He rose from his bed and crouched quietly in the moonlight, so as not to awaken the others. He had no need to look at the numbers in his notebook. It was only mid-June, but already they had begun to burn in his brain, a kind of fever. He was coming at the mighty ox, coming astonishingly hard until the past few days, when he cleared the wall just once in five games. But McGwire, my god, was still in front of him by 10.
He whispered it again: I need three tonight. It was too late to pull it back; he had dared to utter it a few hours earlier. A few of them had laughed. "You're dreaming, Sammy," they had said.
He one-handed an invisible bat, remembering all the rituals. He blessed himself. He smacked his left forearm. Refuse the low-and-away breaking ball, he told himself. Throw both your bat and your front foot at the ball. He was sick tonight, sniffling and hacking with the flu, but never before had his concentration seemed so sharp. He wrapped both hands around the stick and sliced the air with it, then stepped to the plate.
He watched the first pitch go by, a half foot outside. Good, he thought. Tonight I have patience. He uncoiled on the next pitch, and, aiieee, how keenly he felt the jolt, how clearly he saw the ball rise into the night, how sharply he heard the crowd roar. He took the sideways hop-step, then circled the bases, kissed his fingers and tapped his chest.
December 21, 1998
When the pounding of his heart slowed, he sagged back onto his bed, curled up and tried again to do the hardest thing. To sleep amid the murderers and rapists inside the prison at San Pedro de Macorís.
"Hey, Sammy Sosa!"
Héctor Peguero sniffled and looked up from his herbal tea the next morning. What else would the other prisoners call the man who referred to Sammy as I and mimicked him at the plate so passionately, so often? "You hit three last night, Sammy!"
What? He looked at the man: Could this information be trusted? Here came Morillo—a lieutenant at the military prison, an old friend who was now one of Héctor's jailers—grinning in his camouflage uniform. "Did you hear?" he cried. "Your son hit three last night!"
Héctor's eyes popped. It had worked, he had connected—he had crossed the walls and seas and miles between him and the boy he had taught to play baseball; he had delivered Sammy three! He jumped from his chair, wrapped Morillo in a hug and cried, "My child! My pupil! My child!"
He swallowed his tea and hurried toward the door, calling out, "I hit three! I hit three!" Outside, he hooked his plastic chair over his arm, used the holes in the cinder blocks for footholds and scrambled onto the roof of his two-story barracks inside the fort that also served as a prison. From here he could see his entire life: The abandoned hospital seven blocks away where Sammy used to live, right across the street from the house where Héctor lived 16 years ago, when he took Sammy under his wing. The ball field immediately outside the prison's south wall, where Héctor spent four, five, sometimes six hours a day instructing Sammy. And the house Héctor and his family rented now, hard by the prison's west wall, a little hovel of turquoise-painted palm wood that let sunlight through its walls and rain through its roof.
He whistled in that direction and waited for his 12-year-old daughter, Dancing, to climb a tree onto the neighbor's roof. He held out both hands, like a man reading a newspaper; she caught the signal and scrambled down. Then he waited for el pasador, the passer—a bald prisoner who had slit open an evangelist and stuffed the man's Bible inside him—to appear on the tall, ancient tricycle that he used to ferry food and gifts from the prison gates to the inmates. Perhaps today the passer would bring a letter from Sammy, a reply to the one Héctor had written begging for help.
No. It was just the newspaper, but today that was enough. Héctor scurried back to his barracks to devour it alone. Beneath the glassless window that poured both light and rain upon his bedding, he studied page after page devoted to Sammy's feat. The first jonrón had traveled to right, the second to left, the third to left center—every field, just as Héctor had taught him!—and ay, dios mío, each one of them more than 400 feet! When he had read each story twice, he carefully tore out the photographs, mixed flour and water and pasted the pictures on the scarred green wall above his bedding. Then he opened his notebook and recorded the particulars—the date, the opposing pitchers, the pitches and the stadium—of Sammy's 22nd, 23rd and 24th home runs of 1998.
How could Héctor explain to someone who had never been in such a place what these home runs meant to him? For one day, at least, he could go to the toilet—a five-foot-wide concrete hole dropping into a stinking 30-foot pit that serviced the 40 men in his barracks—and cocoon himself in reveries of something heroic, something magnificent, something he had helped sculpt. A cocoon so airtight that the violent odors barely penetrated it—nor, for once, did the memory of the prisoner who, in his attempt to clean the pit with a rope and bucket a few months earlier, touched an exposed wire that stuck to him like a scalding leech and nearly killed him. For a day, at least, Héctor could lie on his thin cushion—on a concrete floor that collected the oozings and bandages of men with chronic wounds—without the urge to howl or to weep. For a day he could mingle in the yard with the 435 prisoners who spilled out of the 10 barracks between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day, revel in the tide of Sammy happiness swelling through the jail as the news began to. . . .
