Running to First Base

EMLL polo team.jpg

Through my years at the El Monte Eastern Little League (EMELL) playing at Mountain View Park, I learned to appreciate baseball for all its glory. In the moments of sweet bliss I was a champion with high fives, hoots, and hollers. In the bitter moments -- which plagued most of my little league career -- my batting slump turned into a chronic ailment of a dying, barren individual unworthy of the sacred field on which I walked on. I was terrible at baseball, but I kept at it for one simple reason: my father was great at it and it was the only connection I had with him as a child growing up.

Dad lived in South L.A. and I lived in El Monte with my mother and sister. When he would happen to remember to pick me up on the weekends, his beat up Monte Carlo would arrive with a loud boisterous horn to get me to run into his car and straight to the freeway, as KRLA blasted oldies or his tape deck blasted tamborazo. But oftentimes, it would be Jaime Jarrin calling the game in Spanish for the Dodgers. Fernando Valenzuela, El Toro, was king in the early '80s. Valenzuela had an amazing arm he'd wind up with eyes staring up at the sky hitting his mark for a strikeout. As we would make our way to South L.A., I would count freeway signs to myself in silence. There was very little communication between us. Quite often, I felt more like a burden than a son to him.

Fernando Valenzuela (aka El Toro) was a baseball sensation in the 1980s and inspired Mexican and Mexican American baseball players everywhere. Photo courtesy of Sports Then and Now.
Fernando Valenzuela (aka El Toro) was a baseball sensation in the 1980s and inspired Mexican and Mexican American baseball players everywhere. Photo courtesy of Sports Then and Now.

My father loved baseball. On the field, he was an amazing catcher and hitter. He hit line drives, scored runs, and celebrated with the other team members. His smiles were true smiles. They didn't have that awkwardness to them when he talked to people. It was during those times that I saw my father as a hero. On those rare occasions he took me a few times to the local paisa baseball league in Huntington Park. There, recent arrivals from Mexico would hire an umpire for $2.00 a piece and play against teams from other parts of Los Angeles. Their uniforms didn't always match, but they played hard. To them baseball was more than a hobby; it was an opportunity to shine in a way working in a factory, garage, or restaurant just didn't allow for. There he was on the field, my father, the baseball hero.

As he dropped me off back in El Monte, I remembered my mom asked me to ask him for money for school clothes. He reached into his pocket and handed me a quarter. When my mother asked me about the money, I slowly handed her the quarter. The disappointed look on her face was carved permanently on my mind. I came to the conclusion that if my father liked baseball, and if I played baseball, then maybe he'd like me too. That's when I decided to try out for Little League.

My cousin George, a tall, strong sporty type, was a huge baseball fan who wanted to join Little League, and since we always did things together my mom signed me up for the El Monte Little League too. The first day of tryouts at Mountain View Park on Elliott Avenue was where the kids from school I grew up with got their own chance to shine around the baseball diamond. The park stood out for the number of shady trees, its baseball diamond, burning hot metal playground with chipped paint, and the strange empty wading pool surrounded by a chain link fence that never opened. It is where we got free lunches in the summer. Most important of all, it was where kids learned how to play baseball. Among what seemed like a hundred other boys and a sprinkling of some girls, I remember realizing that I had to prove myself on the field quickly. I didn't have much to offer. They hit a grounder my way and I was able to field it back to them at home plate. That first year in 1988, I was picked up by the Cardinals.

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Practicing baseball was new to me. I didn't know whether I was coming or going, I really didn't have a sense as to how to play the game, but I kept at it. I ended up on left field and struck out most of the time. Lorraine, our coach, worked with us patiently, even when we drove her crazy. I enjoyed being out in the sun, the smell of grass and dirt, the cheers -- it all felt magical. With my red and white uniform, just like my father's team colors, gave me the sense that I was on my way to being just like him. On the field, whether we won or lost, it was all fun. At the end of the game we would line up and high five the opposing team and say, "good game" to each other, we meant it too.

After every game, I mostly looked forward to eating from the snack bar. Fritos with chili and cheese, referred to more commonly as pepper bellies, topped with a cold soda. Despite my meager contributions to our games, the Cardinals made it all the way to second place that year. I got a trophy and smiled for a picture the day I got it.

