The family business
A story about how stickball rekindles a grandmother's memories
JOSEFINA BROUGHT THE SPOON to her mouth and tasted her homemade bean sauce. "Perfect," she said to herself, before placing the spoon on the counter beside the stove and walking to the front porch. Her leather sandals flapped against the wooden floor with each step. They were her grandson's very first gift to her several years ago, and though holes had formed in the heels, she couldn't bring herself to part with them.
"Toņito! Toņito," she shouted down the potholed street through the porch's screen door. A dark-skinned 10-year-old holding a broomstick in his hands turned. He wore a pair of long basketball shorts and no shoes.
"Just one more hit, Abuela!" he yelled back, flashing a smile he knew his grandmother couldn't resist.
The 73-year-old woman nodded and leaned against the doorframe as her grandson finished his at-bat. The stick-baseball game was a 5 p.m. routine in Santiago. By that time all the boys were home from school and the sun had sagged behind the buildings, so its intense glare no longer blinded the players. Although it was a Sunday, there were as many boys on the makeshift field as on any weekday.
Toņito tapped the broomstick on the tired piece of cardboard the boys used as home plate. Bringing it back up to his shoulder, he tightened his grip and stared down the pitcher, who was three years older and three inches taller than him. The tattered ball came fast, but Toņito connected and a loud crack echoed through the air. Everyone stared as the ball carried higher and higher, farther and farther. Everyone but Toņito. In a flash, he'd sprinted toward the cardboard first base and was nearing second when the ball finally landed on the roof of Sra. Margarita's house. He raised his hands over his head as he completed his trot around the bases.
Santa Madre de Dios! He looks just like him, Josefina thought, her eyes welling. The way he swings the bat, the way he runs the bases ... it's just like he used to look.
"Did you see me, Abuela?" Toņito shouted to his grandmother. "Nobody hits more home runs than me!" He saw Josefina wipe her eyes with the back of her wrinkled hands. "Are you okay, Abuela?"
"I'm fine, sweetie. I just got excited when I saw you hit that home run, that's all."
"Did you like it? I will hit another for you tomorrow!"
"I would like that very much. But first you must come in and eat your dinner! Your father will be home soon, he won't let you watch tonight's game until you finish your homework."
TOŅITO'S FATHER, Ramón, flipped through the Sunday paper as he ate his rice and beans at the kitchen table. He rarely had time for the sports section, but now a news item caught his attention: The 60th anniversary of the fatal crash of the plane carrying Santiago's baseball club, the Águilas Cibaeņas, was the following Friday. Every five years, on the anniversary of the 1948 tragedy, the team held a memorial at Cibao Stadium for the fallen players. Ramón looked up at his mother, ironing her way through a stack of laundry.
"Did you see the thing about the Águilas in the paper today?" he asked.
She pressed the iron to one of his shirts a few extra times before answering. She knew why he was asking. How could she forget that fateful day?
"No, I didn't," she said, finally. "Why?"
Her son had gone back to his dinner. "Because you-know-what is coming up," he said. "And they're inviting all the surviving family members to the stadium again. Maybe you should think about taking Toņito."
Josefina propped the iron on its heel. "Me?!" she almost screamed. She hadn't expected her son to approach such a delicate subject so insincerely. Instantly recognizing his mistake, Ramón walked over to give her a hug.
"Mama," he said, wrapping his arms around her tiny body, "how many times have they asked you to go, eleven?"
"And this will be 12!" she snapped, pushing him away and crossing to the other side of the room. "You are his father. You should take him."
"But you know how much your grandson loves baseball," Ramón pleaded. "How long can you hide our family's history from him?"
Josefina avoided his eyes for a long time. "I watched him play this afternoon," she said at last. "His swing, the way he runs ..." Her voice trailed off to a whisper. "He looks just like him."
Ramón went to his mother and kissed her graying brown hair. "Mama, you need to go."
"I know," she said, hugging him tight. "I just don't know if I have the strength."
Later, the family gathered around the television in the living room, as they always did when the Águilas played. An exhausted Ramón was already asleep in his armchair. Toņito was sprawled on his belly, chin propped in his palms as he stared at the screen barely three feet away. He was so absorbed he didn't notice his grandmother quietly slip into the kitchen. She opened the back door and walked out into the yard.
The sound of crickets filled the warm January air. She folded her hands together and said a prayer. "I needed you so badly. Father. I just wish I could have you again, if only for a moment."
