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By day, the Tijuana stadium is a Mayan ziggurat placating the gods of the barren West

Mexican baseball – the sport with no clock

"That first glimpse of smooth maternal infield curves, the comfortingly symmetric alignment of bases, always feels like the first and the 10 millionth time."
"That first glimpse of smooth maternal infield curves, the comfortingly symmetric alignment of bases, always feels like the first and the 10 millionth time."

The trolley’s last stop nestles under the big gray armpit of the last wide freeway curve on the way to the drive through customs station. But the asphalt arm’s gone, amputated. No attempt has been made to blunt this stump of America. Too many lanes go nowhere, sit on too many stanchions, making this look like some overinflated rubber highway. On the other side, the lane markers don’t glisten, and there just aren’t enough cars. The frontage roads are lined with shanties and yonkerias — the closest translation of junk shop. Just in case anyone has a case of cholesterol panic, there’s a McDonald’s a dozen steps or so from the border crossing. It’s only a few steps more to ground chili and lime on everything. A stroll through one linoleum corridor and at the end, chaos. No amount of posted officialese can smooth the abruptness of this most-traversed demarcation between First and Third Worlds, soften the sharp distinction between two ways of being on the planet. Maybe the world’s think tanks ought to be located here — where we confront the “other” and make sure its papers are in order.

But I’ve come for a ballgame! Our taxista balks at first, explaining that the stadium is located far beyond the Tijuana city limits. He follows the main highway out of town past fitful attempts at suburbs, stopping three times to get directions from roadside gypsies huddled by garbage can bonfires in the dusk. At last, he finds the correct way up the hump of a canyon wall. The road turns to dirt as soon as the civilized world can’t see. A tract subdivision claims one side of the dark chasm. The staggered boxes climb one front door at the level of the next one’s roof. One good rain could wash away their bare front yards. Momentarily, the taxi spins its wheels in a mudhole. Looking toward the top of the crest, I spy a familiarly circular form hovering ominously. Though it’s taken a half-hour to get here, a coil of concrete is nuzzled below a craggy ridge that must be back in California. The northernmost ballpark in Latin America sits less than a Dave Kingman poke from the U.S. This could be where illegals gather to make their midnight dash. Unfortunately, the stadium, light towers and all, squats in the dark.

The bulldozed shelf of dirt lots is empty. My league schedule has obviously been revised. Already Latin America conspires to spoil my best-laid plans.

“Manana,” the driver announces, my first of many mananas. My sidekick doesn’t care if the game’s on or off. This is her first archaeological site, and Kim insists on taking a turn around the turnstiles, the ticket booths, the smooth, graded slopes of grandstand. “Pyramids!” she cries out, as though I’ve led her to Chichen Itza.

The driver drops us along the Avenida de la Revolution. “Which revolution?”

Kim wants to know. With Woolworth’s and Denny’s and two-storied stucco lawyers’ offices, this could be broad, well-lit Main Street in any California valley town. Only a few basement-level strip joints, with suggestive names like El Unicomio, remain from the heyday of Tijuana’s sex industry. In this area, too, Mexico can’t compete with the productivity across the border. Our peep-show houses, take-home pom videos, and phone fantasy party lines deliver the explicit with greater efficiency. Kim and I stumble past ghostly warehouses of blankets and pottery, a glut of liquor stores offering deals on mezcal, farmacias well stocked in medicines the FDA hasn’t yet approved. These have become more typically Mexican sights than the street photographers who wait patiently to snap Mom and Pop in sombreros.

“Is Mess-ico only Polaroid?”

Mexico is probably the most mysterious of our Latin neighbors because it’s so shrouded in false images. We know this place least because we think we know it best. Tijuana, for instance, has for some time been the fastest growing city in North America. A local economy revved up with oil revenues and the pocket change of immigrants gathered at the edge of el Norte has turned Sin City into a boom town. It sprawls down a narrow valley in huge boulevards that replicate the American West’s grimy fast-food, oil-and-lube strips — except that here the rotating neon needs translation. Tijuana is also visited by more Americans than any other destination outside the States. More than London, Jamaica, Tokyo. T.J. provides more U.S. passport holders with their image of foreignness, one day-trip at a time. And what is that image’ If first impressions are to be trusted — and most

Americans go no further — then Latin America must be the realm created to straighten whatever we’ve made crooked. The disordered, hilly grid of downtown is crammed with auto body shops, cut-rate dentists, and plastic surgeons. “Give us your dented, your misshapen masses!” says the Mexican Lady Liberty.

