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Nicholas DawidoffIt's a familiar story in many ways, the intersection of poverty, athletics and capitalism....very raw....[I]t's also powerful and, at times, it really moves.
— The New York Times Book Review
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Introduction: The Dream
1 Miguel Tejada
2 "A Boatload Mentality"
3 The Haitian Bus
4 The Way North
5 "It's Not Our Game"
6 Following Jackie's Lead
7 Los Caminos de la Vida (The Paths of Life)
8 Baseball's Latin Barrio
9 Grandes Ligas
As he would be for most of his early life, Miguel Odalis Tejada was malnourished on the day of his birth -- May 25, 1976. His mother couldn't afford to see a doctor while she carried Miguel in her womb, nor could she afford to stop working until just before Miguel was born.
"My father didn't want any more kids, but my mother did," Miguel says today. "I was a surprise. And when I was born I was ugly, ugly, ugly." He scrunches up his face as he says this, imitating the frowning baby his family says he was -- a scowling infant with unattractive blotches on his dark skin. "My father said they thought I was going to die, that I looked like I was sick."
Miguel was the eighth child born to a family living in a shantytown outside the city of Bani, which sits forty miles southwest of Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. His parents, Daniel and Mora Tejada, already had two sons together -- Juansito and Denio. In addition, Mora had four girls with another man, while Daniel had another son.
By the time Miguel was born, most of the older children were already working.
Miguel would work as well, first earning money at the same age American kids are usually starting kindergarten.
In Miguel's family, the boys shined shoes or helped their father work piecemeal construction jobs, moving earth, stacking concrete blocks, or mixing mortar that would stick to their fingers and legs long after they had given up trying to wash it off. The girls in Miguel's family cleaned and cooked for others as their mother did.
As a toddler, little Miguel was like other dark-skinned babies at the bottom of the Dominican's socioeconomic scale. He would rambld have been ludicrous to dream of such a thing. Boys like them had become big leaguers with some regularity since the very first Dominican -- Ozzie Virgil -- suited up for the New York Giants in 1956. But after an initial burst in the late 1950s that produced future Hall of Famer Juan Marichal and the three Alou brothers -- Felipe, Matty, and Jesus, all of the San Francisco Giants -- the presence of Dominicans in major league baseball could hardly be described as a force. Not until the mid-to-late 1980s would Dominicans explode on the major league scene, fueled by the realization of baseball men that, with the proper work, large numbers of players could be produced for very little money. That explosion would come too late for Juansito and Denio Tejada. Instead, their lives would be marked by two disasters, the first of which came on a Friday, August 31, in 1979.
Hurricane David was the most powerful weather system to strike the Dominican in the twentieth century, leveling city and countryside and 90 percent of the nation's crops and pounding the island with thirty-foot waves that kept coming for five days, spurred on by a tropical storm that moved in after the eye of David careened northward toward the Florida Keys.
Satellite photos taken at the time show the Caribbean as a black background with the outline of neighboring Cuba spared by a confluence of killer clouds swallowing up the Dominican. To look at the photos, it's as if the entire island had been erased.
When the rain and 150-mph winds finally stopped, David had caused $1 billion in damage while killing thousands and leaving one hundred thousand Dominicans homeless -- including the Tejadas.
To this day, Miguel doesn't remember much of the storm or its aftermath, but his family does -- they lost everything. Which is to say, they lost what little they had. All their clothing, their beat-up stove, an antiquated radio, their food, and what few family mementos they had.
All that survives are memories of displacement and a desperate trek into Bani, searching for survival. Like most refugees, the Tejadas were not accepted with open arms and joined a substantial homeless population still in shock from the ferocity of David and the devastation it had wrought. It would be roughly two weeks before they found a spot in a refugee camp where more than two hundred people lived on top of each other.