No! He could not do that. There was too much rage bottled here, too many inhabitants fond of lifting their shirts, the way a wolf lifts its upper lip to flash its teeth, and revealing daggers as long as a man's forearm. Besides, some prisoners still scoffed at the notion that Héctor was the man who had transformed Sammy from a 13 1/2-year-old shoeshine boy who had never played organized baseball into a major league prospect. Neither Héctor's age, 37, nor his thin chest, long arms and skinny legs carried the authority of mentor, of manager, of master. His blood would boil when he saw the doubt cloud people's eyes, but this was no place for overwarm blood. Just three weeks earlier an inmate had decided to solve an argument with a pot of boiling water, missed his target and scalded the stomach of a sleeping prisoner, who awoke screaming, produced a knife and stabbed the perpetrator—who in turn threw a rock at the burned man's skull.
Héctor returned to his rooftop perch and stared as infield drills began on the ball field just outside the wall, likely the only prisoner in the world sentenced to sit and watch someone else perform his job. From there he couldn't quite see the dugouts that Sammy had helped him build, or home plate, or the left side of the infield. But the rest of the field upon which Héctor had spent all day, every day, for most of the last 20 years stretched out before him. It had been going to seed in the nine months since his nightmare began, grass tickling boys' knees in the outfield, for who besides Héctor would stand beneath the merciless Dominican sun, hacking endlessly with machete and scythe?
Suddenly a foul sailed along the rightfield line and floated over the wall into the prison. As Héctor's eyes followed the ball, his mind floated with it . . . and he was back there, on a summer day 16 years gone, staring from the mound with his hands on his hips, exasperated by all the foul balls that his newest student kept slicing into the prison. Such large hands this new kid had, such a fine rack of shoulders for a boy so thin, such a god-gifted arm and bat speed. And such hunger, such wolfish hunger to prove he could excel at a game he had played only on the street with a glove made from a milk carton, a ball made from wadded rags and a stick that he clutched cross-handed. God almighty, was Sammy Sosa raw.
La universidad del beisbol was the only place to send the boy. That's what Luis, the oldest of the six Sosa children, called Héctor after three years of playing on his teams: the university of baseball. In his heart Luis carried the ashes of his own pro dream and the memory of a dead father who loved the game. At least one Sosa, Luis believed, must carry the torch in a town of 125,000 that had produced more major leaguers per capita than any city on earth. He made a promise to Héctor, who had become his friend: "I will work my fruit stand full time so Mayki doesn't have to shine shoes and wash cars all day." (For no good reason, Mayki was the Sosas' pet name for Sammy, the closest they could come to pronouncing Mike.) "You teach him to play ball." He pointed to a kid with a big smile who yearned to master Héctor's game but couldn't afford to pay for it. An eighth-grade dropout working to help support his family after his father died of a stroke, who at that moment was whirling around the yard outside the abandoned hospital wearing a couple of socks stuffed with rags for boxing gloves and throwing some of the wildest haymakers Héctor had ever seen. Energy, he noted, would not be an obstacle—but channeling it might.
There stood Héctor on the mound in those ragged yellow sweatpants with the red stripe, that crumbling straw hat shading his ebony face, the old tennis shoes and the dirty T-shirt he forgot to change, or just couldn't afford to on an income of $30 a week—El Sucio, kids called him behind his back: the Dirty One. Héctor, hiding the fatigue of managing 11 teams in the league he had founded, the fatigue of knocking on doors to scrape up money for uniforms and equipment, of teaching the game for four hours each morning and four more each afternoon to more than 100 children, half of whom sometimes paid him the weekly instruction fee of about 67 cents.
There stood Sammy, digging in at the plate in his blue-jean cutoff shorts and an old Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt, with that tattered cloth around his left wrist that he imagined was a sweatband and those gashed Campeon sneakers, reeking of ancient sweat. Gago, kids called him, because of his speech problem: Stutterer. But they ran when they did so because they knew he and his fists were on their way.
Héctor rocking back into that easy motion—he was only a few years removed from pitching and playing shortstop on the Dominican Republic's national junior team—and launching the grimy ball once more. Sammy going to pieces in his eagerness to hit the ball, just as he did when he tried to pronounce a four-syllable word. Sammy's head flying up so often that Héctor would order someone else to pitch, stand beside the boy and hold his skull in place as he swung. Sammy's front foot jumping forward so prematurely that Héctor would slip a noose around the kid's front ankle and pull the other end of the rope to rein him in. Sammy's back foot stepping into the bucket so insistently that Héctor would place a ball behind the foot, then a fungo bat and finally, in frustration, a broken beer bottle.
