The importance of baseball in an immigrant's life
Sometimes, he forgets the Spanish word for a common item, or perhaps he never knew the word to begin with. After all, Mateo was only two years old when he arrived in this country with his parents, refugees from the dirty war in Argentina. As a young boy, he was sandy blond, but now in his fifties, his hair is dark brown with many streaks of white and gray. His skin, which has wrinkled considerably with age, still carries a rosy tint, and no one believes he's Hispanic. "Yes," he insists to the doubters. "I'm Argentine." And for that reason, because so many people doubt his Latino heritage, he insists on speaking Spanish with Spanish speakers … although, sometimes, the words elude him.
Of Argentina, he knows very little or nothing. Only what he has read, or what he witnessed in his two trips abroad (one to Buenos Aires, the second one to the Iguazu Falls), and what his parents had told him. Both his parents are long gone. He buried them five years ago in a cemetery in a small New Jersey town close to the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River to enter New York City. Far from Buenos Aires, far from the Rio de la Plata where his parents were born, far from the land where their identities were formed. Far from the soil that should have accepted their souls in death.
Mateo is fiercely proud of his Argentine identity because it sets him apart from others. But he also has a deep and unabashed love for all things American, including the perks of his college studies at Rutgers University, multi-national cuisine, grilled hot dogs, and professional baseball. More than anything else, he adores baseball. When he was ten, he got hooked on the New York Mets and started watching them on television with his older brother, Rafael. Their mom and dad had no interest in such things, and they let their two boys watch American sports on the television set in the den while the parents sipped mate and played ajedrez (chess) on the kitchen table.
The first time he saw a baseball game, Mateo asked his mother how to say "baseball" in Spanish. She replied, "I don't know. We don't have that game in Argentina. I think the Puerto Ricans call it béisbol.” Mateo was captivated by the sound of the word, which is pronounced beys-bohl. "Béisbol," he said. "What a beautiful-sounding word."
Before becoming baseball-watching buddies, the brothers Rafael and Mateo had nothing in common. There was a four-year age difference between them, and by the time that Rafael was interested in girls and going out with his friends, Mateo was still picking his nose. The two brothers shared a bedroom, not because they wanted to, but because there was no other option in their parents' small house.
"If you don't like the bedroom we've given you, you can move out of this house," Dad replied when Rafael complained about sharing a room with his little brother.
"But he's always staring at me," explained Rafael. "Could you at least ask him not to look at me anymore?"
"He's your brother," the father replied. "And in this house, I'm the one who sets the rules, including treating your brother with respect. I've already said you can leave if you don't like this arrangement."
"Bullshit," said Rafael in English.
"En esta casa, únicamente se habla castellano,” replied Papá. (In this house, we only speak Spanish.)
"Sí Papá," replied Mateo in his innocent ten-year-old voice.
The relationship between Rafael and his father never improved after that fight, and Rafael had neither the patience nor the desire to make peace with his younger brother.
"At least stop staring at me constantly," Rafael told Mateo. "You look like a crazy person."
"I'm not staring at you," Mateo said in his defense. "I just want to be your friend."
"Well, then, buddy, go to the kitchen and bring me a glass of milk with a plate of vanilla wafers. At least try to be helpful."
Wanting to please his brother, Mateo did everything Rafael requested. He would bring him snacks, wash his clothes, and make his bed. He even cleaned and polished Rafael's shoes.
"Rafa, is this how you like your shoes polished?" asked Mateo.
"Yes," replied Rafael. "At least now you have a purpose."
There was no love between them, just a contractual understanding. Mateo's role was to do all of his brother's chores, and in return (the quid pro quo), Rafael would allow his little brother to share the bedroom. This power imbalance lasted for many years, until the day the two brothers discovered they had a shared fascination for baseball games and watching the New York Mets. Mateo quickly learned and understood the rules of the game, and he enjoyed studying the moves made by the best players. Mateo memorized each player's statistics and taught them to Rafael with detail and enthusiasm.
"Did you know that Tom Seaver struck out ten consecutive batters on April 22, 1970?" said Mateo to Rafael while they were watching a game being played at Shae Stadium. "That set the Major League record for the most consecutive strikeouts in a game."
"Que interesante," replied Mateo. "Now go get me a snack."
When Rafael went off to college and moved out of the house to study engineering in another state, the distance between the brothers returned. They didn't talk to each other much. If they did speak, it was usually to comment on the latest news of their favorite sport, which team was in first place, which player had the best stats, and the latest fortunes and misfortunes endured by the Mets. Four years later, Mateo also left his parents' home to study medicine, and the emotional distance between the two brothers grew even wider. They only saw each other during obligatory family events (weddings, Christmas, funerals) and didn't even engage in baseball small talk.