We wind up in Tijuana Tillys, one of those posh, stage-set versions of a bandidos’ watering hole. At one end of the broad-beamed dining room, mariachis blare; on the other, a six-foot projection TV screen shows rock videos. Neither noisy side manages total victory. The few college kids engaged in their time-honored semester-break rituals couldn’t care less about atmosphere. One frosh after another leans back in his seat and opens his gullet while an obliging waiter pours the Jose Cuervo down. I hope these are the fraternity’s all-star guzzlers. Their brothers count off booze consumed in seconds, not ounces. “Ten-elephant, twenty-elephant, thirty-elephant....”

Once we’ve polished off chrmichangas in puff pastry cups shaped like coffee filters, my escort asks, “Can you show artist true Mess-ico?” I drag Kim toward the Zona Norte’s unpaved mire of flophouses and cantinas. Here, the side streets are thick with vendors shucking mariscos, shoeshine boys selling a tenth of a tenth of a prayer at the loteria, hoboes sprawled where they can find solid pavement. Well-placed puddles cushion the fell of borrachos bounced out flapping red saloon doors. The poverty here is so Hollywood perfect that I feel like complimenting the wardrobe and makeup departments. The Mexicans know better than anyone how to infuse dramatic charge into personal defeat. Nowhere do' people fall so low or wallow so magnificently. Their mean guys look the meanest, nasty the nastiest, heartbroken the brokenest.

Kim coaxes me into one tavern that promises to offer a tableau of “The Lower Depths.” The action inside turns out to be as innocent as a junior high prom. A balcony encircles the oval-shaped dancing pit, like an indoor track above a YMCA gym. Up top, an all-brass orchestra in secondhand military regalia pumps out the outlandishly blaring, pathos-filled oompah-pahs of its Germanic-based norteno ballads. The throb in the horns is all Mexican, but the beat’s a reminder that this territory was once claimed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Below, a number of cowpokes are doing the fox trot. In formal, mournful coats, buttoned down to their knees, these men look like 19th-century hands just off a long cattle drive. They wear Stetson hats with various tassels attached. A tassel earned for each season on the range, I like to imagine, each duel with a mal hombre. As they do their best two-step sashay, the men barely smile, make no attempt at hanky-panky with for-hire escorts who barely reach up to their waists. The roly-poly, peso-a-dance squaws wrap their dark manes in buns; the lanky men sport bushy handlebars that seem to have collected the dust of the trail. The fleeting connection between these gents and ladies is effected with scrupulous dignity.

“Seen enough?”

“Artist must see world.”

So we cross the alley and head for a classier joint with mock Arabesque facade, poke our heads through padded doors that were the height of ’40s elegance. “A Thousand and One Nights” is apparently under new management. Leatherette booths, the loud, lucky red of a Confucian temple, are claimed entirely by Chinese men. Three male generations of the growing Chinese clan in Tijuana, from graybeards to bespectacled young clerks, sit absolutely silent amid the lurid decor, nursing drinks they don’t seem to want to touch, waiting for a pageant of harem girls that’s long been canceled. It’s as if they’ve come here to rehearse being Latin but their hearts just aren’t in it. I doubt any of them will work his way up to hooting,

“Ay, caramba!" Perhaps they’re consoled by the sight of one another’s discomfort. Hesitating at the door, I soon realize that I’ve made their evening by importing Kim. The men can’t help turning their heads in unison. They must not have seen an unclaimed, unfamiliar Asian female in decades. “Very bad!” Kim whispers. “We go now!”

We check into the Hotel Caesar, where the salad of the same name was invented. Today, the place doesn’t even have a restaurant, let alone room service Do we ask for singles or a double’ Is this terminology from baseball, too? I discover that a Korean lady’s idea of what to do in a fleabag hotel with a strange older man is pluck the first hints of gray out of his head, one strand at a time I’m unhappy only because she finds so many. Mexican late-night TV shows Jose Feliciano doing “Jingle Bells,” ads for canned lard. No carolers, no make-believe families sipping mulled cider, no pine needles on the carpet! This Christmas in Tijuana may be the best Christmas I’ve ever had.