Necessity drove Miguel to build a little box and hustle shoeshines from men working or gathering in Bani's main plaza, a tree-lined square like thousands of others in Latin America. Miguel would hoard whatever coins he could get and share them with his brothers, who would use the money to buy bread or fruit. During this time, Miguel's mother was often away in Santo Domingo, cleaning houses and working in a bakery. On the weekends, Miguel would eagerly await her arrival and the anticipated dispersal of crumbling pieces of week-old breads and pastries. He had begun going to school by this point, but his attendance was sporadic, In a sense, these years were like a blur of hunger, a time without roots or a sense of stability that made an indelible mark and colored his every move years later.
For five years, Miguel lived this way. When he was eight, his family relocated to a slum in Bani dubbed Los Barrancones. In the Spanish language, the word barrancon means an obstacle of great danger, and is often used to describe a ravine or a gorge. In some dictionaries, the word is illustrated with a saying: salir del barranco, to get out with great difficulty.
With this identity firmly in place, Miguel turned to baseball. He had nothing else; playing the game was the first thing that made him feel whole, made him feel free, made him feel strong.
So he began thinking as the other boys did, of baseball as his one outlet of aggression, his only means of entertainment and form of expression. Kids like Miguel had little chance at an education, but most could run. And when they ran they could begin to dream, to escape, to test themselves, their strength, their intelligence; and their instincts every time they swung a stick or tree branch fashioned in the shape of a bat.
After being taught the game by his brothers, Miguel spent almost all his time running the dirt streets of Los Barrancones, to a dilapidated sandlot where burros were known to feed on the dried grass of right field.
Miguel was short and squat, thin through his shoulders but powerful in his legs, and it wasn't long before baseball was causing him to miss school, something he would do often -- especially if he happened to be walking to school with other boys his age.
By the age of eleven, Miguel had stopped going altogether. Instead, he worked at a garment factory in Bani, washing clothes and ironing pants and shirts by the dozen, pressing garments until he grew woozy from the smell of starch and steam. During this period, Miguel would rise early in the morning, work, and then return to playing baseball by the afternoon, never missing a chance to take a few swings.
The contrast in his life was already established by the time he was eleven. There was the Miguel who played baseball and the Miguel who was living the rest of his life. That meant working, earning, and worrying about hunger -- a hunger hardly satisfied by the steady diet of cornmeal mixed with pieces of salami or eggs that he and his brothers ate. They also ate a lot of bananas, papaya, yucca, sweet potatoes, and, when they were lucky, pork.
By the age of twelve, he spent nearly all of his time hovering around the sandlots where boys could be discovered, signed to professional contracts, and sent to the United States in search of millions.
So he set out to be different, to be noticed, to be better -- a child's goal and an unrealistic one at that, considering it came from a kid who wasn't even the best player in his family, let alone the best in his barrio. Around Bani alone, there were dozens of Miguel Tejadas. Miguel would see them every day at the baseball park in Bani, shagging flies in the hard, patchy outfield grass.
Bani's park is about a three-mile walk from Los Barrancones, its peach and yellow exterior a magnet drawing most of Bani to come and watch even the most meaningless practices as if they were major league playoff games. Spectators sit on concrete stands built in a horseshoe shape, which overlook a barren field with no infield grass and enough rocks and potholes to make any player worry about taking an errant grounder in the face. The outfield grass is a shade somewhere between green and yellow and the outfield wall is made of concrete with no padding to protect a daring player.
The sun beats down on the park each day with a relentless mixture of heat and humidity, usually chasing spectators to the upper rows of the stands where the most shade can be found . Along with church, this is the place where Bani's residents come together in common interest -- a ballpark that is both an entertainment center and a proving ground for young boys.
Half-drunk, unemployed men watch from the stands, their potbellies and dirty hair a testament to their failed lives. Still, these men laugh and brag and criticize as if they were baseball stars, sometimes nearly coming to blows over arguments as stupid as who the best player is. On any given day, twenty, thirty, or more men will gather, yesterday's prospects or men too lazy or too shiftless to have taken their own shot. They shout vulgarities to each other. They crack up in unison. They brag about how good they once were. They hover around promising young players. And they come back the next day and do it again.