Sometimes Sammy scowled. Sometimes Sammy seethed. But not once, in all his years with Héctor, did he walk away. Day by day, the Dirty One tamed the Stutterer, and the Stutterer stole the Dirty One's heart. When the field was too wet even for them, they walked home through the puddles, the 21-year-old man whose mother had died days after she gave birth to him, whose father had never lived with him and rarely saw him, next to the teenage boy whose own dad was dead and whose mother spent all day on the street selling food. Ping. Ping. Ping. That was the sound the hard corn made ricocheting off the walls of the Sosas' cramped apartment on rainy days as Héctor pitched to Mayki, kernel after kernel. Clack. Clack. Clack. Those were the bottle caps—look out!—Héctor threw when Mayki needed work on handling the curve. "Everything Héctor did took me to another level," Sammy would say years later. "He killed me . . . kind of like a father."
Héctor rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, blinked and found himself in prison, 4 p.m. lockup drawing near. He descended from the roof, entered his barracks and walked upstairs. From nails high on the wall he removed the plastic bag that contained his log of Sammy's home runs and the rolled-up rectangle of foam on which he slept. He snaked his arm out the window, reached up to his secret ledge and felt the two chunks of concrete: his weapons. He sat on his cushion, lit a cigarette and waited for the night.
Came home runs 25, 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30, in a torrent over the next six days. A miracle was occurring: Suddenly Héctor's protégé was engaging Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark McGwire in a home run race at a record-setting pace! Through the window Héctor could hear people spilling into the streets, chanting, ¡Sammy, querido! ¡El pueblo esta contigo! Sammy, loved one! The people are with you! Héctor and the inmates caught the verse and tried it on for size. It tasted strange, joy did, coming off Héctor's lips. Like sugar. Like acid. Then, once more, his heart filled with his howl, his head hammered with the wild jumble of proof that he did not belong in this jail.
Sammy Sosa's professor? Could no one see? Just look at his body! These calluses at the base of the ring finger and pinkie on each of his hands, forged by an infinity of fungoes and grounders—they meant nothing? This right elbow, which used to throb as dusk fell on another day in which Héctor had hurled a thousand pitches of batting practice and Sammy kept cocking his bat and demanding, "¡Mas!"—couldn't it be introduced as evidence? The notebook, the one in which Héctor had written the names of the 185 players, his players, who had been signed to play professional baseball—mother of god, no other baseball instructor in the world had more than 40, he'd bet on it!
Suddenly he was there again, back on the day, Sept. 23, 1997, when he was led, handcuffed, into the prison. Barefoot, since the guards had just confiscated his sneakers. Holding up his pants, since they had taken his belt. Trembling with fear and disbelief at finding himself inside the military prison off whose walls Sammy used to bounce rubber balls. For god's sake, Walls of the Fort—Paredes de la Fortaleza—was the third line in Héctor's home address!
Oh, yes, he knew the hellhole he was walking into—as well as any outsider could. He knew there was water crawling with parasites in there, lungs loaded with tuberculi, testes teeming with AIDS virus. His knees came undone as he neared the gate. An urge came over him to dig in his heels, drop to his knees, explain to his jailer what the police refused to believe: that a man with these calluses, this right elbow, this crazy love of teaching baseball couldn't have been attached to those 600 milligrams of cocaine that three undercover agents had found wrapped in plastic 10 days earlier at the park bench on which Héctor and two other men were sitting; that he had gone to that neighborhood only to look for Júnior Martínez, one of his former players who, he had heard, was flying to Chicago, and to see if Júnior could get some bats from Sammy; that after he failed to find Júnior, he had sat on a green bench beside two other men he knew only vaguely to wait for a collective taxi, when suddenly he was being handcuffed, accused, sealed away in a holding cell.
Yes, he would admit, he was guilty of knocking down five or six tall Presidentes and rising from his table when the music moved into his hips and bade them to dance the bachata. Yes, he had tomcatted—two of the five children he had fathered during his 13-year relationship with his wife, Elsa, had other mothers. Maybe, as some who knew him say, his roaming at night carried him into a circle of characters whom the police had under surveillance. But cocaina? Héctor? Ask Morillo, the graying, barrel-chested lieutenant who had socialized and played softball with Héctor before the arrest, who had spent 18 years working at the prison surrounded by drug users and knew well their proclivity to lie. He, like many in the barrio, couldn't picture Héctor as anything more sinister than the baseball rat to whom parents took their sons. Ask Sammy's mother or his brother; they insisted on Héctor's innocence. Ask Sammy . . . oh, god, if only Sammy weren't so far away, if only he could materialize here before Héctor had to take that next step, his first step inside.
