Bill Brubaker's story of how the careers of many young Latin baseball players are cruelly foreshortened, which begins on page 62, is one he has been pondering since 1974, for reasons having less to do with baseball than with a concern for the plight of the unemployed in Latin America.
Born in Manhattan in 1951, Brubaker moved to Miami at seven and graduated from that city's Biscayne College with a degree in English. "I worked in radio all through college, announcing sports," he says. "I thought my career would be in radio, but I decided you can't really examine meaningful issues in the amount of time you get on the air." In 1972 Brubaker went to work for the Hollywood (Fla.) Sun-Tatler as a sportswriter and then spent seven years on the sports staff of The Miami News. From 1978 to '80 he was SI's special correspondent in Miami. Last year he returned to Manhattan to write for the New York Daily News.
Brubaker has traveled to some 40 countries, mostly on his own, though he did some sports reporting for The Miami News in Panama, Venezuela, Haiti, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. "I did a story about Orlando Cepeda, who was in prison in Florida at the time," Brubaker recalls. (Cepeda, a former major-leaguer of distinction from Puerto Rico, had been jailed on drug-related charges.) "We got to talking about the young Latins who never made it in baseball, and he mentioned Jorge Lebron, the Puerto Rican shortstop signed by the Phillies in 1974, at the age of 14. Cepeda said that Lebron was out of baseball, back home and not coping well."
When Brubaker began work on his story for SI he made numerous calls to Puerto Rico trying to track down Lebron. "I also called Cepeda and a scout down there and asked them to give my phone number to Lebron if they found him," Brubaker says.
July 12, 1981
After a long week's wait, Lebron did telephone, and he had someone with him who spoke English, a relief to Brubaker, who speaks only "chit-chat" Spanish. They talked with what Brubaker recalls as the somehow reassuring sounds of church bells in the background.
Staff Photographer Manny Millan encountered obstacles of his own in shooting most of the pictures that accompany Brubaker's article. One of the stops he made was in Bradenton, Fla. for photographs of minor-leaguer Jose Rijo, who had been signed by the Yankees at 15. "We also had to work out the logistics of getting photographs of his family in the Dominican Republic," says Millan. While Rijo made the necessary calls, Millan kept him supplied with rolls of quarters for the pay phone—120 quarters in all.
The arrangements Rijo made were, at best, iffy. Drive a few miles out of Santo Domingo, he told Millan, to the plaza in San Cristobal. There, on the church steps, will be Geraldo, who will be wearing a red shirt with the number 81. Geraldo will lead the way from there.
Millan found the church but no number 81. "Then I found a boy wearing a Pirates sweatshirt, and he took me right to the house," he says. It was no small plus through all of this that Millan, though born in Bayonne, N.J., speaks Spanish like a native.
Brubaker also went to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. He found a number of Dominican ballplayers in Sarasota, Fla., made a great many more telephone calls, and seven years after he had conceived the article, we are happy to say he finished it for us.