In this place, Miguel learned how to play baseball.
As a boy, he began to develop a talent for hitting the ball, striking it flush so it made the distinctive crack that every hitter aims for every time he steps to the plate.
Even though he was thin and small, Miguel could follow the ball with his eyes and whip the bat fast enough to make contact. When he was in the field, he mostly played catcher and made a habit of diving, sliding, and lunging for every ball -- even if it was far out of his reach. By thirteen, he was starting to make a habit of playing with much older boys and men. He found not only that he could hold his own with them but that he was getting faster, his strength concentrated in legs that a baseball scout would later say reminded him of football's Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.
He would continue playing endlessly, barely noticing the arrival of Christmas in 1989.
There was little warning of what was coming.
Miguel barely remembers his mother being sick. She had seemed fine in the months leading up to the holidays. Though she was often away working, Miguel had been close to his mother. And she babied Miguel, encouraged him, loved him, and helped him define a sense of purpose for himself. Miguel would vow to his mother that his baseball skill would one day take her away from Los Barrancones to a much better place.
Though hardly an innocent, Miguel had an inner sweetness that came from his mother. She would always tell him to be a good person, that being a good person was more important than being a great ballplayer. Those gentle pleadings didn't make much sense to Miguel until after, until she was already gone from his life.
Mora Tejada died on December 21 at the age of forty-nine, passing away in her sleep. Miguel has very few recollections of those days, except praying on his knees to her every night before he went to sleep. For a time, he went back to the way he was as a child refugee -- he simply lived, existed. His life had no direction and was filled with only the obligation to make money -- a feeling heightened by the fact his father left to look for work in another town. So did Juansito, who was five years older than Miguel.
Other family members had scattered as well, leaving thirteen-year-old Miguel and sixteen-year-old Denio to fend for themselves. Often, the Tejada boys would rely on neighbors to eat.
Of all the hardships Miguel had endured, this was the worst. He readily admits now that he all but gave up once she was gone. He stopped playing baseball for a short time. He and Denio grew even closer as the dull ache of hunger came back. Migu el had stopped caring about most things and seemed oblivious to the perilous life that awaited him.
Again, it was baseball that saved him.
He still looked like any other boy out there, but he didn't play like one. At least Enrique Soto didn't think so.
A failed minor league prospect with the San Francisco Giants, Soto was twenty-seven in the spring of 1990 and was doing some scouting work with the Oakland Athletics. Soto also ran baseball clinics for Bani's youth in an effort to get a scouting career off the ground. He was desperate to find some recruits he could recommend to the Athletics. If they thought his boys could play, Soto believed he might be able to get a full-time job with the Athletics.
About five feet ten inches tall, Soto was of average build and slightly plump around the waist. His skin was olive, the product of a racially mixed heritage. His hair was straight but it was rapidly thinning on top, making him look older than he really was. When he smiled, his narrow face flashed a knowing, slightly wicked look that seemed to say, "You can't fool me." But behind this suspicious demeanor and cynical facade was an older version of Miguel, a man as dependent as Miguel on baseball as a way out.
Soto had the intellect and baseball skills to make a great baseball coach or manager. But he had neither the language skills nor the connections with a major league club. He was sick of working as a laborer, so scouting was his great hope. By the time Soto met Miguel, he was desperate.
And he had an idea. He knew major league baseball was starting to recruit heavily in the Dominican, and he knew that Dominicans of his generation had failed in large numbers because they lacked fundamentals. So with some of his own money and some help from the Athletics, he drilled kids all day, every day, before they developed too many bad habits. For those who showed promise, he lured them to his camp with a tempting promise: "I can refine your talent and I can teach you something even more important -- discipline. Without discipline, the Americans will never give you a chance. I can give that to you and if you have the ability, you can become a star."
Equal parts entrepreneur and romantic, what Soto really had going for him when he crossed paths with Miguel was that he could connect with the kids. Every day, in the same floppy blue sweat pants, Soto would stand surrounded by fifty or more young recruits and not only succeed in holding their attention but make sure they all knew they had better listen to him.