Click. The guard unlocked the gate in the barbed-wire-topped fence. Click. The guard unlocked the main barracks door, the one through which every convict had to pass to reach, through a series of hallways and stairwells, his own barracks door. Click. The guard unlocked the door to the barracks called Vietnam. Héctor smelled los tigres. That's what the violent ones, the ones with pitiless predator's eyes, were called. The tigers. The door to Vietnam shut and locked behind him.
Héctor blinked. No cells here, nor in any of the buildings. Nothing to separate the small beds, old cots and foam cushions on the concrete floor. No guards. Nothing, when you lay down and closed your eyes, between you and whatever took hold of 40 convicts in the dark.
He looked up. Five men had already surrounded him. They took money. They took his shirt. Five sleepless days later, shaking with fever, Héctor was led to El Salón, a less violent barracks, and told he could sleep there. Morillo was doing what he could to save him.
Seven and a half months would pass before Héctor was brought to trial. The judge conceded that it might have been difficult to determine who possessed the drugs, but narcotics cases brought to trial in the Dominican Republic rarely go the defendant's way. Héctor was sentenced to a year in jail, dating back to his arrest.
Now, as June was coming to a close, three months remained of his sentence. Three months remained of Sammy's season. Together, they could do it. If Sammy could just keep sending baseballs into the clouds, across the land, over the sea and the prison wall, and if Héctor could just keep picturing them, hearing them, dreaming them—if Héctor could just keep being Sammy—he might survive.
Number 32, a 400-foot shot in Detroit, broke a record: Nineteen home runs in a month! Number 33 jacked the new record to 20. A new lust began to grip the prison. The few inmates who possessed radios or portable TVs possessed light in the black hole. They possessed a reason to wake up in the morning and live. They possessed Sammy. They possessed hope.
Héctor? He couldn't dream of having such a plastic box in prison. His family, on the $25 a week Elsa earned working nine hours a day at the pajama factory, was but a half step ahead of starvation. His dilemma grew fierce. Sammy was making history. Sammy was what stood between him and despair. Imagination alone was not enough. Héctor needed to see this drama unfold with his own eyes, to hear it with his own ears, but that meant. . . .
Careful. He had survived this far by committing to a discipline far more rigid than he had ever followed before, by adhering to a strict set of nevers: Never play basketball; an elbow could lead to a knife. Never play baseball, never let them see talent; someone would need to level it. Never exercise after the others have awoken; tigres might take muscle as a challenge. Never dance. Never exit the shower naked or sleep only in your underwear. Never sit on anyone's bed. Never eat prison food or drink prison water. Never ask anyone's real name. Never give anyone anything; he'll come to expect it. Above all, the Golden Never: Never ask anyone for anything, or take anything, even if it is offered. Because then you owe.
How, then? How could he ask to see or hear Sammy's siege of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris without seeming to ask? He agonized, then broke his own rule, lent a blanket to one of the few men in his barracks who owned a radio because, well, maybe, just maybe. . . . A guard pulled Héctor aside. "Don't," he warned. "That one's a tigre, he killed a cop." Héctor backed off.
José, the thick, strong 19-year-old who slept a couple of beds away from Héctor, had a Walkman. But how could more than one man listen to a ball game on a set of headphones? "Héctor," José would chirp now and then, "your child is batting!" Héctor would spring to José's side, begin taking swipes with his invisible lumber, saying over and over, "¡Ahora! ¡Vamos! Now! Let's go! I need one!" Others began to congeal around them, led by Aleman, a tall, thin, light-skinned car mechanic who had become Héctor's closest friend in jail, and Yegua, the quiet man with the popped eyes and the eruptive temper. The moment the earphones came off José's head, the men squabbled over them like children.
The batteries would fade, and who could afford to replace them? The Walkman would fall silent. Aleman and Héctor would end up standing on chairs near the window, trying desperately to hear the radios of the four guards posted around the prison's fence.