Kim was right. By day, the Tijuana stadium is a Mayan ziggurat placating the gods of the barren West. There is something pre-Columbian about the whole affair. The oval grandstand slopes upward in steep slabs, perfect for sacrificing virgins or sending packs of kids sliding down on the seats of their size-two Wranglers. The base is striped with tan, orange, and purple. Either the park is supposed to look like a big tequila sunrise or those are the home town Ponies’ high desert colors.

A banner strung over the ticket booth rechristens Christmas “El Dia de Los Fanaticos,” the Day of the Fanatics. It sounds like some rediscovered Garcia Marquez epic. After the foretold hot dog, 100 years of indigestion! Once the announcements begin, I realize that my translation is, like most things literal, wholly misleading. “El Dia de Los Fanaticos” is the Hispanic transcription of “Fan Appreciation Day.” The Tijuana franchise, like its counterparts across the border, will be rewarding its loyal patrons with giveaways between every inning — a merchandising trick to attract spectators for a final game unlikely to have a bearing on the standings. I don’t see anybody among this subdued crowd of 5000 checking frantically for a winning number on his ticket stub. Those who’ve chosen to be here on their holy day are fanatics in the original sense of the word, connoting attachment to the sacred. From the Latin fanum, meaning temple.

“Every day’s a good day for a ballgame” is the gospel according to Ernie Banks. So why not this Navidad mom that breaks chilly and serene, with visibility all the way to the land of opportunity? Pope John XXIII was only plagiarizing a Chicago dugout cry when he declared, “Every day’s a good day to be born and a good day to die.” My religion begins and ends with Mister Cub’s single commandment, “Let’s play two!” A doubleheader is on tap for this final day of the Mexican season.

“Please explain!” is Kim’s battle cry.

The rules of the game are difficult enough, but how do I tell her about the quiet joy I feel claiming our place in the sun? That first glimpse of smooth maternal infield curves, the comfortingly symmetric alignment of bases, always feels like the first and the 10 millionth time. This vision of green patch captured for my private use summons up the memories, dreary and magnificent, a remembrance of games past all the way back to the first time I stumbled down an Ebbets Field aisle holding my father’s hand and couldn’t believe I’d been let in on something so arcane yet intimately within my grasp.

Every ballpark is a nation unto itself: each with its own diverse citizenry, its unique customs of feeding, its distinct tenor of absorption and purpose, its disputed borders and one-of-a-kind vistas, its downtown box seats and remote bleacher cantons. The particular pitch and twitter of “hey-batta-batta” are no less clues to the native species than a forest glen’s murmurings. What a wise sport in which the venues not only influence outcomes but our experience! They become a part of what we come to gape at, rate, and rank. Think of the subway cars chugging back and forth behind the Yankee Stadium bleachers; the red-brick confines of Wrigley, somber as a Chicago slaughterhouse; the Cecil B. De Mille palms that fan Dodger Stadium, with its seats powder blue as a leisure suit. Think of the churchyards or shopping malls adjoining the sandlots where you played Little League or Sunday morning softball. Like its crystalline counterpart, the baseball diamond changes with its surroundings. No two jewels alike, that’s the game’s unspoken guarantee.

Here, the grass is well tended and particularly verdant against the mesa-brown backdrop. Wide-bodied lady vendors in flowery aprons prowl the red seats bearing trays full of tortas stuffed with pork carnitas, the Mexican equivalent of corned beef and onion roll, enchiladas that are mostly onion and cilantro, pig’s knuckles in gelatin, and a half-hardened creation in plastic containers that I take to be a fruit drink. The stands are dotted with more Padre caps than Los Potros headgear. I keep forgetting that San Diego is just over the next hill. The Ponies also offer their version of the San Diego Chicken. This mascot neighs from under an equine head, looking more like Bottom in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition, a local quick-change artist entertains the crowds from foul territory, first in drag as Cleopatra with her asp, next as Michael Jackson moonwalking, then satirizing the patrician image of former Mexican President Lopez Portillo, a modem emperor with no clothes but Roman toga and laurel wreath.