"Don't listen to me!" he would scream at a boy defying his orders. "Go ahead. But you know what you have waiting for you?" Soto would then pause, before booming "Miseria," the Spanish word for misery -- in this case a reminder of the poverty all his recruits lived in.
There were no rich baseball players in Soto's training camp, or any other in the Dominican for that matter. There is a saying in the country that goes, "The rich kids don't have to play baseball. They can rely on their daddies. Only the poor depend on the game."
Though he knew baseball, Soto viewed himself as a failure in the game.
Like Miguel, he had played baseball since he was a young boy and showed promise as a shortstop, signing a contract with the Giants as a teenager in 1980. After training for a time in the Dominican, the Giants sent Soto to the United States in 1981 -- to their rookie league team in Montana. "If they were interested in me they didn't show it," said Soto of the months he spent alone as the only Hispanic on his team, Soto recalls it all now with the acrid memories of an outsider, forced to learn the game on his own without the benefit of instruction, which American players got routinely.
At the end of his lone season, Soto decided never to go back. He drifted out of baseball for several years. Later, he made some acquaintances in the Oakland organization and began to coach kids and recommend the best ones.
As for Miguel, there was no reason for Soto to pay any attention to him early on -- he was simply too small, and it was impossible to tell whether his little body would ever develop. But when Miguel turned fourteen, Soto noticed he had an aura that made him stand out from the other boys, a power in his compact body that flashed like a bolt of lightning every time he swung the bat. Soto asked Miguel to stay after practice one day in the summer of 1990.
"Do you want to be a professional?" Soto asked Miguel. "Do you want to practice with me?" The answer came back quickly, and soon Miguel was one of Soto's recruits -- part of a group of about fifty boys who had been working out with him since 1990.
Of that group, Soto would only recommend a handful to be signed to professional contracts. He had had a hunch Miguel would be one of those boys, but at first he couldn't be sure. By the looks of his tattered clothes, his skinny ribs, and his wild demeanor, Soto could tell that Miguel was poor -- even by Dominican standards. And he knew that such poverty comes with overwhelming limitations that many boys simply can never overcome.
Could Miguel, a boy growing up with no r ules, conform to a game made of rules? Could he show the discipline to practice? Could he go beyond his sandlot instincts and physical ability and learn to play the American game -- a tactical game of concentration, restrained reaction, and calculation? And most of all, could Miguel stay out of trouble, away from alcohol and the growing drug trade in the Dominican?
Today, Soto says, "Once I asked him to join me, I never had any doubts about his baseball talent. But I did have doubts about him."
Indeed, under Soto's strict, drill-sergeant regimen, Miguel began to chafe and rebel. He showed up late for practice. He talked back to Soto. He goofed around with the other boys.
Before his mother's death, Miguel understood this sort of behavior could derail his career before it even started. But after her death, it was as if he completely lost his bearings. Ironically, Miguel chose to rebel against the one thing that could save him.
After a few weeks of screaming and cajoling, of small punishments and silent treatments, Soto had had enough: He threw Miguel off his practice squad. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Miguel left while Soto privately lamented the victory of limitation over potential -- a way of life in the Dominican. In a country with so many natural resources, there was so much poverty. And in a boy with so much baseball talent, there were so many obstacles he apparently couldn't overcome.
Miguel says he remembers crying that night, feeling a sense of desperation, of hopelessness.
But the next day he was back, pleading his case.
Soto was surprised to see him and at first resisted Miguel's conciliatory words. But Soto took him back. And before long, he would take him back again . And again. And again.
Both lost track how often Miguel was thrown off Soto's teams. What ultimately saved him was not his childish pleadings or his melodramatic declaration, "Soto, kill me but don't throw me off the team." What saved Miguel was his situation, his life, his struggle.
As he did with other boys, Soto would drive Miguel home after practice. But once there, he discovered that Miguel's problems were rooted in his abandonment at home. "I remember one time I went looking for him and his brother Denio told me that he was inside, in his room, and that I should go in. I did, but when I peered into his room I didn't see anyone. I was annoyed and I went out and told Denio that Miguel wasn't there.
