Friday, May 29, 2015

More practice in Saltillo.

As soon as I got back to the Quinta Real, I decided that the hotel was no place for me. I had left el Estadio rashly, I berated myself. I should have hung in there and batting practiced until it was having some positive effect,

So rather than crash in my room or grab some lunch, I hailed another beaten Toyota and headed back to the field. Once again I stripped down and suited up.

This time, however, instead of waiting my turn in official batting practice I found a young pitcher on the Saraperos, a 21-year-old righty named Misael Verduzco and offered him $50 to throw for me for an hour.

We set up a net backstop and he threw gently. I smacked them back, doing little more making contact, trying to get my eye back, trying to waken my dormant eye-hand coordination.

Verduzco was a machine, tossing in strike after strike. I smacked and smacked, swinging little half strokes. Every fifteen minutes or so, we'd take a break and fetch the balls I had smacked around the grass. Then we'd go again. Verduzco grooving them, me slowly getting both my timing and some semblance of a swing back.

After what must have been 150 pitches my torn rotator screamed and I had had enough. If I stunk up the juegos de viejos now, at least it wouldn't be for lack of trying. But just for good measure, I went to the Saraperos cage again and again waited my turn behind two kids. When it came my turn, the intricacies that weren't working before were working now. My bat was high, my weight shifted, my elbow stayed away from my ribcage. Pitches would come in and just as quick or quicker, I'd spray the orb around, hitting a fair degree of imaginary basehits and a double or two. For the last ten pitches I decided to see if I could summon my old man strength and hit one into the stands. I took ten massive cuts and ten times I hit major league pop-ups, nothing longer than it was high. But that's ok I said to myself. Come game time tomorrow, I'd be focused on getting good wood on the ball, not hitting the benches black with people.

Next I went to third, el esquina caliente to see if I could field my place. A coach fungoed grounder after grounder to me, and I fielded the ones close by with some dexterity. My arm, which had deserted me after a foosh (fall on out-stretched hand) injury seemed to have come back to life. No longer was I lobbing the ball across the diamond, between my adrenaline and my gradual healing I was able to snap my throws to first.

I was still no Brooks Robinson, but my fears of playing like I had clown feet and a straight-jacketed arm had dissipated.

Toward the end of my short fielding stint at third, Buentello and Diablo came over to rag me. I fielded a shag to my right, back-handing a grass-cutting, taking a hop step and throwing across my body a strike to first.

"Bueno," I said.

I saw the wind leave them.

"Bueno," they admitted.

I was ready for the game.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Batting practice in Saltillo.

I arrived in the lobby like I said I would, at ten this morning, hoping that one of the boys—the 60-year-old boys would show up. But as I expected, no one did.

That’s ok, I figured. I’d taking a lot of batting practice in my time, and for me, it’s something of a solitary affair. I really didn’t need the ragging I was sure to receive, neither did I need the advice.

I took a beaten Toyota truck—a pick up with two wooden benches bolted into the bed, the two  point seven miles to Estadio de Beisbol Francesco I. Madura. I had thought about running the distance, but for the last year, I’ll start running tomorrow. Tomorrow may or may not come. My heart hopes it does. But for now, the will of my beaten knees is prevailing.

The locker-room hadn’t changed much since I left. It was still a jumble of equipment scattered here and there and inspirational posters of Mexican stars, or Mexican-American stars who had made it into the big leagues. There was also a poster of Hector Quesadilla hanging above the guest locker that I took.

“Hector,” I said to the poster. “I’ve come back for you.” Hector smiled at me blankly, but I knew he heard.

I put on a pair of padded shorts—the padding protecting my hind-quarters in case I had to slide, but the likelihood of me sliding was about the same as Hector answering my salutation. I tied up my spikes and trotted (trying not to run like a fat man) through the cinder-block tunnel to the greensward.