During his medical training, Mateo remained focused on his studies and dedicated himself wholeheartedly to becoming a good doctor. He had occasional flings with girls but rarely dated anyone, and he never brought anyone home to meet his parents. After eight years, his parents became concerned about what they perceived as an abnormal lack of interest in girls.
"It's about time you settled down with someone, don't you think?" asked his mother one day.
Without much enthusiasm, feeling the pressure from his Mamá and Papá, Mateo married the first girl who showed him the slightest attention. She was the twin sister of a college classmate. Their June wedding was elegant but simple. Rafael was the best man and assumed the role of giving marital advice to his brother.
"Frankly, little brother, I don't see a lot of love between you and your new bride," Rafael commented on the wedding day. "Are you sure you want to marry this girl?"
"It doesn't matter, Rafa," replied Mateo while buttoning his black tuxedo. "We have mutual respect, and we value the same things. Besides, she's pregnant. That should be enough."
It wasn’t enough. The couple welcomed a son into their lives and named him Miguel, in honor of Mateo's father. Mateo provided for all of Miguel's needs and supported his wife financially. When Miguel turned ten, the couple decided to part ways. To save some money, Mateo moved to a small apartment with few windows and scarce sunshine. The sort of depressing place where light gets lost in the hidden corners, and memories and feelings battle day and night.
According to their divorce agreement, Mateo had custody of their son every other weekend. During these visits, Mateo realized how little he had in common with Miguel. He tried to keep speaking with Miguel only in Spanish, as he had done before the divorce, but the ten-year-old son would have none of it. “Don’t talk to me in that indigenous language,” said the boy. It was cruel, and it was meant to hurt.
Whether in English or Spanish, they hardly spoke at all. Every conversation Mateo tried to have with his son felt forced. Miguel liked to give one-word answers, and eventually, Mateo just let him be. He recognized the silence. It was the same silence that weighed heavily between Mateo's father and Mateo's brother. It was the lengthy and deafening silence that separated Mateo and Rafael. It was the cruel yet familiar silence of watching a baseball game alone, with no one to share the enthusiasm.
"Miguel never talks with me," Mateo told his ex-wife one day.
"Don't worry," she replied. "Michael is still young. Let him grow up a bit. Someday, he will let you fully into his life. Until then, give him some space."
For years after the divorce, living the single life, Mateo drowned himself in baseball games. Some drink or gamble to drown their sorrows, but Mateo’s opium was a simple game that consisted of no more than a stick (a bat), a ball, and eighteen players (nine on each team). By mistake or with calculated intention, Mateo never talked to his son about baseball. It seemed too intimate to share his love for the bat and ball game with another person, even if that person was his son. Baseball was a sacred thing that could not be shared with anyone, other than perhaps Rafael.
One April weekend, when it was Mateo's turn to take care of his son, he tried to invite him to a game. "Miguel," he said, "Do you want to go to a Mets game tomorrow? I have two tickets."
The son, mesmerized by the latest stupidity on TV, hardly answered. He opened his mouth in apparent boredom and sluggishly replied, "My name is Michael, not Miguel." He then turned back to watch the hypnotic programming on the widescreen set and said nothing further to the father. They didn't go to the game together.
When he turned eighteen, Michael-Miguel moved to California to study computer engineering. At first, Mateo was scared that his son would move far away from New Jersey. Why was it necessary to escape to the other side of the country to complete your studies? Perversely, convincing himself that he had no real anger against his ex, it occurred to Mateo that his son was moving to the West Coast to escape his mother's grip. "Perhaps," he thought, "the distance between them will give him a little more maturity."
Mateo helped his son with the move to California. He didn’t want his son to live in a university dorm, cramped with roommates. Instead, he rented a large apartment for him near the school. It was larger and better fitted than Mateo's batchelor pad in New Jersey.
“Dad, this is too expensive," Michael-Miguel complained. "I don’t need so much space.”
“Don’t worry,” answered Mateo. “I remember how much I suffered when I had to share a tiny room with my very large brother. You don’t need to experience that in your life. Don’t worry about the exorbitant rent. I’ll pay for it.”
Michael accepted his father's generosity but did not ask Mateo any questions about the cramped quarters that Mateo and Rafael were apparently forced to share in their youth. It was obvious that Mateo wanted to talk about it, but Michael didn’t want to be drawn into the conflict and the drama. "That's not my messy cross to bear," thought Michael. "Let someone else carry that emotional baggage."