The next morning, Ramón and Toņito sat at the table shoveling the last bites of cereal into their mouths. When Josefina entered the room wearing her best dress, they both stared at her with the same confused look on their faces. Toņito had never seen his grandmother wear a dress to anything other than church.
"I WATCHED TONITO PLAY BASEBALL WITH THE OTHER BOYS THIS AFTERNOON," JOSEFINA SAID. "HIS SWING, THE WAY HE RUNS ... " HER VOICE TRAILED OFF TO A WHISPER. "HE LOOKS JUST LIKE HIM."
"What are you two looking at?" she said. "You have work," she said, pointing to Ramón. "And you" -- facing Toņito -- "have school."
Ramón ignored her. "Where are you going in your Sunday clothes?" he asked.
"To the baseball stadium," she answered calmly, plucking her purse from its perch. "An idea came to me in a dream last night, and the Águilas president needs to hear it."
Ramón's face relaxed into a smile. Toņito was still confused, but his ears perked up when he heard the name of his favorite baseball team. "I don't understand, Abuela," he said.
Josefina smiled and patted the top of his head. "Someday soon I'll tell you a very important story. But right now it's time for school."
MENDY LOPEZ, the play-by-play man for the Águilas Cibaeņas, poked his head into the team president's office. Early sunlight filled the room. "Good morning, Winston," Mendy said. "Do you have a moment?"
"Of course," Winston Llenas said, putting his pen down and looking up from his desk. Winston was old and wise. He always made time for impromptu meetings with Mendy, the Águilas' voice for more than 30 years.
"An old woman was waiting for me when I arrived this morning," Mendy said. "I've been talking with her for almost an hour. She has the most fascinating idea."
"I love fascinating ideas," Winston said, leaning back in his chair. "What's it about?"
"The Rio Verde accident. Her father died in the crash."
"What's her name?"
"Toņito's daughter!" the team president exclaimed. "I remember watching him play as a boy. Best catcher of his generation!"
"And the most beautiful swing," added Lopez.
"Well, this is certainly interesting," said Winston. "I've invited Josefina to the memorial for years, and she's never even replied."
"Let me bring her in so you can hear her idea," said Mendy. "If I have anything to say about it, we will do exactly what she has in mind."
AT DAWN THAT SAME MORNING, a group of 18 young men found themselves on the banks of the Rio Verde. Thick fog and dense jungle surrounded them, but they could just make out a large mountain looming overhead. The men wore suits but carried no bags, and none of them quite recalled how they had arrived there. "The last thing I remember we were heading home," Pedro Baez, whom his friends called El Grillo, said to the rest of the group. "I say we follow the river and make our way back to Santiago."
It was tough going: Shoulder-high plants blocked their way, and the rough terrain slowed their speed. Hours passed, but they saw no signs of civilization. Then, just after sunset, the river met a road, and the men saw a pair of headlights (approaching. They scurried to flag down the driver, but he passed without even bothering to slow down.
"What the hell?" Bombo Ramos said angrily. "Didn't he see us wave?"
"Whatever," said El Grillo. "Let's just follow the road. It has to lead to Santiago."
"WHERE ARE WE GOING, ABUELA?" asked Toņito as they took seats on the local bus. It was Friday. Josefina had returned to the stadium each day since her first meeting, always wearing her nicest dresses, never telling her grandson why.
"Surprise!" she said, pulling Toņito's gloves and hat from her purse. "We're going to a baseball game."
"To a baseball game!" the happy boy exclaimed. "Who are the Águilas playing?"
"That's also a surprise," she said through an enormous smile. Toņito saw a twinkle in her eye he had never seen before. "And afterward, I want to take you to an old cemetery so you can meet someone."
"Why a cemetery, Abuela? Did someone die?"
"Josefina took a deep breath. "I want to tell you my most important story, Toņito." The boy looked at her but said nothing. "Back in the late 1940s, my father was the catcher for the Águilas."
"My great grandpa was a catcher?!"
"Yes," she said. "You are named after him."
"His name was Toņito too?"
"That's right," she continued. "Sixty years ago today, on Jan. 11, 1948, the Águilas played the Estrellas del Sur, a team from Barahona. I was 13, and I listened to it at home on the radio. It was one (of my father's best games -- he went 3-for-3 with 4 RBIs. But that evening, as their plane was returning to Santiago in the fog, it crashed into a mountain on the Rio Verde. No one survived."