There’s something magical about seeing the green, seeing the stands, seeing the flags and bunting. My blood still gets up like a mountain river when the melt’s on. There were a few Saraperos bouncing about the field. A couple hurlers throwing loosely to catchers on the sidelines. There were a few outfielders shagging in the nether regions. And an infielder or two was picking bad hops out of the turf.

There was a short line at the backstop waiting for batting practice and I joined it and tried kibitzing with the 19-year-old Saraperos. No dice. “El Abuelo,” one called me—jocularly, I suppose. And another called me “El Viejo.” The grandfather. The old one.

This is exactly as I feared. These were two kids, one long, strong and sinewy, the other short and heavy. One of them would surely laugh at me.

“I was a Sarapero back before you were born,” I said by wait of introduction. “My name is Jorge Navidad. One season. .277 and 13 homeruns. Hector Quesadilla was my manager and my mentor.”

“Jorge Navidad,” the tall one said. “Un amigo de Generalissimo Hector.”

“No,” I answered. “Su hijo Americano.”

Age before beauty and all that, the young men encouraged me to bat ahead of them. I picked up some wood, the lightest bat I could find, figuring I couldn’t get around on a teenager.

“Facil,” I shouted to the arm who was tossing BP. “Soy un veterano.”

The kid on the hill grooved one in. I swung and nobbed it into the dust. He grooved another. I did my best to remember how to hit. But remembering how and doing it are two different animals. I kept my elbow up and away from my ribs. I held my hands high. I leaned back and shifted my considerable girth forward. Again I hit the ball on my hands, a nibbler down third base.

I got 20 pitches in all and hit not one of them good. No matter what adjustments I tried to make, no matter what coach I heard in my ear, the flesh was not willing.

By this time, it was almost noon now, Buentello and Diablo showed up. They were already in their cups. They took their swats and couldn’t do much more than I. By the time they were done, there was a new kid on the mound and I went up again.

“Facil,” I said again.

The kid took pity on me and threw a grapefruit, up where my power used to be. I swatted at it and struck the ball on the label of the bat and muscled it into the outfield just past second base. That was enough for me.

I showered, dressed and walked back to the Quinta Real.


I was beginning to dread this.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A night in Saltillo.

After a six-hour drive through the desert, I arrived in Saltillo and found the Quinta Real Hotel. In the years since I left the town after my lone season down there in 1975, there is barely anything left that I recognize. A few of the landmarks are there, the tall tower of the 18th Century Cathedral, the Plaza de Armas fountain still trickles, as does a thin gush from the ancient aqueduct bringing water in from the mountains, 40 kilometers away.

But the city itself is different. It is noisier, for one. With the clatter of trucks from the auto factories, the cacophony of blare from a million cars and their radios, and just the general tumult of a million people living where when I lived there, there were only 300,000.

I think the world is noisier now, no matter where you are. Even in New York, a city I am used to like my fingerprints, I notice more noise than ever. It’s because, I chastised myself, I am less tolerant of it that I hear more of it.

I saw not a store I used to go to. Not a newspaper stand. Not a movie theater or a restaurant. Even Rico’s, the little diner where I ate so many meals and downed so many cervezas frias and was always so busy you could hardly get in is gone. I had been looking forward to their chicken dinner with rice and beans. I’ve been to some of the best restaurants all over the world, and no one has ever made a chicken dinner—and given it to me free two times a months, like they did at Rico’s. Gone. Even Hector’s house, which of course stands on the same rocky lot I remember, is twice as large and much more elaborate than it was so many years ago.

I walked around Saltillo for a while, I started around six in the evening and didn’t find my way back to the Quinta Real until just before ten. Buentello, Willie Arano, a light-hitting utility man and Angel Diablo, another light-hitting infielder, were all in the bar sopping in the cervezas. I pulled up a stool and got myself a gin with a whole lime squeezed in, over plenty of ice.