"He sent me in again and told me to go ail the way in the room -- that I would find him in there. I did and Denio was right. He was in there. But the reason I didn't see him was that he was completely submerged in this big hole in his mattress. The hole just swallowed him up and from outside the room you couldn't tell that there was anybody in there. He was just inside that hole, asleep. I woke him up and said, 'Come on, let's go get something to eat.'"
Soto took Miguel to his home that afternoon and his wife cooked for him. At that moment, Miguel's vulnerability, a childlike softness that was as much a part of him as anything else, touched Soto in a way he never expected. As Miguel sat there at his table, eating his food clumsily, Soto found himself talking with Miguel as if he were talking to his own child.
In a manner devoid of the cunning, deliberate ways he had learned as a boy, Miguel told Soto that "he didn't know things. That he wasn't trying to do the wrong thing in practice but th at he simply didn't know what the right thing was." Soto decided that afternoon that he would give Miguel the best he could. At this point, there was no reason to believe this would lead to anything
Moreover, Soto knew well the cruelties of baseball for Dominicans -- how injury or lack of interest from Americans could mean the end of a dream and a life sentence to poverty. All Soto had to do was recall his own experiences with the Giants.
By the time Miguel was fifteen and approaching sixteen, the Athletics had begun signing a handful of players from Bani to professional contracts and training them with the idea of sending the best of them to the United States. The great Juan Marichal, the only Dominican elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, was the director of scouting for the Athletics in the Dominican and was doling out tiny bonuses of up to five thousand dollars for the young boys Soto and others recommended to the organization.
A regal presence in his country, Marichal was fighting an uphill battle in the recruitment wars against richer, better-staffed teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, Marichal knew full well that the first recruits he recommended to the Athletics in the early 1980s had no business playing professional baseball.
The purpose they served was to fill out minor league rosters and thereby help train other, more talented players. Hamstrung by tighter budgets than more prosperous teams, the Athletics were looking for bargains -- cheap talent they could develop at a very low cost. This was the atmosphere that existed as Miguel turned sixteen and began to close in on the promise that Soto saw in him -- promise that stood in stark contrast to Migu el's life away from the field.
"They were abandoned," Soto says. "They didn't have anything, no one was around to help them." By this point, Soto was slipping money to Miguel and his brother so they could eat. Meantime, the prospect of signing a professional contract grew with each day in Miguel's mind. After two years of working with Soto, it had become clear to him that baseball was his only way out. All around him, boys he had grown up with in Los Barrancones were dropping like flies.
So he clung to the game and to Soto.
And Soto clung to him.
In May of 1993, Miguel turned seventeen -- the age when Dominican players become eligible to sign professional baseball contracts. Soto felt that Miguel was ready to be signed and mentioned him to some of Marichal's assistants with the Athletics. But they didn't react one way or the other.
Miguel had finally reached the age he had looked forward to for years, the age where he could begin to prove himself, but no one was interested in him. No one from Los Barrancones had ever been recruited to be a professional ballplayer up to that point, and for a time it seemed Miguel would be no different from the forgotten boys of his youth, the same boys who played alongside him and his brothers, the ones who now carried pistols in their pants pockets, were unemployed, or had gone to New York as illegal immigrants.
Miguel learned to play the position of shortstop with these boys, the position of choice for young Latin men aspiring to be professional ballplayers. This was because over the years, Latins had experienced the most success at a spot where smaller, quicker bodies were preferred. Shortstop was where Alfredo Griffin played for the Toro nto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics, and Los Angeles Dodgers. Griffin, a Dominican, was Miguel's hero. Griffin had grown up poor just like Miguel, but by the early 1980s, he had become a millionaire, an All-Star, and a hero in his own country. In 1988, Griffin helped lead the Dodgers to a World Championship. Miguel was twelve that year and decided he wanted to switch from catcher to shortstop. He wanted to be like Griffin.