Two men in Héctor's barracks owned small TVs. Two businessmen in for smuggling drugs, two cons with the cash to secure the two small walled-off rooms with locks on their doors—the only prayer of keeping a TV set five minutes. One of the men was Miguel, clothed and coiffed like a man who refused to acknowledge his whereabouts. He had paid so handsomely for protection that he'd been stabbed only once. The other man, who lived a floor below, was a thin, serious entrepreneur named Edwin. Because of Sammy's June binge, Dominican television had begun airing more Chicago Cubs games, but given the choice of a ball game or a soap opera, both men chose the soap. ¡Diablos! Héctor would begin pacing the floor a quarter hour before game time, emitting an occasional yelp—"It's time for Sammy!"—hoping against hope that one of the two wealthy men would take pity and invite him in to live and die with Sammy.
When one of them did, Héctor humbled himself, never presumed to sit, never uttered a peep—let alone the shriek rising up his throat—if Miguel or Edwin switched channels in search of melodrama during a commercial break and forgot to switch back. Both men, along with the three or four others they invited to squeeze into their tiny cells, got a kick out of watching Héctor watch Sammy. "Why, Sammy?" they cried when Sammy struck out, heads jerked in unison toward Héctor.
"I shouldn't swing at that outside pitch," Héctor would moan, grimacing. "I shouldn't." But when Sammy homered, it was as if Héctor were having a heart attack.
In the first week of July, during the All-Star break, he nearly did. It was morning, just a few days after the tigres had locked the guards out in order to go on a rampage—a horror averted when Lieut. Felix Perez, the officer in charge of prison security, blasted the lock with his 9 mm handgun and charged in. As Héctor awaited the first of the two meals that Dancing prepared for him each day, he looked across the yard and saw Santo San Martin—an old neighbor of his, often the first man to tell Héctor what his disciple had done the night before—staggering out of his barracks. In his hands were his intestines, tumbling from a gaping knife wound. There it was, in flesh and blood, the very fear that Héctor had been harboring for so long that his body tricked him; he had to look down to be sure. That blade: He had felt it enter and carve his own gut.
Bases loaded. Top of the eighth, 2-2 game, July 27. Sammy Sosa approached the plate in Phoenix, dragging the major league record for career home runs without a grand slam, 247, and ripped at Alan Embree's first pitch.
In the guardhouse Morillo's heart froze at the explosion of noise from the prison—riot, fight? In the barracks, in his bed, through the window, Héctor heard the first cry: "¡La sacó! ¡LA SACÓ! He hit it out! He hit it out! A grand slam!" Héctor bounced to his feet, drumming any surface he could find. When the delirium passed, he calculated: I have 40 home runs and 102 RBIs. And two months left!
Another explosion the next night, another grand slam! The marvelous was turning into the mystical. Héctor's gallery of Sammy photos swelled to two dozen. He instructed Dancing to make certain that his old pictures of Sammy and him were hidden in the battered red suitcase tucked inside the ripped gray suitcase atop his old armoire.
Came August, and came Sammy too, shaking Griffey and closing in on McGwire, whittling McGwire's advantage from three to two to one. Now everyone in the prison, sergeants and sadists and soap-opera buffs alike, shared the contagion. Now the fights that Morillo had to quell were over radios, over bets on which man, Sammy or Ma Miguaya—that was the closest most Dominicans could come to pronouncing Mark McGwire—would hit one out that night. Now Héctor, too, became an arbiter of Sammy spats: When does his contract end, Héctor? How much does he make? Ten and a half million dollars a year? What is that in pesos? How many home runs will he hit? Ma Miguaya is Superman, America's boy—they'll make sure he wins, no?
Careful. Remember the nevers, Héctor reminded himself; too much attention could get a man killed. But how could he resist? He fed statistics, predictions and theories to the men he thought he could trust, just a little, all the while keeping a wary eye out for the ball-busters, prisoners like Loco Maca and George, who cherished each chance to chop down Héctor and Sammy, to insist that Raúl Mondesi was the better all-around Dominican player and George Bell the best ever to rise from the streets of San Pedro de Macorís.
On Aug. 16, Sammy drove an outside pitch into the rightfield seats at the Astrodome and tied Ma Miguaya at 47. Two days later, still deadlocked, the two men squared off in Chicago. One more homer, and Sammy would surpass not only the American giant but also the Latino record of 47 in a season held by Bell and two others. The prison, the city, held its breath.
Sammy fanned three times and went 0 for 5. "Your dead man struck out again," sneered Loco Maca.
Dead man? Héctor clenched his teeth against his rage; he would fight for Sammy, as Sammy once had been prepared to fight for him, racing in from rightfield and grabbing a bat when an opposing manager sucker-punched Héctor. "You want to blame someone for his strikeouts?" Héctor cried to Loco Maca. "Well, then, blame me! I'm the one who would not let him shorten his swing!"
