The batting cage is baseball's Rialto. There that rowdy, fooling, profane company—the big leaguers-greet each other, heroic children at the sandbox. Not long ago, behind the cage in Sarasota, where old men murmur like old grass in the stands, Luis Aparicio met Yogi Berra. Aparicio plays shortstop for the Chicago White Sox with major grace, passion and invention and a little hot dog; Berra is the senior catcher from New York.
"Hello, Shorty," said Luis; nifty, crafty, canny little face.
"Shorty?" said Yogi with elaborate regret. "I'm taller than you."
"Yogi used to call me Shorty," Luis said later. "Now I find out I'm a little taller than he, I call him Shorty."
May 8, 1960
Luis Ernesto Aparicio Jr., born in the hot oil city of Maracaibo, Venezuela 26 years ago, is growing up, but time hasn't bruised or winded him. "He doesn't act like a man with two children," says his father. "It seems that he has gotten more playful now that he's older."
"I'm a happy person, I guess," says Luis. "I get along with people. I think I'm lucky. I'm a nice guy? Everybody a nice guy."
Someone has said that happy people have no history. "I will tell you my life," says Luis Aparicio. "It won't take long. There isn't much to tell. I wanted to be a hero like my father. Everybody like him, and I wanted to be the same way. My father was a shortstop for 25 year. He was smaller than me [Luis is 5 foot 7 or 8]. He's a small guy, Luis my father, 140, 145 pounds."
"I almost never saw him," says his father. "I was always playing ball somewhere. The first time I saw him he was 8 months old."
"When we first came to Caracas," says Luis' Aunt Isabel, with whom he lived for several years, "I would make pepitas de leche [a sugar and milk candy rolled into a small ball with a toothpick handle] to earn a little money, and I would send Luisito, who was then about 5 years old, to sell them in the street. But often he would set the plate down and start playing and the other boys would eat the candy. Sometimes when he discovered them he would join them in eating the candy. One day he said, 'I'm not going to sell that any more.' I asked him why and he said, 'Because I am the son of Luis el grande.' I teased him, saying, 'What's so grande about your father?' 'He may not be big,' Luisito said, 'but at least he's decent.' "
"Luisito has always had a lot of respect for his father," his mother says. "At one time, while studying in Caracas, he decided to become a jockey. He would sneak off every morning to the hippodrome in El Paraíso and ride the horses. His aunt found out and told his father. His father wrote him and told him to forget it. He immediately stopped it."
"My father used to take me to the ball park," Luis says proudly. "All the time my father teach me how to pick up the ball."
Today Aparicio, who weighs 154 pounds including his chewing tobacco, and who was once called a torpedero of a ballplayer—a dud, one who torpedoes everything—picks up the ball so well he is, after only two seasons on the farms and four with the Sox, the best shortstop in baseball. And although he now has 40 suits with his initials sewed in the lining and 20 pairs of shoes, he still wears a 6½ cap.
"At shortstop," says White Sox Manager Al Lopez, "you must pick up the ball clean or you don't throw the man out. It is the most important position. First, second, third, you can knock the ball down. At third you don't need good hands. At second you don't need good hands or a good arm. At first all you need is to be able to catch the ball. Shortstop requires the most ability: catching, arm, hands, experience. Luis has great hands, great arm, great speed. He covers ground from all the angles, positions. I've seen some great shortstops, but he does everything as well. I think he could play the outfield. He could play any position except catch. The reason he doesn't hit more [Aparicio has hit .266, .257, .266, .257 with Chicago]: strength. If he could hit .300 he'd steal 100 bases [Aparicio stole 56 bases last year, twice as many as anyone else]. If he was a left-handed hitter he'd be better. They can play him shallow."
"Are you kidding?" says Luis. "I can't hit the right side, how could I hit the left? Forget it. What makes a good hitter? I can't tell you because I'm a———hitter. Even in the dream, I can't hit home runs.
"I think I dream about baseball almost every night," Luis says. "You can't get that baseball out of your mind. I try to, but I can't. I dream I make a real bad job. You always wake up in the best part, the worst part. You know, in dreams, you make an error, you wake up."
"I dream about children," says Sonia Aparicio, Luis' wife. "Baseball is his life. I don't think Luis could be without baseball. After he does bad he doesn't talk. He's serious. I let him be until he starts talking. He talks about that error over and over again. He shouldn't have made it, he says. I tell him he has learned something now. When he does well he feels proud. After he hits a home run [he hit six last year] he comes home and says, 'What do you think of your husband?' You know he is proud."
Aparicio is too devoted to his game ("It's my job," he says fiercely. "After breakfast I go to work") to joke about it as some of his teammates do. "What is my favorite position?" asks a utility infielder. "My favorite position is sitting in a boat with a fishing pole in my hand." But Luis makes one important concession. "My goal in baseball," he says, "is making more money."