Buentello, who had always run to fat had to be well over 300 pounds now, and even Diablo, who couldn’t have weighed 130 dripping wet when we played together 40 years earlier probably weighed 200. Arano still looked like he was around his playing weight. I was somewhere between Buentello and Diablo. 

I drank my gin. And watched the boys laugh.

“Tomorrow,” I said getting up to leave, “let’s meet at ten and get some batting practice in at the stadium. I don't want to embarrass myself.”

I hugged my friends good night, knowing full well I’d be the only one up and out at ten. 

I don’t want to embarrass myself.


Friday, May 22, 2015

A late night call.

I got a call last night, late, past my bed time.

That can mean one of two or three things. Someone's in trouble and needs me. It's a wrong number and a drunk is calling. Or it's a legitimate call from someone who doesn't know that I'm pretty much lights out by ten.

"Jorge," the crackle at the other end of the line said. "Jorge Navidad."

I didn't recognize the voice. But no one calls me Jorge Navidad anymore. Fact is, I dropped the moniker completely when I returned from Saltillo after my one season down south.

"Yeah, who's this," I growled. To tell you the truth I was in no mood to talk.

"It's Issy," the voice said. "Issy Buentello."

Isael Buentello was a catcher on the Saraperos and probably my best friend on the team. Though we didn't room together on the road (I mostly roomed with Karmen--the girl in the white dress--at least over the second half of the season) but the two of us were close. That said, I hadn't spoken to him but five times in the intervening 40 years.

Guys can do that, I think. See each other every eight years, and still be blood.

One time, the last time I saw him was probably ten years ago. He was flying to Spain for some business interest he had and he had a lay-over at JFK. I drove out there and at a little bar in Ozone Park, we bent an elbow.

"You are coming to the viejos?"

I laughed "Soy viejo."

Buentello was the kind of player every team needs. He was probably 25 when I was 17, but he played older. He was a stern and steady presence behind the plate at catcher and on the bench. He could stop a fight if a fight needed to be stopped and cut off a rag-fest before it got going. What's more, he was keen defensively and had a bat with some power.

"Estoy aun mas antiguo," he laughed. I am even older.

We shot the shit for a good 20 minutes, my wife wondering who I was talking to in my rotten doorman Spanish.

"You are seeing Karmen?" he asked me.

I snuck a look at my wife to to see if she was listening.

"No," in Spanish "Lo último que supe de Karmen fue hace veinte años." The last I heard from Karmen was 20 years ago. I let the subject drop.

We chitted and chatted for another 15 minutes, the went our ways, promising to once again bend an elbow south of the border.

I turned off the light.

And wished, wherever she was, Karmen a good night.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A package from Saltillo.

I got home last night and the concierge in my building handed me a large FedEx package, return address El Stadio de Beisbol Francisco I. Madero in Saltillo, Mexico. I must say, the team has classed up a bit in 40 years. Everything inside was polite, efficient and first class. Like getting a job offer from a major law firm.

First was a letter from the CEO of the club, Pliny Escalante Bolio. He thanked me for agreeing to participate in both the juegos de viejos and the tribute on Sunday, May 31 to Hector Quesadilla.

Then there was a note from the Managing Director of the club, one Oscar Rojas Salazar Neri, who again sincerely thanked me for my participation and then pointed me to a well-prepared sheaf of papers that included information about our accommodations while in Saltillo. We'd be staying at the Quinta Real de Saltillo, a far nicer place than I'd ever stayed before, and just a short walk to the ballpark.

Finally, there was a handwritten note from the Saraperos' new manager, Juan Rodriguez, Juan Jose Pacho, the previous manager having jumped to the Leones de Yucatan in the off-season.

"Dear Jorge," it said. "I am very much looking forward to making your pleasannt [sic] acquaintance. I too was like bread and butter with Hector and he spoke of you much before his demise, which of course was untimely. If there is anything I can do to make your time back in Saltillo more agreeable, please do not hesitate to let me know. I remain in your service."