Taking the field on his first day at shortstop, Miguel was feeling cocky, feeling he could handle any line drive hit in his direction. And in the very first inning, Miguel got his first test. A teenager from the neighborhood hit a hard grounder that took one, a second, and then a third bounce before reaching him. steadying his feet, Miguel planted himself and -- following the ball with his eyes -- positioned his hands at chest level.
But on that last bounce, the ball jumped hard off a rock and shot straight up, crashing into his lips and front teeth and spilling blood all over his shirt. Laughter rang out across the diamond as Miguel fell backward and roiled over, clutching his mouth with his hands.
With tears in his eyes and blood on his hands, Miguel picked up the ball, but it was far too late to get the runner at first. Miguel was disoriented, and he felt his face throbbing as his lips swelled and the blood dried on the front of his shirt. But the game kept going and more balls came at him, bouncing off his chest, his arms, his shins.
He was all alone out there between second and third base, chasing the ball again and again, lunging, diving, snaring it in his glove, and throwing wildly to first base. In a sense, playing shortstop was fitting for Miguel, because it is the h ardest position in the game, a spot where most everything hit at you is out of reach or requires a superhuman effort. And there is always the possibility of getting hit in the mouth. The position was a mirror of Miguel's life.
On that first day, Miguel was oblivious to his pain and to everything around him, playing hard until darkness fell on Los Barrancones. Once the game was over, some of the boys stopped to talk, to horse around, or to posture for one another as boys do. But not Miguel.
Barefoot and still hurting from his first taste as a shortstop, Miguel turned away from the others and did what he often did after a game. He ran toward home wondering what he was going to eat that night, wondering whether he would ever escape Los Barrancones.
For weeks after his seventeenth birthday, when no professional team showed a real interest in him, Miguel felt as he had on that first day he played shortstop.
He felt totally and completely alone.
Copyright © 1999 by Macros Bretón and José Luis Villegas
A rhythmic chant, a joyous noise drawn from the soul of Africa rang through the barrio of Los Barrancones in the Dominican Republic. The skies overhead -- brilliant blue one moment, dark and foreboding the next -- were opening up, dropping a warm, stinging rain on faded, pastel-colored dwellings, on pigs and dogs fighting for scraps of food, grizzled men in baseball caps, youths swilling cheap rum, and naked children playing next to girls dressed in pink satin party dresses. It was a Sunday morning, a special day of belated commemoration for the loss of a woman, both wife and mother, heart and soul, to one destitute family in this Caribbean nation -- an island where natives and African slaves were dominated first by Spanish conquistadors and then, in this century, by U.S. Marines and the long arm of American culture.
It was February 1997. Miguel Tejada was twenty years old. And he was joining relatives and friends as they chanted and prayed for the memory of his mother, who had died in 1989. As his entire barrio worshiped amid the squalor they have always known, Tejada knew he was at a crossroads in his young life: While still rooted in a level of Third World poverty that has no equal in the United States, Tejada had nonetheless become a vessel of hope for the hopeless gathered before him in their Sunday best. He was the baseball star, the five-foot-ten-inch marvel who could play shortstop like a wizard, run with explosive speed, throw with power and accuracy, and launch towering, majestic home runs. A former shoeshine boy who used to beg for spare change in his bare feet, whose only real education was an education of hungerould barely clothe their children. Spurred by love and desperation, good intentions and barely concealed opportunism, all wanted a piece of Tejada, the very first from Los Barrancones to ever have a chance at getting out.
Tejada prepared himself for this day as best he could, but it wasn't long before he retreated to the stone-floored hut he shared with his father and six other family members. Cloistered inside, his privacy protected only by the stained bedsheet that passes for his bedroom door, Tejada hardly looked like the future millionaire that everyone from USA Today to The Sporting News and the Oakland Athletics predicted he would become.