Oh, he could tell them things, stories aching to rush up from the well of memory, stories truer than the yarns being spun on TV and in newspapers by people who scarcely knew Sammy, impostors taking Héctor's rightful place. A flat-footed singles hitter—how many of them knew that Sammy? The kid Héctor told over and over to swing big and swing hard at the risk of striking out, because he was appallingly slow and had no prayer as a spray hitter. The kid Héctor ran behind, knocking on his head with his knuckles, then overtaking him and crying, "Look at this old man running faster than you!" The kid whom Héctor worked so hard that one evening when they entered a cheap restaurant, the son of the proprietor sniffed at Sammy and declared, "You smell too bad to come in here." If only Héctor still had a voice, if only he still existed, he would tell the world what Sammy said: "That bad smell will be worth a lot of money one day." And how Sammy sat beside him and swallowed back a sob.
See, hardly anyone understood why Sammy talked so big back then and walked so macho and, when the money finally began to come, put so much gel in his hair and so much jewelry on his wrists and neck. Almost no one but Héctor knew just how much Mayki had to overcome, for how much he was compensating: the stuttering the other boys loved to mimic, the way words on a page could elude his grasp. No one knew how it felt in the belly as Sammy waited for his mother to come home from work at dusk with enough money for the day's first meal, how it felt in the heart on that Mother's Day when the only gift Sammy could offer her was one Monte Carlo cigarette. See, that's why Sammy, when Pedro Guerrero or George Bell flashed by in his shiny car after an All-Star or MVP season, had the nerve to tell people, "One day I'll be better than him. I'll have more than him because I'll be much better." Just a boy trying to convince himself!
The other Sosa children, who gathered around the table spewing gibberish, acting as if they were dining on lobster at a fancy restaurant and speaking sophisticated English, were pretending—but not Sammy. "You watch," he vowed when they teased him. "It is going to happen." The other players giggled when Héctor gathered them and said, "One day one of you will make the big leagues, buy a car and drive me to the United States"—but not Sammy. Of Héctor's 185 players who signed, only three others (former Phillies outfielder Manny Martinez, former Phillies pitcher Bienvenido Rivera and former Atlanta Braves infielder Victor Rosario) made it, but only briefly. So don't ask why Héctor's eyes misted when Sammy, at 15, crushed a ball so far that it sailed out of the field named after former National League batting champ Rico Carty and through a window in an apartment building. Don't wonder why Héctor's fists still balled up 15 years later when someone slung darts at his boy.
Well, then, where's your boy now when you need him? Why has he left you here? Héctor gulped for air, like a fish on the sidewalk. This was all an inmate had to ask: the question that was embedded, like a hook, in Héctor's chest. His mind drifted back to the last time he had seen Sammy, just before spring training of 1997, just as Sammy was about to take batting practice at the local university. He asked his old pupil if there was anything, anything at all he could do to help prepare him. "No," Sammy said. "You've done your job, Héctor. There's nothing left to do." Héctor had wandered to the outfield, feeling lost, just another extra shagging Sammy's drives.
Discard Héctor? Is that what Sammy had done? Impossible! Not the boy who used to massage his mother's feet when she came home from work, the compulsive brother's keeper, the sufferer's easy mark. Giver of the big house to his mom, the cars to all his siblings, the boutique to his sisters, the computers to schoolchildren, the meals to shoeshine boys, the fifties to the homeless, the $100,000 worth of pesos that he tossed to the people of his hometown like leaves in 1993. Only a year before that, when the father of a player accused Héctor of "kissing Sammy's ass" after he threw his star student more batting-practice pitches than he threw to others, hadn't Sammy pulled Héctor aside, vowed to get him a visa and fly him to the U.S.? Hadn't Sammy given Héctor the most wonderful day of his life, the one at Shea Stadium during which Sammy brought him onto the field to watch batting practice and then into the clubhouse to be introduced to the other Cubs with words that brought tears to his eyes? "This is Héctor Peguero," Sammy said. "The man who taught me to play baseball." That very night, hadn't Luis Sosa told Héctor at the ballpark that Sammy was going to take care of him in a big way one day?
So where was Sammy now? Not a call, not a letter, not a trace. One word to Sammy's new pal Leonel Fernández, the Dominican president, who was ringing up Sammy after almost every home run, and wouldn't Héctor be sprung from this sewer before the next rat scuttled by? Someone in Sammy's circle must have turned on Héctor, soured Sammy, made him ashamed of his mentor—that was all Héctor could surmise. Yes, it was true, in recent years Sammy had urged Héctor to be more dedicated to his family, to stay home more at night, to provide a better example for his children. Yes, it was true, Héctor hadn't lived up to that, but did it mean he deserved to live with a knife at his neck for a year?
