By Lincoln Reed
“But why Mexico?” Father had asked. “You’re still young. A team will sign you stateside. Don’t give up.”
“We’ve been over this,” I’d said. “I’m not the first Latin-American to play international baseball.”
“It’s dangerous there,” he chided. “Gangs. Drugs.”
“I’ll be living with other players from the States. We’ll have an apartment.”
“Roach infested, I bet.”
Months ago, my parents had winced at that plausibility. We had the conversation multiple times during the past year. But now the time for talking had ended. Mom clutched my hands as she sat beside me on the living room couch. Father shifted in his recliner with folded arms resting on his stomach, frowning at the passport on the coffee table. It had arrived that afternoon. In ten hours, I’d board a plane to southern California. Upon arrival, a team assistant would drive me across the border. I had signed to pitch for the entire season. Six months. To my parents, it was a death sentence.
Neither spoke. They fought, argued, and bickered about my decision since I first mentioned the idea.
“You’re a good pitcher,” Father had pleaded. “And there are lots of competitive independent teams in the Midwest. Any one of them would pay to have your arm. What’s so special about Mexico? Why not Europe? Or Korea? I still think Japan would.”
“I’m not Japanese.”
“But you’re not Mexican, either, Joaquin.” Mom’s fingers had squeezed mine. “You’re American.”
“Mexican-American,” I corrected.
At the time, my father had rolled his eyes. “Most of them are dying to get here. There’s a reason all those folks are jumping the border. Why would you ever want to live there?”
Now he sat expressionless, staring at the passport. His arguments and assertions hadn’t been heeded nor appreciated. Mom stifled a sob. They had always been my biggest fans. From the moment I first donned a Little League uniform to the day I was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds, my parents had shown nothing but unwavering support of my baseball dreams. Father had bought my first glove and taught me how to pitch. Mom had washed my uniforms, never griping as she soaked them in soap water. Countless weekends had been spent in hotel rooms and at travel tournaments. They sweltered underneath hundreds of summer suns as I worked my way through the ranks of amateur baseball. Both had smiled, wept, and congratulated me when I signed with the Reds. And I never forget their open arms when the minor leagues had spit me out, deeming me “damaged goods.” Father had offered me the room above the garage. Mom had cooked my meals.
For the next two years, I trained alone. I tossed a ball into a lacrosse net on an empty grass field and had run with silent breaths on dark morning streets. I lifted weights at the YMCA between shifts at the local grocer. Father never charged rent. Mom never complained.
A few tryouts for independent teams hadn’t amounted to much hope of a comeback. I was twenty-seven years old with no college degree. My career prospects were limited. Then, about the time I had considered quitting the game, I received a phone call about playing professional baseball in Mexico. Teams were signing ball players with Mexican heritage and wanted to know if I was interested. Mom’s great-grandfather was born in Monterrey. With some help from the Mexican League, I located his birth certificate. What had started as whimsy to my father now glared at us on the coffee table. It was happening. Reality had settled into the room. Mom cried.
My bags were packed. There was nothing left to do but say goodbye. I hugged Mom and promised to call every day. Father drove me to the airport. He didn’t speak. How many times had he shuttled me to baseball practice, tournaments, and games? Too many to count. And now, in the dying gasps of my once-promising career, my father had no words to offer. White knuckles gripped the steering wheel. Heavy breathing and the occasional cough were the only sounds he made. Rain pelted the windshield. Gray sky masked the sun.
At the terminal, he parked the car at the curb, opened the trunk, and dragged my suitcase to the sidewalk. Raindrops failed to disguise his moistening eyes. We shook hands and shared a nod. Nothing would change my mind. He understood that.
I turned and entered the terminal. Father drove toward the exit. Minutes passed as I made my way toward the escalator and checked my bags. Before I reached the security lines, a cold hand tapped my shoulder. I glanced back. It was Father. In his hands, he held my leather ball glove.
“You left it in the backseat,” he said, panting. “I had to run a half-mile with it underneath my shirt to keep it dry. Haven’t sprinted that fast since high school track.” He grinned sheepishly. “Might have set a personal record.”
“Thanks,” I said, slipping my fingers into the mitt. “Can’t believe I forgot it. Haven’t had that happen since I was a kid.”
“You’re only as good as your tools,” Father said. He dried his forehead with a shirt sleeve. “Can’t have you pitching without a glove, can we?”
“I guess not.”
Then, before I could say another word, Father wrapped me in his arms, squeezing with elder strength. “I’m proud of you, son,” he whispered in my ear. “Our dreams go with you.”
I hugged him back.
“I’ll send you stats, Dad. As always.”
We waved one last time after I made it through security. A Mexican man on the flight asked about my business. I shared my story.
“Ah, so you’re a pocho. Americanized. Rediscovering your roots, eh?”
I shrugged. We will see.
“Lots of people are uneasy,” he said. “Foreign ball players like you, taking jobs from our boys. You better be good.”
“Just chasing a dream.”
“How hard do you throw?”
I told him. The man grinned and shook my hand.