Tejada's high cheekbones and bright, dark eyes projected a look of serenity that masked the emotions churning inside him. On this day, his beaming smile was nowhere to be found. A sweaty mass of humanity was gathering before a makeshift shrine to his mother, which had been set up on a frayed mahogany table in the Tejada family home. On the table were a blue wooden crucifix and oil paintings of the savior, Jesus Christ, an invading Spanish soldier trampling a dark-skinned peasant while riding a charging white steed, and a bearded Moses proclaiming the Ten Commandments. They danced before these symbols, chanting and singing, as, outside, six young men pounded hand-carved wooden drums that had been heated at an open fire to bring out a fuller, richer sound. The drummers' shouts and hollers grew louder and louder, piercing the prayers led by an elderly shaman, who struggled to keep her composure as she read from the Gospel, burned a sweet, smoky incense, and blessed all in the house with holy water contained in a Mickey Mouse glass.
Whi le the shaman sprayed the water around the room with a ginger leaf, Tejada's eldest half-sister, Augustina, a heavy-set woman of forty, bolted to her feet, stormed outside and berated the drummers. "Shut up!" came her muffled shout. "This is a holy day. We can hear all of you in there." With that, the men scattered in different directions, all bearing looks of anger and fear, like little boys chastised by their mothers. They waited anxiously for a time, but before the shaman had completed her mass, they took the drums and stormed the house. Beginning slowly until all could get the rhythm, the music built methodically, and once all had locked in on the beat, the chant took off like a bird in flight. Children and adults were drawn to the Tejada home by the wondrous sound from within. Soon, fifty people crammed into a space where fifteen would have been crowded. Outside, young and old peered through wooden window slats and moved along with the music.
It was a beat that soared higher and higher on the single spiritual chant of "Gloria...Gloria...Gloria...Gloria." Finally, Tejada came out from his hiding place and began making his way toward the memorial for his mother. No one, not even Tejada's father, knew for sure what had killed her. They thought it might have been pneumonia. Their poverty had prevented them not only from getting her adequate medical care, but also from getting definitive answers on the cause of her death. All the family could do was accept the end when the end came.
On this day, resplendent in a silver necklace with an eagle-shaped pendant, Tejada felt strong, and he was greeted like a young monarch about to ascend the throne. Sitting down among friends, neighbors and family, ol d men sipping rum knelt at Tejada's feet in unvarnished adoration. Women brought their children before him, as if asking Tejada to bless them. At one point, a distant aunt grabbed her seven-year-old by the arm and, dripping with disgust, said, "Look, Miguel. He's afraid of the ball." The mother then gazed upon her son as if he were useless. Miguel looked at the boy with a pained expression. With his eyes he seemed to be asking, "What do you want me to do about it?"
It's not that Tejada wasn't happy to be among his people. He was. But the pressure was clearly taking its toll. After the season Tejada had in 1996, this was understandable. As a shortstop with the Class A Modesto Athletics of the California League, regarded as one of the toughest minor league circuits, Tejada played the American game with such flair and abandon that he could make even calloused baseball veterans giggle.
Named to the California League's All-Star team, Tejada hit 20 home runs for the season. That is a remarkable feat for a shortstop, the hardest position in the game and one where weak-hitting little guys with a flair for glove work still far outnumber the special players like Tejada -- those who can make the great plays while striking fear into the hearts of pitchers. Tejada likely would have led his team with 30 home runs or more had he not missed nearly a month of the season with a hairline fracture in his left thumb.
After the season, he was named the most exciting player of the California League and its top prospect. USA Today wrote that he was the most gifted shortstop in the minor leagues. The Sporting News picked him as one of five "can't miss" players on the rise. (A testament to the growing pow er of Latin talent in baseball, four of these five players picked by The Sporting News that year were Dominican.) In those moments between the lines, it was as if Tejada had taken all the hunger, all the fear, all the sorrow, and all the longing of his young life and used it as a warrior would use a weapon. And it was then, during the game, that his spirit overcame his poverty, his instincts overcame his lack of education, and his dreams overcame his reality. If he played well in 1997, it was almost assured he would reach the major leagues. Until then, however, Tejada was dancing on a string, living an existence where he only truly came to life when he was on the field -- a life where the miserable reality of his barrio was only a shattered knee or a broken limb away. All of this was on his mind as he was led into his house for a final blessing for his mother.