Finally, Héctor would exhaust himself with such thoughts. Finally, sleep would come . . . and so would Sammy. In the dream that kept returning, Sammy would enter the prison and hug Héctor. "I'm here," he would say. "I'm here to get you out." The dream always woke Héctor and wouldn't let him back to sleep. Friends aren't those who make you smile, he would think as dawn washed in. They're those who make you cry.
One month now. One month to chase down the most magnificent record in American sports. One month to walk out that prison gate, free.
Every detail, every day now: The sound of Sammy's grunts as he pumped weights five hours before that game at Shea Stadium, the taste of the fruit juice to wash away the thirst, the smell of the clean T-shirt replacing the sweaty one after batting practice. Every moment of Sammy's pregame ritual was lived and relived inside Héctor's head, his attempt to prepare Sammy for that day's assault on the record, to obliterate time, to crush boredom, to wall off the fear—which welled deeper as Héctor's release drew nearer—that something terrible was going to happen.
One month. Sammy, 55. Ma Miguaya, 55. Concentrate. Ignore the prisoners who had begun grousing to Morillo, "This guy created Sammy. Let him out." Ignore the convicts cawing to Héctor, "Don't forget me when you get out! All I need from Sammy is a pair of Nikes!" Show nothing upon hearing what McGwire just did, no matter what it did to your stomach. Get your rest. Bless yourself. Hit to all fields. You're not here. You're there.
Number 56! The guards got new orders. They banished Héctor from the second-story roof, forced him down with the others. Number 57! No, it couldn't be just his imagination. He felt safer in the yard than before. In a funny way, Sammy was protecting Héctor. Protecting him with his bat, because all everybody wanted to do was talk about Sammy, and Héctor was the closest thing to Sammy that the prisoners had. Number 58! The surges of joy: He's gonna do it! Number 59! Then the crushing pain: Without me . . . without me. . . . Number 60! Number 60! Number 60!
Sept. 13: A Sunday afternoon. Visiting day. One more to pass the Babe, two more to pass Roger. What could Héctor do? He couldn't leave his family's side to check on Sammy's game, not after that Sunday a few months earlier when a knife fight started and Lieutenant Pérez thundered in and fired a bullet that blew a hunk of plaster out of the ceiling, which in turn fell on a visitor clutching a baby.
Miguel popped out of his room with the news, a bulletin interrupting his soap opera: Sammy hit two! Tied McGwire at 62! From outside the prison came the clatter of pots and pans, the honk of horns, the rattle-clang-crash of bicycles towing strings of cans. Inside the prison walls, music blared, inmates danced till 2 a.m., but not Héctor. He just kept hooting, "I told you I'd do it! Remember, I promised this!"
But he couldn't relax. Because the next day Sammy struck out four times, and Héctor had to get him back on track. And the day after, another prisoner got knifed and died. And a week after that, the breeze began to blow through the glassless window, and before Héctor knew it, he and the others were hunkered against the wall, soaked and shivering, with the wind coming at them louder than a 747 and a soldier standing over them with an assault rifle so no one would make a run for it and Elsa trembling in the prison guardhouse because she was terrified that Hurricane Georges would splinter her tiny palm-wood house. There went the Sammy photographs and the notebook, shredded and flying out the barracks window. Through it all, Héctor was figuring how many games Sammy had left (five) and how long it would take to find out whether Sammy had hit number 64 if there was no country left outside the window when the 747 pulled away.
Somehow, because God is great and Miguel was rich enough to own a backup battery in his room, less than 24 hours later Héctor was watching Sammy hit a 330-foot shot to right and a 410-foot bolt to center, numbers 64 and 65! Then, two days later—curse those soap operas!—missing number 66, the home run that put Sammy ahead of Ma Miguaya for 45 minutes and set the prison on its ear.
And suddenly it was over. Gago was a god, the second-greatest single-season home run hitter in history. El Sucio was blinking in the sunlight, hugging his children, free. Roofless and penniless and waiting, just like half his country. Waiting for Sammy Sosa to drop out of the sky.
The underwear hailed from the Dominican Republic, but everything else that Héctor Peguero selected from his thin wardrobe on that gray October morning had been bought in the U.S., rarely worn, the best he could afford during his stay in New York. In an old mirror, he studied his long-sleeve shirt, beige sport coat, blue jeans and black clip-on tie. From the suitcase hidden inside the suitcase he removed a small photo of himself and Sammy on that magical day at Shea, and he tucked it inside his sport coat, over his heart.