Also in the package was an itinerary. I would be leaving on the 7:29 from LaGuardia, landing in Corpus Christi at 1:20 pm, where I'd pick up a Ford or other fine car at Avis. From there, six hours through the scruff and desert to Saltillo.

I checked the contents of my overnight bag again. I was fully packed except for my toiletries.

And then I ordered in dinner.

Mexican.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

5 Minutes with our CDO (Chief Decoration Officer.)

Ad Aged: As Chief Decoration Officer, tell me, what is it you do?

CDO: A good portion of my job involves kerning. I make sure the type on a comp that has a snowball's chance in hell of ever running is perfectly kerned. That often involves the tough task of making sure creatives have no time to concept but plenty of time to execute.

Ad Aged: You make sure the kerning is right?

CDO: Of course there's more to my job than that. Do you know just the other day a CD said, can't we just sketch a comp? I make sure that doesn't happen. That we spend late nights and weekends looking for the right stock photo.

Ad Aged: How do you know when you've found that photo?

CDO: You'll know because you've seen it. I love the feeling I get when my agency's work looks just like everyone else's. I know I've done my job.

Ad Aged: What else does your job entail?

CDO: Basically, I believe we live in a post-meaning world. The medium doesn't matter anymore--I apologize to Marshall McCluhan. Neither does the message. I apologize to Bill Bernbach. What matters is how the message is typeset.

Ad Aged: Anything else?

CDO: Yes. Everything I do is built around the idea that we have to prevent people from thinking. We have five minutes to concept. And five days to build a deck. And believe me, I build a beautiful deck.

Also important are small, colorful splashes on the page. They are without meaning, and we call them abstractions. They permit us to keep art directors working around the clock. Those are billable hours, my friend.

Ad Aged: Thank you for your time, this morning.

CDO: Just let me see this, before it goes out. I'd hate for there to be too much type.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

10 things that will happen right before your next pitch.

1. The printer won't work when you need it to. Neither will the one down the hall.
2. The deck will be late. And too long.
3. There will be more traffic than you anticipated.
4. The air-conditioning will be off all weekend. It will be 90.
5. There will be a glaring spelling mistake. Within the first three pages.
6. The lead campaign will die right before the meeting. Then spring back to life.
7. A high-ranking person will show up late.
8. And be ill-informed.
9. And make you repeat everything.
10. The pizza will be cold.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Ghana, but not forgotten.

A bunch of us got called in to work over the weekend. First, it looked like we'd be able to work from home. Then, it looked like we'd work on Saturday and have our Sunday off. Ultimately, I headed home around 9 last night. And I left on the early side.

It took me forever to get a cab. Ninth Avenue was closed for the weekend for some sort of Food Festival and for whatever reason that closure seemed to tie up the entire city. There were probably people in Staten Island waiting extra long at a light because some suburbanite was selling zeppoles on 46th Street.

I got into a cab and was met with the wild gesticulations of a West African cab driver.

"Where are you from," I asked.

"Ghana. I will go back there someday. New York, I love. But Ghana I go back to."

I mentioned Kwame Nkrumah, the man who led Ghana out of colonial status to independence. I must be one of ten Americans who know Nkrumah, and all at once the driver and I were blood brothers. He opened up to me.

"I want to bring my father this truck," he said pointing to a Ford F-250 that was parked, almost inexplicably in the more rarefied precincts of Central Park West. "I will ship it home to my father, who is a farmer. But then customs takes $7000 and I cannot afford that."

I asked him if he had heard of Johnny Cash and his great song called "One piece at a time," in which an autoworker steals a Cadillac El Dorado one piece at a time over the course of decades, sneaking pieces out in his lunch box.

"Maybe you should try that to avoid customs," I said.

video
He hadn't heard the song. I quickly found the sound on YouTube and we sat in the car in front of my apartment listening to it.

He laughed the laugh of the ages.