The music and the chanting subsided, leaving a roomful of limp, sweating family members, squinting from the burning of incense and the powerful afternoon sun now burning high in suddenly clear skies. Miguel held hands with his family as a holy woman read from the Bible. Then his sister Augustina walked up to him, looked deep into his eyes, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, haltingly spoke for her family:
"When Miguel was a little boy, he was so good to our mother, so sweet. And from the time he was little, his brother would say that he was good at baseball, that he was good enough to be a major leaguer. Miguel would come home from playing, and he would take our mother by the hand and say, 'Mama, someday I'm going to reach the major leagues. Some day, I'm going to make a lot of money and I promise you, I'll buy you a house. S ome day that's going to happen.'"
Pausing for a moment, she continued, "Mama, you didn't live long enough to see that day. So now we ask of you Lord, to please bless Miguel as he goes to America. He's so close to reaching that goal. Please give him the strength to make it, Lord. Give him the strength to make his wish for our mother come true."
Tejada stood impassively as his sister spoke. He almost seemed embarrassed. When she finished, he embraced her. He then embraced his father and other members of the family. And as the drummers began playing again, Tejada moved toward the door, a distant look in his eyes. In three days' time, he was scheduled to fly on a first-class ticket from the Dominican capital to Phoenix for the annual rite of spring training. For the first time, he was going with the major league players, booked in a first-rate hotel and set to earn major league expense money. If he excelled during the exhibition season, there were whispers that Tejada could be the starting shortstop for the Athletics on Opening Day, 1997.
That would be quite an accomplishment for a young man whose exceptional services were acquired by the Athletics for only two thousand dollars -- a tiny fraction of what American players of lesser talent can command. When the offer came in 1993, Tejada was seventeen and earning poverty wages by working in a garment factory, ironing shirts, pressing pants, growing used to his sweat smelling like bleach. No one from his barrio had ever finished school or become any more than what he already was -- dirt poor -- so Tejada took the money and gave it to his father. He didn't have college offers to use as leverage against his meager bonus, or agents who could protect his interests, or parents who could help him maneuver through the land mines of modern-day major league sports. He was just a kid with precious few English skills and no other compelling options in his life but to play baseball.
The way major league baseball saw it, they were doing Tejada a favor -- giving him a big opportunity. That's what the Athletics told Tejada when they signed him, and, in one sense, they were right: He had nothing else going for him. But the Athletics also were getting something special, a potential multi-million-dollar talent for the bargain price of what one major league player gets for a couple of weeks' meal money. In this sense, Tejada is connected to almost every Latin who has ever played major league baseball. Latins have always been attractive to major league scouts because they could be signed for less than American players, providing cheap labor, like so many other Latin immigrants in other walks of life.
In his barrio, surrounded by his people and filled with the memory of his mother, none of this seemed to matter to Tejada. "I just want to get there," he said of his pending journey to Phoenix and his chance to play alongside superstars like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. "I want to show what I have, to prove what I can do."
He couldn't know then that fate was conspiring against him, that his journey would be even more treacherous than he had imagined. Tejada had already traveled a hard road just to get where he was on that day of his mother's memorial. Indeed, her death was not even the most difficult obstacle he would have to overcome. "Solo dios sabe que me espera en la vida," said Tejada.
Only God knows what life has in store for me.
Try as he might, Tejada could find no more certainties as darkness fell on the Dominican and he headed for a nightclub where he could listen to music among friends. As he sat quietly amid the laughter and strains of Dominican songs of longing, loneliness, and desire, Tejada suddenly said to no one in particular, "I know I'm going to make it."
When no one responded, he spoke again the ambition of millions of young men like him, "I know I'm going to be the one."
Copyright © 1999 by Marcos Bretón and José Luis Villegas