I shot three lizards this afternoon behind the hotel in Navojoa. They just stood there, tensed, blinking in the Mexican sun. I was surprised to see the red blood, I don't know why. When I was about nine, some kid broke my favorite bat, a black lacquered 29-inch Rocky Colavito model; I was surprised then, too, and in the same way, at the whiteness of the wood exposed by the crack.
Fernando tonight. That thought was a nagging companion all day. It was there between the sights of the Crossman Air Gun, especially when I aimed at the fatter lizards. While my roomie shoots BB's into the hotel room air conditioner that doesn't work, I think: Fernando tonight. Tecate beer cans, most riddled with holes, are next to the bed, nestled in a pile of dirty uniforms. More are on the floor, the desk, the windowsill. No TV. No radio. For two days, we've done almost nothing but sleep, eat and shoot at the room.
My roomie spent most of the morning shaving a bat with a piece of glass. Down here, in winter-league baseball, hitters shave their bats, groove them, cork them—looking for an edge. Pitchers scratch the balls, pine-tar their fingers, Vaseline their pitches—looking for an edge. Now there's quite a pile of shavings on the floor next to his bed. He got four days in the big leagues with Houston after eight years of minor league ball and a year in Vietnam. Now he plays year-round in Mexico. It makes me nervous, his life, especially when he picks up the gun and shoots the air conditioner.
I went to college. I studied Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer; I dozed through biology, endured finite math. Now, 300 miles south of the U.S. border, staring at a ceiling, I think: Fernando tonight. Strange, surreal, wondrous, amusing, to be 27, single, unmonied, professional yet anonymous, and spend the day thinking: Fernando tonight. But, comfortingly, it's another in an ever-diminishing line of chances to emerge from baseball anonymity.
As I begin the ritual of putting on my uniform, I picture a line drive off his shin, a line drive at his head, a home run to right. I picture the screwball, I see the line drive back up the middle, his grimace of pain...I hear the phone ring the next morning; I know what I will say:
"Yes, Curt [No Mr. Gowdy or sir—after all, I've arrived], I hit a low, hanging screwball [modesty, the height of conceit].
"Well, I visited him in the hospital last night [David comforts Goliath], and he seemed to be in good spirits considering the multiple fractures of his leg [I can't resist].
"No, Curt, no time in the big leagues [yet]. No, I'm not bitter."
Forget it. Fernando tonight.
There he is, in centerfield, shagging for batting practice, jacketed, looks like he should skip a few meals. I consider calling out. "Hey Fernando, yeah, you—don't be afraid to mix in a diet salad once in a while." I stretch my legs, do pushups and sit-ups. There's adrenaline already—calm down, back off, not too soon. I glance at him out there again, then again. I force my attention elsewhere, but glance once more. His humanity is reassuring, its proximity bothersome, but his gut, it pleases me. It's his banner of weakness.
Batting and infield practice down here are perfunctory; one isn't trying to get better, only ready. Tonight the ritual seems to go on and on. A band plays a song over and over again up in the bleachers—the lyrics, as best I can discern, consist entirely of the word "Fernando." It's his winter ball debut, and there's a big crowd—10,000?
I sit way back in the dugout during pregame ceremonies, adopting the ridiculous attitude that to be attentive is only to increase his edge. All my teammates on the Mazatlan Venidos are up on the steps. I wish they would move so I could see. The governor of the state of Sonora approaches the plate, beaming at Fernando reverently, resolutely through the boos of his constituents. The man is wearing white shoes and leather jacket. He extends his hand to Fernando while still eight or nine feet away, apparently afraid that the opportunity to shake the hand of the nation's hero will be denied him at the last moment. I feel sorry, embarrassed for the man. All day the poor guy probably was thinking: Fernando tonight.
Valenzuela steps up to the microphone. All I can understand of his speech is "Muchas gracias" which he says a lot. Now a collection of politicians advance, jostling, trying to shake his hand. I see one guy touch him and retreat, content with the contact. The stadium lights go out. The leftfield wall explodes with fireworks and spelled out in the air is BIENYENIDOS FERNANDO. The smoke is carrying toward rightfield. Pull the ball to right, to right.
His first pitch is a fastball. I lean over the plate as it passes; nothing special there. I guess screwball on the next pitch, and I'm right. It will be inside, pull it, pull it! I do, and the first baseman fields it cleanly and steps on the bag. O.K., I'm on him. Next time. I'm on him. It's all right. Next time his first pitch is a fastball and I get under it just a bit. Foul ball behind home. It will go in the stands. The wind, it's bringing it back. The catcher flicks out his glove like a lizard's tongue and the ball disappears. I walk back to the dugout. He's only pitching five innings tonight; I won't have another chance. Wait—I visualize the schedule—yes, we play this team again, we play them again.