During the years that Michael-Miguel lived in California, the exchange between father and son was limited, if not to say insignificant. One or two phone calls per month, mandatory visits during Easter, and occasional short and dry electronic messages:
Text from Mateo: "How are you, son?"
Text from Miguel: "Doing well. Thanks for asking."
Of course, Mateo faithfully sent money to his son at the beginning of each month. "Thank you," the son replied by text. To an outsider observing this nuclear family, it would appear to have the look and feel of a commercial business transaction rather than a father-dad relationship.
"That's life," Rafael explained to Mateo during a visit between the brothers. "At that age, children want nothing to do with their parents. Don't forget, you and I didn't pay much heed to Mamá and Papá at that age either. May God save their souls."
"I know," replied Mateo. "But we always had respect for them."
"No, my little brother," Rafael replied. "We were always afraid of them. That's why you and I raised our children in a libertine way, so that they wouldn't fear us."
"Maybe that was the mistake."
After some failures, many sufferings, and some small triumphs; after repeating a school year; after finally getting his engineering degree; after five years and six months, Michael-Miguel returned to New Jersey. He came back home not to live with his mother but to plop himself into his father’s apartment. Everyone was surprised.
"Why are you moving in with me?" Mateo asked his son.
"Why not?" answered Michael.
Michael-Miguel found an excellent job with a consulting firm near Mateo's house. Miguel would shower every morning, put on clean clothes, and comb his dark hair back into a tight bun. He looked rather handsome but unusually conservative for a man of his age.
"Miguel, you look a lot like me, how you dress and style yourself for work lately," commented Mateo.
"Please," answered Michael-Miguel. "Don't point that out to anyone. And I've already told you, my name is Michael, not Miguel."
They would often eat together at night. Mateo would make the straightforward dishes that every bachelor knows how to prepare. Spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, grilled cheese sandwiches, frozen pizza, or pasta with store-bought sauce. Michael-Miguel would occasionally take pity on his father and prepare something more interesting, like fish tacos, avocado toast, sushi rolls, ceviche, or California cobb salad. "This is what we like to eat in California," explained Michael. They would chit-chat a bit during dinners. Sometimes, Michael-Miguel would even ask his father for advice on how to deal with some of the more obnoxious colleagues at his office. The whiners. But that's the only thing the two did together: sharing dinners and office war stories. After dinner, Michael-Miguel would quickly run into his bedroom to play computer games or waste time on his cell phone, looking for a hookup on Rindle, Timbler, Dumbler (or whatever else those hookup websites are called). He would also check out webpages for local social groups, like "Meet Groups Near You" or some such thing. It was on one of those sites that Michael found a group called "Singles and Softball."
"Would you like to come with me to one of these softball games?" Michael asked his father. "I know softball is not quite the same as baseball, but they are pretty similar. You and I are both singles, so we meet all the requirements for joining this social group. Y quien sabe, Papá, Quizás encontrarás amor.” (And who knows, Dad, maybe you’ll find love.)
The "Singles and Softball" games were set for Tuesdays and Saturdays. There was no official practice time for the team, but Mateo (the team member who best knew and understood game strategy) gave a lot of advice and recommendations on improving their skills. He didn't limit his advice to Michael-Miguel; he spread his wisdom to all the team members.
“Your father really knows a lot about how to play this game,” said one of the team members to Michael one day.
“I suppose so,” answered Michael.
Mateo noticed his son needed more confidence playing the game and seemed slightly afraid of the ball.
"Don't let the ball freak you out," he explained to his son. "When you are holding the bat and waiting for the pitch, don't think of it as simply an object coming towards you, but imagine it as a bag full of money and imagine that your job is to hit that bag so hard that it will shatter, and bills and coins will fall out. If you think of the pitched ball that way, I promise you will hit nothing but home runs."
“Thanks, Dad. I really appreciate it.”
Occasionally, Mateo would forget to call his son "Michael" before the other players. He would call him Miguel, as it was the name that appeared on the boy's birth, baptism, and first communion certificates. The other players picked up on this and started calling the boy Miguel. Some even started calling him "Miguelito."
"I'm sorry, son," said Mateo when he heard some players call him Miguel. "I know you don't like that name."
"Don't worry, Dad. I'm starting to like it."