My dad brought my sisters Joyce and Blanca to my games on the weekends and it felt like things were getting to feel somewhat normal. We were a family for a few short hours. We played together on the swings and ate up our food on the green grass underneath a shady tree. My mother and my sister Mayra would join us as well, which made those moments memorable even if they were short lived.

Later that year, the Dodgers beat the A's to win the MLB World Series. Kirk Gibson's classic homerun in game 1 at the bottom of the 9th, followed up by an arm pump as he ran the bases, forever marked in our imaginations the miracle that was baseball. We celebrated the win by trying to emulate our Dodger heroes in our little baseball diamond.

The following year was tough. I got picked up by the Phillies and exchanged my red and white uniform for burgundy and white. The coach wanted to be number one at all costs. Jose was short tempered, and kicked at fences lined with bats and helmets that would go flying at us in the dugout while he'd yell at the umpire, "C'mon Blue!" He had a special way of putting fear into children, but he treated us like we were mature enough to understand respect.

 Photo courtesy of Apolonio Morales.
Photo courtesy of Apolonio Morales.

Our practices were intense. If we disrespected him we took a lap, if we missed a fly ball we took a lap, if we sneezed we took a lap. I did so much running I thought I would simply disappear off the field. For most, if not all, of our games I was benched until around the 4th or 5th inning. I'd grab my glove and head out to left field to watch the grass grow, waiting for the rare line drive between the short stop and third base. There must have been a rule or something about not letting the bad players play. My mother complained and I had to take extra laps during practice. We practiced batting but I just couldn't hit anything. In a moment of baseball genius, my coach decided it was best if I just simply got close to home base to increase my chances of getting beaned to advance the players around the bases. The strategy paid off for the Phillies and left me with quite a few bruises.

We began a rivalry with the EMELL Dodgers. They were good. My cousin George played for them and he never had to sit out the game until the 5th inning. In one of the games against them, I got close to home plate and got a fastball right on my tail bone. I toppled over and lay squirming on the ground. After an emergency room visit and a few days lying on my back, our coach decided that my ability to run could possibly be coupled with an attempt at bunting the ball. This worked for some reason, and I finally got a little credit. Coach told the team, "Once Polo makes contact, he puts on those afterburners!" No more stepping closer to the plate for me. Despite my ability to bunt during the 5th inning, I still sat out most of the games and played left field to close our games. We came in first place in both 1989 and 1990. These first place wins left me feeling very guilty knowing that my cousin George -- and the rest of the EMELL Dodgers for that matter -- were ten times better at baseball than I would ever be. I got two more trophies and some pictures to add to my collection.

I wanted to be great like my father. He was strong, played hard, and never complained about baseball. It was something sacred to him. I kept telling myself, if I can get better, I'll earn his respect. However, something happened to him during this time and he started bouncing around from family member to family member without an anchor or a job to hold him through. I tried not to realize this at the time, but my father had a falling out with his family and was separated once again. He found himself alone and did crazy things like kidnap my sisters for a month, only to return them to their mother after much torment and chaos was created.

More times than I can remember, my dad would call and say he would swing by and pick me up. I would pack a plastic bag full of clothes. With the excitement of seeing him again and spending time together, my heart would beat in agony of anticipation. I ran to go sit at the curbside in the afternoon sun. After hours passed, and despite my mother's pleas to come back in, I would tell her, "He's going to make it mom, he's going to pick me up, he promised." The dim El Monte streetlights would turn on and I'd sit there choking up, holding back tears with a lump the size of a baseball in my throat. Defeated, I walked back inside to my mother.

My father Rafael is originally from Monte Escobedo, Zacatecas. He was the third born of 15 brothers and sisters, and they all lived in a ranch called San Luis. A man at the ranch taught my father and some of the neighboring kids how to play baseball. They had gloves that were used and beat up, but they played ball for hours together. Baseball, according to my father, had a sense of discipline to it, unlike soccer. His experience at being good at something sparked a desire to do more.

Broadcasting for the Dodgers since 1959, Jaime Jarrin became the Spanish voice of the Dodgers
Broadcasting for the Dodgers since 1959, Jaime Jarrin became the Spanish voice of the Dodgers 

As a child, my father felt like he was less than everyone else in his family. They called him a vago, a troublemaker who fought with the rest of his brothers and sisters. He felt that my grandmother preferred the other kids over him because there were so many kids in the family. During meals, he had enough of a heart to let all the others eat before he got a piece, despite their constant altercations.