Besides earning an estimated $37,000 from the Sox, Aparicio is a part owner, with his father and two friends, of a ball club in Maracaibo for which he plays in the winter. "I have no job with the club," he says. "I just look for ballplayers. I talk to them. 'Do you want to play ball for the Rapi√±os?' I say. I can't talk salary. I'm too young to be manager. I just want to be in the ball park. I don't know if I'm smart enough to be manager."
But when the Sox play a pickup game, Luis jumps up and down, insisting, "I'm the manager. I'm the manager. You'll have to run if you want to play for me. You'll have to wake up." It has been said that a colorful ballplayer is an illiterate who shouts. Luis Aparicio shouts but he is not illiterate. "I read funny books," he says unabashedly. "He watches westerns," says Sonia Aparicio with an embarrassed laugh. But he also knows shorthand and typing from a commercial course he took before he abandoned his studies.
Luis leads the Sox out of the dugout with a holler, being careful to step on first base on the way to short. "I don't know why," he says. He always touches first or third each time he enters or leaves the field, except when the game is over.
Crouched at short, so small and neat and dark he looks like a little boy who has run out on the field to get an autograph, Luis whistles shrilly, but somehow forlornly, through his teeth and cries out across the slope of the infield, "Ba-bee, Ba-bee." "I whistle, talk it up," he says. "If you're quiet it looks like you give up already."
Aparicio has never given up. "Like every kid," says Chico Carrasquel, who is from Caracas and played short for Chicago before Luis came up, "Luis was skinny. When he was 9, he was playing shortstop in practice. 'Be careful,' they say, 'you get hit, Luisito.' He wasn't afraid. He catch all the balls. He got the a-bil-it-y. He learn how to play ball. When he first came here he just play natural. But he learn. In 1955 he was playing real good in spring training. Then they send him to Memphis. At the train station I saw he didn't feel too good, he feel bad. 'Don't worry,' I told him. 'You're young. Maybe in two more year you be in the train going to Chicago.' 'Chico,' he say, 'do you think I make it this year?' 'Luis,' I tell him, I will tell you the truth. If they trade me you get the job.' Next year they trade me."
"Chico was my hero," says Aparicio. "It's a strange thing. He's a real good friend of mine. He's a real good friend of my father. You know, in the old days I say to myself all the time: 'I'm going to try to be my best to be a big league ballplayer.' But when you're here you have to fight to stay here. I don't think I worry too much because I want to be a good ballplayer, but you never know. Tomorrow they may trade you ["For an entire ball club," says Sox President Bill Veeck, "of course we'd say yes"]. You got to expect anything. A good year, a bad year. One year don't mean something. You have to be lucky. That's baseball. I was lucky to be in the World Series after only four year. Some guys don't get there after 10 year. I was excited last year. You see your ball club in the World Series; everyone cheer for you in the home town; they like you."
FORGET ABOUT BULLFIGHTING
"I've played since I was so young. I was bat boy. I played almost every sport but I like the baseball the best. Bullfighting? It's exciting when you see something like that. It's a real dangerous job, believe me. Me, a bullfighter? Forget it. I remember the date when I turn pro: November 18, 1953 with the Maracaibo Gavilanes. My father was playing shortstop, and after he get the first ball they stop the game and I go out and he give me his glove and I play shortstop."
"His father was the best shortstop ever play in Venezuela," says Carrasquel. "He is like Luis, always laughing, making jokes. He could have played real easy in the big leagues. But it was a different time. Sometimes we read in the paper about Marion, DiMaggio, but no one have any interest in the big leagues. Now it's different, with my uncle Alex Carrasquel [who pitched for the Washington Senators from 1939 to 1945], me and Luis."
"There's my favorite ballplayer," Luis said one day this spring. "Right there. No. 6. Stan Musial. Lou Boudreau, Joe DiMaggio, I read a lot about those guys because I'm interested in baseball. First day I talk to Ted Williams he talk to me, too. He's real nice."
Which is what they say about Luis. "He's delightful," says Veeck. And he's a delight to watch, particularly when he dangles off first base like a Yo-yo, a Yo-yo that may spin out to second base on any pitch. Luis likes to steal bases, but it is not an obsession. "Almost every right-handed pitcher," he says about stealing, "I watch the left shoulder, 95%. I've got the best jump. I got a real good quickest start. Help me 75%. I think I have the real good reflex. I'm not very fast. But when I decide to go, I just go. If I don't get a good jump, I come right back. I try to steal relax, real loose, relax, loose. I don't say to myself, I'm going to steal, but they give me a chance, I go, I go, I go.
"But you can't steal every time. And when you're four or five runs behind or ahead you don't have to steal. Every time I get on base over there [in the Caribbean] they want me to steal like they want Mickey Mantle to hit the home run. 'Vete, vete,' they say, but sometimes you just can't go."
There is, of course, more to stealing than watching the left shoulder. Carrasquel, for instance, says that Luis watches the pitcher's hands when he holds them against his chest, watches to see how many times he looks at first. Luis won't tell exactly what he does, not that he's afraid of giving his secrets away ("I don't know how to teach somebody to steal," he admits) but because he doesn't want to criticize the pitchers; for a happy guy, he has a sudden dignity. He will not speak badly of another ballplayer.