With each game, Mateo noticed more confidence and joy in Michael's demeanor. Sometimes, the two would watch a baseball game on TV or in person at Citi Field. Mateo started teaching Michael about baseball statistics, baseball lore, and baseball stories. He taught Michael about Babe Ruth's mind-boggling OPS score of 1.164, Carl Ripken's remarkable 2,632 consecutive games played over 16 seasons, and Barry Bonds' awe-inspiring 73 home runs in the 2001 season. "Bonds also holds the career record for most home runs with 762,” explained Mateo enthusiastically.
Michael-Miguel was interested in the statistics, not because he enjoyed the game, but because he appreciated how much his father's face would light up when talking about baseball. "It's a fun game," he even admitted one day to his father.
But just as sudden and unexpected as Michael-Miguel had landed in Mateo’s apartment, so suddenly and unexpectedly he advised one day that he was moving back to California. With a sense of confidence Mateo had never seen, Michael-Miguel explained to his father that he had found a new job with better pay and more responsibilities in San Diego. Mateo did not try to argue his son out of it. Instead, he asked:
“Do you want me to help you with the move?”
"No, thank you, Dad. It's time I take care of myself."
Eventually, Miguel met an agreeable girl in his new job, and soon after, they married.
"Who knows," he told his father. "Maybe Laura and I will have a little boy one day, and you will teach him everything there is to know about playing baseball."
Mateo did not know whether Miguel's words were meant as a sincere vision of Mateo as an active grandfather, or a sarcastic reproach for the years he and Michael were apart. For the many years they had not shared baseball.
When Mateo first met Miguel’s wife, he was surprised by her weight and size. He thought Mamá would probably not have approved. Miguel's hair was now long, his curls falling almost into dreadlocks. He was wearing shorts, a habit that Mateo himself did not like because he has hairy legs and feels half-wolf in shorts. Miguel has hairy legs, too, but he didn't seem to care. With long nails, Laura scratched Miguel's back, and he seemed to like it.
"Isn't Miguelito sweet?" asked Laura, in a playful way that was nails against chalkboard to Mateo's ears.
Mateo did not understand the backscratching, the long nails, the short pants. The whole scene seemed surreal to him. But as he saw how changed and calm Miguelito appeared, he thought to himself, "I see love in them."
After Miguel settled in California and Mateo found himself all alone (once more) in his small New Jersey apartment, Mateo continued playing softball for singles. In fact, he joined two other amateur leagues. Softball for singles is played on Tuesdays and Saturdays. His local church league plays on Mondays and Fridays. The county recreational league plays on Wednesdays and Sundays. In this way, Mateo could fill all his afternoons and nights. Never having to feel the silence and loneliness of his single life.
He liked the three teams he was on. Still, he started having more of a preference and affinity for the county team, which had many Hispanic players, mainly from the Dominican Republic. A friend of Mateo had asked him to join this team:
"Frankly, we need someone like you who doesn't run so well but understands the game strategy. You can teach the younger ones.”
“In other words, you need an old man,” answered Mateo.
Mateo liked the Dominicans. Most of them were in their twenties or thirties. While Mateo was well into his fifties, he didn't like playing with the older crowd. He liked seeing the young ones play and enjoyed how these guys were enthused by the game.
"When you are fifty," said Mateo, "you must acknowledge your limitations and train the younger ones."
The games were supposed to end at eleven but often went well into midnight. There were no time limits imposed by anyone. Mateo liked the Dominican team because it had the most audience participation. Everyone's family would come and watch the games and cheer them on with music and food. At first, some of the Dominicans were taken aback by Mateo and the young ones would call him "un viejo" behind his back (an old man).
“Ya sé que soy viejo,” answered Mateo. “Pero todavía se golpear la pelota, y te puedo enseñar como batear un home run.” (I know I’m old, but I can still hit the ball and I can show you how to score a home run.)
“That’s cool,” answered the younger man. “You speak Spanish?”
“Yes,” answered Mateo. “I’m from Argentina.”
He taught the young ones how to improve their game, and at the end of the first season, they were the league champs. The team captain emailed everyone, giving them all the day off. Mateo had not previously realized that most of the players worked for the same fencing company in Edgewater and that the team captain was their manager. "Enjoy your day off, guys," said the captain. "Bien hecho. Well done.”
One day, one of the young Dominicans said to Mateo:
“Viejo, I think you are not a bad player after all."
“Gracias,” answered Mateo.
"Someday, I want to introduce you to my Mamá. She is more or less your same age or probably a little younger. But I think that the two of you would hit it off well. After all, you both love béisbol and are both crazy nut fanatics of the New York Mets."
“Y quien sabe,” answered Mateo, “quizás encontraré amor.”
September 20, 2023
© Ernesto Beckford 2023
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