At 16, he asked my grandfather if he could go study in Guadalajara. My grandfather told him he would only go off and squander the money. My father went anyway. He moved in with an uncle, but as an out-of-towner who didn't like soccer in Guadalajara, jobs were scarce. He managed to work odd jobs digging ditches, selling plastic tableware door to door, and at the old Lirio soap factory. After a year, he managed to pay for his high school books, bus fare, and daily meal. However, the off and on work took its toll and he couldn't keep it up, so he quit school and started drinking. The depression lasted a year and half. When he awoke from his stupor, he decided to go to the U.S. for better opportunities and landed in South Los Angeles with family. Through a friend and by chance, he ended up meeting my mother in El Monte.

My father continued his tradition of working odd jobs here in the U.S. He toiled at Manchester Plastic Printings for years and bounced around from Venice, Hawthorne, Compton, South Gate, Lawndale, and Lynwood. During the 1980s he took up playing baseball for the Reyes Espinoza League. For a $20 registration, the mostly undocumented immigrant players could play at Schurr High School in Montebello on a real baseball field. At times, players from Mexico who played professionally would play right alongside my father. The games and leagues would stretch from Santa Monica to Huntington Park and baseball took up most his time.

The wandering from place to place, the odd jobs, the instability of not having a sense of home all took its toll on my father. It seemed that time had caught up to him and he just gave up living within the constraints of normality. He caused a lot of pain during those years to my sisters living in South L.A. This took a toll on them too. My sister Blanca took it hardest. My sister Joyce tried very hard to let bygones be bygones. He stopped coming around to pick me up from El Monte and became a recluse.

By the time I got to Pony League with the Royals at Pioneer Park, we were so bad that our coach left us. Some dads picked up the slack and got us practicing. The Royals were a steady dead last all year long, except for when we beat the first place team in one of those rare freak games. I hit my first and only line drive towards left field. I felt proud, but by then my father had stopped coming to my games. This marked the chronic absenteeism I had grown accustomed to in my final baseball years. I lost the only connection I had with him as he grew further and further distant from me. My interest in playing baseball was over.

Photo courtesy of Apolonio Morales.
Photo courtesy of Apolonio Morales.

Years later, as an adult with a home of my own that I share with my wife and two sons, I get a call from my sister Blanca. She tells me my father is in the emergency room suffering from ulcers that have not been taken care of for years. The doctors think its cancer. They run more tests. I visit my father in the emergency room at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood. He's lying on a hospital bed in real pain. Suddenly it dawns on me that I don't really know who my father is. I never asked him the things I really wanted to know. Why did he pull away from my life? Why did he and my mother split up? What else was there to him beyond baseball?

We talk and he tries to lift his spirits; he's glad I came to visit him. He is transferred to a room of his own. He watches the Dodgers take on the Padres on the television. He starts talking about how I should be closer to my sisters Joyce and Blanca. I realize now how old he's gotten. The years are carved on his face, his strength is diminished. The cancer reveals itself in his stomach as he goes through surgery and medication. He stabilizes but he seems different now. He's not the strong man I once knew. My father holds on, if not to continue to live for what life is worth, but to reconnect with my sisters and me.

In this past year, we have talked more than I remember ever talking to him. I ask him blunt questions and he answers honestly. I realize we agree on politics and share a similar type of sardonic humor. I feel his need to be remembered. His need to apologize for walking away from my life, for all the things that he put my sisters through. We still talk baseball and the Dodgers. We talk about my boys and my work. But most of all we talk about the future and the need to keep our sense of family together long after he's gone.

Occasionally I still drive by past Mountain View Park where I learned to play baseball. I look out to see the kids dressed up in uniform, struggling to hit the ball, to make that throw, to be the best that they can be. Baseball gave me hope. It took the everyday and made it spectacular. It showed me there are rules in life, that team work matters, that there are others who will support you. It gave me an understanding that life is hard and beats you senseless, but you can't give up, you rally and you try to win. These are lessons that my father now wishes he had taught me. These are the things that I now teach my sons. Eventually, we'll get to baseball.


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