"He's very gentlemanly," Sonia Aparicio says. "That's what I first liked about him. He's very gentle. In a way, he's like shy. The first time he met me he bought me an orchid." Aparicio met Sonia, who is Sox Outfielder Jim Rivera's cousin, on his second trip to New York, in 1956. She was 16 then and lived four blocks from Yankee Stadium. (In Maracaibo, the Aparicios live six blocks from the ball park. In Chicago they live in a residential hotel.) "He wrote everyday," Sonia recalls. "He called me quite often, too. He wrote to my father in Puerto Rico. My father wrote to my mother and said she should decide. My mother liked him right away. You can tell right away by his looks. In four months we were married."
The Aparicios have two children—Luis, 3, and Sonia, 2. "I throw the ball to Luis," Aparicio says. "If he wants to be a ballplayer, it's all right with me. If he wants to be anything else, that's O.K., too. He throw with the right hand; he going to hit with the left hand. He don't like to glove too much. He like to throw and hit. I always went for the fielding."
"Luis is strict in his ways," says Sonia, "but sometimes he spoils the children. If he goes out with them to a store, anything they want, he buys it for them."
"The only candy they eat," says Luis firmly, "is lollipops. They eat so much there is no room for candy. They fight, too."
THE LITTLE FISHERMAN
"When he goes away," Sonia says, "he always brings back something for the children and me. No matter how small or how little, he always brings something. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel he's always thinking of me."
Apart from baseball and getting under his Cadillac ("If I didn't play baseball, I think I like to be a mechanic," Luis says), Aparicio, like many ballplayers, enjoys fishing. "Maracaibo, it's a good fishing town," he says. "Lake Maracaibo, believe me. We catch bargos, lisas, robalos."
There is a groin of yellow limestone which sticks out into the green Gulf at Sarasota. There Luis and Rudy Arias, a Cuban pitcher now with San Diego, fished during spring training. "When I was with Waterloo," Luis says, "Arias was supposed to be my interpreter. Now everything is different. I interpret for him. I couldn't say one word of English when I was with Waterloo. In the restaurant we had to go to the kitchen to order. I had a private teacher to learn English when I go home to Venezuela." Conversely, most of the Sox now speak a little raffish Spanish.
One off day Luis and Rudy walked to the rocks after lunch, carrying plastic buckets of shrimp for bait. ("Fishee," said little Sonia, peering into her father's bucket. "No fishee," Luis told her. "Shrimp. They live, too. They move their feet. Grr.") Luis and Rudy crouched on the rocks, Sox caps shading their faces from the sun, fishing with hand lines. Arias got the first little silver-sided fish.
"Holy mackerel," said Luis. "Go get your brother."
Arias got another little one. "You should be ashamed of yourself," Luis told him.
"Two for two," said Arias. "That's not a bad record." He caught another. "Three for three." Luis was glum, determined. "Four for four," said Rudy mildly.
Finally Luis caught a fish. "Tell your father I need him," he said disgustedly. He caught a bunch of seaweed, like an old rat of red hair. "A vegetable fish," he said with merry eyes.
He cast again and the line fouled on a shirt button. "You good on stealing bases," Rudy told him, shaking his head. "But you——pitcher."
"The———fish are eating with a fork today," said Luis.
At evening the wind built the water up and drove it against the groin, and the catfish moved slowly along the clouded bottom. Luis and Rudy were still hunched, intent, on the darkening rocks, now old, pitted and brown in the late light, bound to the heavy, running Gulf by their transparent lines. Luis whistled thinly a little tune and shook as the wind blew cold. He was waiting, wistfully, for the big ones as he waits for what Nellie Fox calls "the ever-popular hanging curve ball." Like the home runs never hit, and the grounders without handles, these are the chief sadnesses of Luis' life.
"——catfish," said Luis.
"——," said Rudy.
"Luis, Luis, Luis," Sonia Aparicio cried across the dark road.
Sonia brought the children over. "I really learn how to skin the fish," Luis told her. "Big Klu teach me." Porpoises flashed and tumbled, shining beyond the rocks in the final light. "You see, Baby?" Luis crooned to little Sonia. "You see fish? They jump, Baby."
BEER AND KISSES
Later they all went to Rudy's house. "This," said Luis, apologetic, "is what a ballplayer's house looks like in spring training." They sat in a row on the long bamboo couch and cracked out the beer. "Kiss me and I give you a beer," Luis told little Sonia. "Beer, beer," she cried and hopped on her father's lap. "That's the first word in English she learned," Luis said. "Beer, beer," said little Luis and climbed up, too, clutching his red toy airplane. And Luis, for whom life is not yet a tough story but one told in the easy artifice of innings, gave them both a kiss and a sip and held them up in the warm, dusky room, exultant, one at a time.