He stepped outside, under a low, leaden sky. The president had declared a National Day of Joy and commissioned buses to carry anyone who wished to go to the airport in Santo Domingo and welcome Sammy Sosa home. For Héctor, it was the day of reckoning. The day when he would learn if he would go on bumming 20 pesos here and there to survive, and teaching kids baseball all day for next to nothing. The day he would discover if everything between Sammy and him was broken, his future no different from that of all the poor souls massing along the airport highway just to watch Sammy Sosa ride by.
The Chicago Tribune's private plane dipped beneath the clouds, landed and halted beneath the eyes of a squad of sharpshooters on the airport roof. Héctor squeezed past shoulders, worked his way onto the tarmac. On the other side of the building, tens of thousands screamed and chanted and pounded on drums. The door of the Falcon 2000 opened. Sammy emerged in a brown-gray suit, white shirt, yellow tie and yellow-tinted glasses. He waved. He hugged the president. A fist of security guards surrounded him.
Héctor could not contain himself. "Mayki!" he cried. "Mayki!" When that failed, he waved wildly and tried the even obscurer childhood name the Sosas once called Sammy, Doctor Quiroga. "Doctor! DOCTORRRRR!" But the thumping drums swallowed that too, and Sammy was whisked by.
Héctor followed him into the airport and stood on a chair, heart banging, as Sammy told the media that he was bringing hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies to help his people. Then all hell broke loose. As Sammy headed for the door, as the masses outside saw him, went wild and surged forward, as the bodyguards became frantic and Sammy's wife, Sonia, was about to burst into tears, Héctor made his move. Throwing his lean body into the chaos, he made an opening and bounced off a security guard, who turned and glared. "Mayki!" cried Héctor, his eyes shining.
Sammy turned and saw him. It was all too confusing, too complicated to address in a moment like this: The shock Sammy had felt when he learned of Héctor's arrest, the memories of Héctor's role in his life, the anger at Héctor for not heeding his warnings to think more of his family, the refusal to believe that Héctor was involved with drugs, the feeling nonetheless that Héctor might need to learn a lesson about how he was living. "Mayki, here!" And then Sammy's uneasiness not long after Héctor's arrest, when he called his lawyer in San Pedro de Macorís to see how he could help his mentor, only to be told that the authorities were determined to prosecute and to be reminded how seriously drug charges were looked on in their country. So there was Sammy, 2,000 miles away, with four children and a job that required constant travel and complete focus, with his lawyer, whose job is to protect Sammy's image, telling him to stay away from Héctor.
"Maykiiii!" There was Sammy, who had worked so hard to remake his old image as a wild-swinging Latino obsessed by jewelry and stats, suddenly finding himself in the greatest home run race of all time, saying all the right things, suddenly adored. There was Sammy, swept into a realm where senators, presidents and even the pope wished to spend time with him, where hundreds of reporters wanted just another minute, where millions of dollars could be raised by his foundation to benefit hundreds of Héctors and thousands of children—as long as his name remained golden. Would it remain so if reporters learned that he had pulled strings to help some guy beat a cocaine rap? There was Sammy, handcuffed too.
"Mayki! Let me pass through!"
The guard turned to Sammy, waiting for his verdict. Sammy's eyes met Héctor's. "Let him," Sammy told the guard. Héctor opened his arms. Sammy opened his. In the melee they embraced. "Tell me, my brother!" Héctor croaked. But already Sammy, about to be crushed by the mob, had let go, and the guards swept him away.
Late that night, after the long parade through San Pedro de Macorís, the teary speech, the ovations and toasts, Sammy told a friend that of everything that happened on that Day of Joy, seeing Héctor free had been the best. Just a few days later Sammy confirmed that he was going to buy Héctor a house, a nice one in a middle-class neighborhood. It would soothe the wound Sammy carried through his historic quest and overwhelm Elsa, who believed her husband had nothing but grief to show for his years of teaching boys a crazy game, and give Héctor something solid to prove who he is and was.
But it's not the house that Héctor will talk about 30 years from now, when people are sitting around reminiscing about all the embraces and high fives and finger kisses back in 1998. No, he will tell the story—the one he is already perfecting—of the day Sammy came home with 66.
"I did it!" he kept saying. "I hugged him! He hugged me! It was a very big hug! His body is so hard, so strong!" In the shadows of the prison wall, in the autumn after the Summer of Long Balls and Love, Héctor insisted on demonstrating this hug, in case anyone had the slightest doubt. But there was only air in front of him, and so he closed his eyes, grinned from ear to ear and squeezed himself.