Manuel Enrique Ramos spun the AM dial to the sports super station. “Broadcasting from Baja, California to the Canadian Rockies” proclaimed the host, a man named Hacksaw who argued with callers from 8 p.m. until midnight. Manuel listened to escape, to hide from the sadness of Maria, her mourning of little Alfredo, lost to a fever that no amount of cold water soaked rags could put out; three years old, their frail middle child, four years younger than strong Alberto, two years older than sweet baby Lucinda. There would be no fourth child. Maria’s grief saw to that.
He tuned in the American stations as much for Alberto as himself. For the boy with the strong arm and smooth swing to have the chance, he needed the language gateway that only a grasp of English could provide.
Mystery words. Phrases Manuel would never understand. Too much for a man whose passion for life ended when the light had gone out of his wife’s eyes, when her womb closed. But a small coal glowed. A flickering hope smoldered. He smelled it in the old leather hand-me-down glove Alberto squeezed onto his left hand and he heard it in the words he did understand. Barry Bonds, Mark Maguire, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa. And numbers. Such big numbers. 66 home runs. 70 home runs. 73 home runs.
He listened in the kitchen after the others had gone to sleep – the evening breeze pulsing the wicks of the two candles on the table casting shadows and movement onto the framed picture of Jesus, animating the crown of thorns that pierced the Savior’s forehead, pouring redemptive blood down his cheeks.
Manuel would fall asleep and dream American dreams filled with American imagery. Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Oliver North and the CIA, Lance Armstrong peddling his bike ahead of the pack, and of course home runs, soaring out of Chicago’s Wriggley Field, belted over Boston’s Green Monster. In the morning he would wake early, kiss his sleeping wife and children, then walk a brisk mile to work, stopping only at church to confess the sins that had not yet been committed. Sins he planned.
The Sporting News called him “A phenom,” Sports Illustrated, “The best five tool outfielder in a decade and only eighteen years old.” ESPN ran a cover story: “Alfredo Ramos: The Next Sure Thing.”
The articles were vague about his early years – so much unknown coming from a rural area of Baja, so little formal schooling until arriving in the United States. “Big boy from time he was little,” said the father beaming with pride in an interview after his son’s first round draft choice by The Angels had been announced. “But what about the birth certificate showing him to weigh only six pounds at birth?” asked a smiling reporter. Manuel feigned no understanding of the question – “I still learning English you see.”
A Take Me Out To The Ballgame ringtone from the phone at his hip interrupted the interviewer’s next question and the voice of his son’s new agent, a man proficient in Spanish, rattled out prospective numbers and figures. Manuel crossed himself then kissed his Rosary. He would offer with thanksgiving and gladness whatever penance Father Herrera required.
“Alfredo, how far was the longest home run you hit in high school?” a reporter from the back of the room asked.
The young man ran his fingers through the thick goatee on his chin and paused before responding. “My friends call me Alberto. I know you are writers, but maybe we can become friends anyway.” The charmed scribes chuckled. “450 feet they say. It broke one of the lights on the scoreboard so we’ll never know for sure.”
Alberto learned to hit the curve; his power in driving the ball the opposite way hamstrung pitchers. How do you get this guy out? He would not chase sliders off the plate. He had the bat speed to turn on anything on the inside of the plate and belt it into the stratosphere. Pitching staffs learned to pitch around him with nobody on base or a base open, but he was a good enough situational hitter that his RBI count broke a hundred his first six years in the league.
The taint of history dogged power hitters. Any batter approaching twenty dingers by the All-Star break endured speculation about PEDs. Gym rats like Alberto (no one had referred to him as Alfredo since his rookie year, and just try to find a rookie card of Alfredo Ramos for less than a thousand dollars) were particularly suspect, internet blogs assuming anyone with biceps stretching the sleeves of their uniforms of juicing. But Alberto passed every random test and his name never surfaced in the frequent scandals.
Not that there weren’t other rumors. Like the ones about hair – that prized rookie card picture with the mustache and goatee, the hair already starting to recede, unusual for an eighteen year old. And listed as six foot two, two hundred and twenty-five pounds. Hmm. Such a fully developed physical specimen so young. But elite athletes were cut from a different cloth were they not? Athletic super heroes, like movie stars, politicians, and the ultra- rich lived in an alternate universe where even physical laws bent in their favor.
The sins of the father are visited upon the son. So explained Father Herrera. The words bothered Manuel. They clung to his skin like sweat on a t-shirt. If Alberto had only competed with boys his own age would the scouts have noticed his son’s unique gifts, the darts he heaved from deep right field that actually whistled as they held at bay the tagging runner on third base? No. Alberto had earned the prestige and accolades through hard work. He had succeeded not because of his father’s treachery but because of the rare gifts that Alberto possessed.
With his mother Maria many years in the grave, and sweet sister Lucinda happy but simple in the mind, only two men knew the truth, and free agency loomed. The big one. The thirty year old player in his prime contract. The multi-year deal that would solidify the Ramos fortune for generations. The teams with money – the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers in particular – were talking ten years, $25 million. “But we’ll hold out for $26 million on principle,” explained the agent.
Alberto closed the door on the confessional and admitted to Father Herrera what no one else, not even his daddy, suspected. “My knees are aching and my eyes can no longer pick up the spin of the ball out of the hand like they used to.”
He closed his eyes and awaited his penance. How many Hail Mary’s would $26 million cost him? And why after all these years was he remembering that picture on the wall of his childhood hovel? The one of Jesus where the wounds on his brow always looked fresh and always bleeding.
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