Toņito fell silent but didn't take his eyes off his grandmother as she shared memories about her father and baseball. When Cibao Stadium, with its flag-decorated entrance, came into view, she explained that her father had played in a different stadium on the very same spot. It was the last place she'd ever seen him alive, she told her grandson, and she hadn't entered a stadium since. Until this week.
"For 60 years I've listened to games on the radio or watched them on television," she said, grasping Toņito's hand as they exited the bus. "I want my first game back to be with you!" They walked through the crowd together, Josefina leading the way. Toņito couldn't help but overhear the surrounding conversations.
"I'm not sure what, but the ticket agent told me there's something special happening today," one man said to another.
"I'm confused too," the second man replied. "But I know that teams are playing -- and the game is free!"
And then a woman to her husband: "Look -- all the stadium workers are dressed like old-timers!"
Toņito wondered what was going on too, but just then Josefina found an usher who was holding a sign with their last name on it. "Hello, Sra. Martinez," he said. Toņito had often been to the stadium, but he'd never seen workers wearing vintage uniforms before. "Do you know who's playing tonight, Toņito?" asked the usher. The boy shook his head. He'd never been greeted by an usher, either.
"Well," the usher said, winking at Josefina, "let's just say today is a very special day." With that, he led the two past rows and rows of seats until they were right behind the home team's dugout.
"No way!" Toņito exclaimed. "I've never sat so close to the field!"
"That man was right, Toņito," said Josefina. "This will be a very special game." Looking at the players on the field, Toņito noticed they too wore vintage uniforms. "The idea to reenact my father's last game came to me a week ago," she said. "I've been coming here all week to plan it."
TONITO MARTINEZ THOUGHT HE HEARD HIS NAME. The 18 young men stood outside Cibao Stadium, but it didn't look like any stadium they had ever played in. They approached it cautiously. Toņito heard his name once more. "Hey, they just (announced my name!" he said.
"Mine too!" said Sancho Tatis. "Let's find out what's going on."
As they steered their way through the crowd, the booming voice of Mendy Lopez came over the loudspeakers once more: "The pitcher is taking the signs from his catcher; he looks back at the runner at first. Santiago leads Barahona 1-0 in the top of the third. Runner on first with one out."
"Hey, that's us!" said Papiro Raposo. "What in the hell?"
Lopez's voice continued: "Two-and-two the count -- and there goes the runner! Swing, and a miss by the batter. The throw to second by Martínez and he is ... out! What a throw by Martinez!"
In the stands, thousands of fans cheered. All but the young members of the Águilas, who slapped Toņito on the back and tousled his hair.
"This all seems so familiar," said Toņito. "But who's playing it now if not us?"
The young ballplayers continued to work their way inside the stadium for a better view. By the bottom of the inning they had found one, and what they saw amazed them: The baseball players on the field were wearing their uniforms and playing a game they had once played. Speechless, they watched the game they all knew unfold.
Before the next inning, an older man in a suit took the field and began to speak into a microphone. A large group of people of all ages stood beside him. "Sixty years ago today, our beloved baseball team died in a plane crash after playing the game you are watching," Winston Llenas announced. "Alongside me now are their surviving family members. Today, we honor them." The stadium erupted again in cheers, but the Águilas just stared at each other. After an eternity, El Grillo finally broke the spell.
"I remember the way to the cemetery. We should go see for ourselves."
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, during the regular stick-baseball game, Toņito grabbed the ball and marched to the mound. The pitcher had gotten himself into a jam, loading the bases.
"Just throw it where I put the glove," Toņito said to the older boy.
"What do you know about catching?" the pitcher scoffed.
Toņito looked him straight in the eye. After the Águilas game, his grandmother had led him to the cemetery. "I sensed your great grandfather at the game today, Toņito," she told him after they found his tombstone. "I think we will feel him here, too."
Slamming the ball into the pitcher's glove, Toņito said simply, "Baseball is in my blood." With the seriousness of adulthood, he lectured his batterymate. "This guy can't hit curveballs, so just throw your breaking ball and we can go home."
Then he ran behind the plate, where he squatted, smiled as he snuck a peek at the batter and flashed his sign.
Miguel Batista is a veteran of 16 MLB seasons who currently pitches in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He is a published poet (Sentimientos en Blanco y Negro) and novelist (The Avenger of Blood). This is his first short story.
ESPN The Magazine: March 7, 2011
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