"If God does not give you enough water to bathe," he said, "you wash your hands and legs."

I have him a big tip--I had worked all weekend at time and a half, and we shook hands.

He earned it the $10 extra I gave him.

He had made a sweaty Sunday at work worth it.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Robots in the Tempus Fugit.

I'm, as usual, feeling a lot of pressure at work. And when 2:18 rolled around last night and I still couldn't shut my eyes, I threw on an old pair of jeans, a sweatshirt and a pair of sneakers and headed with Whiskey in tow, uptown to the Tempus Fugit.

I made my way down and up the various stairways, hallways and egresses. Through an assortment of steel-reinforced doors, past a dozen or so 60-watters hanging naked, and finally arrived at the amber incandescence of the joint.

I took my usual stool one in from the end, and Whiskey took her usual place at the foot of said stool. In a trice, the bartender was around the bar with a bowl of water for the pup, then back behind the hardwood, frothing my glass with a Pike's (the ALE that won for YALE!)

By way of salutation he offered this: "Tis an ill wind that blows no good," he said.

I looked around the joint. It was the same as it ever was. Everything was in apple pie order except for one table in the back, near the signed glossy of Gene Tunney, heavyweight champeen of the world from 1926 to 1928. On the table, open to the racing form was a well-read copy of "The New-York Journal-American." It was last published in 1966.

"That's lugubrious for an otherwise sterling night," I said, draining my Pike's.

He pulled me some more ounces of suds, wiped the teak in front of me and presented me with the brew.

"I have read an article," he began, "that leaves me more than a little distraught."

Mechanically, he slid over a small wooden bowl of salted Spanish peanuts. I pushed them away to my right, saying, as I always say, "A pound in every nut."

"I fear the rise of robots," he continued. "They build our cars, defuse our bombs, stock our warehouses, vacuum our floors. I'm told that soon they will slice our onions, wash our tomatoes and even make our hamburgers. They say robots will write our newspapers, film our TV shows, record our music, drive our automobiles, perform our surgical operations, make our machines--even machines that make more robots. And all the while, these robots will be getting smarter and learning and doing more."

He drew me another Pike's.

"It won't take much," he said, "to put a robot in the Tempus Fugit, capable of dispensing equal parts programmed wisdom and pulling the Pike's tap for sallow-eyed sots like you."

"I can see the reason for your torpor," I said. "I too fear a future that gets steadily worse everyday. Like the Mets."

He grabbed his damp terry and polished the already gleaming woodwork. I stared deep into my glass and saw a mechanical Scylla and Charybdis, reaching and screeching at a small ship of humans trying to sail by.

After some uncomfortable moments of silence, I pushed two twenties across the teak in his direction.

"There's one thing robots won't do," he said, brightening.

I waited for the night's only good news. "What's that," I straight-manned.

"They won't ever say, 'on me.'"

Whiskey and I walked quietly home. Choosing to ignore every traffic signal along the way.




Thursday, May 14, 2015

30 years of intense therapy. 3 words.

I've been in therapy for so long, I joke that if I ever visited Vienna, Austria, half the population would come out to thank me.

For the last 25 years or so, I've been seeing a very wise man whom I've grown to love and respect. I need therapy. Not because I'd be Norman Bates of Richard Wagner without it--howling at the moon and falling down a rabbit hole--but because I need 45 minutes a week that are solely about me.

Me.

Me.

Me.

We spend our lives--so many of us do, anyway, doing things for other people, coming through at work, dealing with spouse tsurrus, money issues and bullshit at work that we forget something very important.

Those three words I promised above.

Deep self-appreciation.

They're not easy for me. Nine assignments out of ten I think I fucked up. I'm always worried someone will hate something, or will think I suck.

I've got to stop.

Stop.

Stop.

Every once in a while you've got to stop.

Look around.

Breathe.

And appreciate who you are, what makes you unique, and let yourself be.

Try it.