named Charles Smith. Now, Smith is big. Really, really big. 6'2", 225 as of the start of this past season, CNN/SI says. When you look at him, you can tell he's a few combination plates past that weight now. He's black and so thoroughly intimidating that it's almost second nature to him. When you put a bat in his hand, forget about it. Almost inevitably, he's acquired the nickname "Bubba."
Mexicali fans at Nido de los Aguilas, it turns out, like to chant, and the thing they most like to chant is the nickname of Smith, who leads the league in RBI. But you don't get a lot of "Bubbas" in Mexico. The fans have trouble with the "uh" and instead render it as "Boo-ba," which gives it a much lighter, happier air. Every time they do, Smith grins, then waves his bat a little more fiercely, steels himself a little more intensely, maybe swings a little harder as he faces the junkballers that Los Tomateros de Culiacan threw at him that night.
If you know baseball, you know what comes from that kind of hitting approach: after a fifth inning home run that ignited the "Boo-ba" chants and got Mexicali back in a game they trailed almost from the first moment, Smith led off the seventh and the ninth of a one-run game with critical outs. It's the kind of thing that the Texas Rangers and Portland Sea Dogs probably had in mind when they released the 31-year-old Smith this year.
Smith wasn't the only familiar face trying to find his way in winter ball.
Rehabbing Oakland A's first baseman and Mexican native Mario Valdez hit a first inning grand slam for Culiacan and a solo shot in the fourth. (With the Oakland acquisition of Erubial Durazo, probably the best native Mexican hitter currently playing, Valdez will be looking for a job.)
The right-fielder for Los Tomateros was Hard Hittin' Mark Whiten, who hit four home runs in a game once for the St. Louis Cardinals. Whiten, typically, popped out three times and struck out once. Where once he looked confused and hurt when someone would throw him a breaking ball, maturity now allows him to accept their cruelty with existential resignation. Former Minnesota Twins outfielder Brian Banks hit in the three hole for Culiacan, and Darryl Brinkley, 33 years old, four years in AAA (and in fact an all-star this year for the Rochester Red Wings), twelve years in the minors without a single major league game to his credit, scratched out an infield single for Los Aguilas. Brinkley is a veteran of professional baseball in Korea, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Holland, Italy, and Canada, as well as the U.S. and Mexico.
The game itself was crisply played and taut, albeit agonizingly reminiscent of the A's-Yankees playoff games in 2000 and 2001. Culiacan put up five runs in the first, then managed only two hits the rest of the way. Mexicali, meanwhile, went three for thirteen with runners in scoring position and stranded eleven men, including six in scoring position. Los Aguilas lost 6-5.
After the game, I took a cab back to the border -- 40 pesos this time, about 4 dollars -- and walked across past a bored guard who lost interest and waved me through after I said I wasn't a scout. I spent the night in a little Calexico hotel -- $35 a night, but clean and dark and with souvenir matches -- without thinking about the impending reunion. From my point of view, the game was a worthy successor to the Dead singing, come to think of it, "Mexicali Blues" at the first of those Dec. 26 shows that I ever saw back in 1982.
One thing was different though. Far be it from me to suggest that I've gotten any older or any wiser, but seeing all that family turned out to be a delight. Best Thanksgiving in years. Maybe Christmas will be good too.
©2002 by Jeff Beresford-Howe