Mexican baseball, like the Mexican economy, is just a half-step ahead of the creditors. The precipitous decline of the peso against the dollar has virtually destroyed the league’s ability to attract decent U.S. talent. Complicating matters further, Mexico is the only Latin country with two professional seasons. The Pacific League operates in the winter, representing the main towns along the northwestern coast. The more popular and established league plays all summer, running its games concurrently, defiantly, with the majors up north. Out of stubbornness, pride, or custom, Mexican baseball owners rarely allow the U.S. major leagues to supersede their contractual rights. So Mexican players can only sign with big-league organizations once they’ve paid some owner for their liberty. The gringos have to pay what amounts to a finder’s fee, and often it is a steep one. This is the only Latin ball playing realm that’s not free territory for scouts. The condition of its winter leagues perfectly exemplifies the country’s relationship to the United States. Mexico refuses to admit that it’s a colony, though the nation might be better off to quit standing on ceremony.

For every Aurelio (“Senor Smoke”) Lopez, there are dozens of outstanding players — including one slugger known as the “Babe Ruth of Mexico” — who’ve been forced to spend their careers on bus rides between Hermosillo and Mazatlan. Those few who get to play in the States are therefore all the more celebrated. The Mexicans’ current duo of burly lefthanders, Fernando Valenzuela and Teddy Higuera (whose middle name is also Valenzuela), upstage the Mexican president whenever they appear in motorcades. Certainly, these pitchers’ economic houses seem to be in better order. As Babe Ruth once said when asked why he was being paid more than President Hoover, “I had a better year”

Valenzuela has even been made into a comic strip character called El Toro. One of his cartoon followers declares that this folk hero is “mas popular que la leche adulterada y que los kilos de 950 gramos.” Both leading Mexican stars are “more common than diluted milk or kilos of only 950 grams” because they emerged from peasant families living in back reaches of the Sonoran desert. Raised in a house without electricity or running water, Valenzuela is the youngest of 12 brothers; all played on a team representing their pueblito of Etchouaquila. Fernando the Bull has taken on godlike stature not only because of his eyes-to-the-heavens delivery and several varieties of screwball but because he plays in Los Angeles, a half-Mexican town where the Dodgers have been adopted as the unofficial national Mexican team. Los Esquivadores, as they’re translated, were the first U.S. team to offer Spanish-language broadcasts and have always made more of a conscious effort than other franchises to attract the Latin fans. Valenzuela, the pitching embodiment of the Mexican exodus, gives them a perfect box-office draw. With his pug nose, puffy baby face, and beer belly, he even looks like an indio Babe Ruth.

Like Ruth, Fernando stands as living proof that almost anyone can master this sport. Flesh and sinew can go to seed, because the trick is all in the hand, in the eye, and most especially, in the nerves. Baseball is all psyche, and Latins especially admire those like Valenzuela who can quietly, charmingly pull off the ultimate bluff.

El beisbol, after all, is about beating the Yankees at their own game. And Latin players seem to do this with a flair and zest that’s a throwback to the sport’s early, freewheeling days. The sport seems to have been invented for Latin America and its play-ball climate, its emphasis on individual bravado. Latin players who are regularly branded “hot dogs,” or show-offs, are merely relishing the game the way scrappers like Wee Willie Keeler or Three Finger Brown did at the turn of the century. Baseball is a game that encourages eccentricity: Jesus Alou’s preswing neck-twisting, Roberto Clemente’s 360-degree torero spins, Vic Davalillo’s leg-lift, Juan Marichal’s patented high kick, Luis Tiant’s gravity-defying gyrations and victory cigar smoked in the whirlpool. Baseball lore offers numerous tales of Latin pride runneth over — like Rusty Torres’s dugout brandishing of a revolver — as well as Latin values asserted. When, after a frustrating loss, Giants manager Alvin Dark tossed a post-game supper of cold cuts onto the locker room tile, a defiant Felipe Alou began eating off the floor — as though to say, in the words of his Dominican pal Juan Marichal, “Win or lose, you do not throw away food.”

Tijuana’s Potros have to win this contest to secure the final berth in the upcoming playoffs, but that’s hardly something I can get whipped up over. When Flaco Jimenez takes too wide a tum and gets picked off third, I have no way of knowing if that’s one of Flaco’s tendencies. A weakness is only interesting if it’s predictable. I am thrown back to studying my siblings in the family of fan. A ticket to the bleachers offers total transcendence of the self at almost no risk. Can more be said of any of the major religions? The occasions that make us rise out of our seats and wave our banners — they’re what count. The rest of our lives is the game. By refusing, for even one moment, to forget about it, I keep baseball in very high company. The opiates that ensnare us — those are what define us more surely than any claims we might make for ourselves. The Day of the Fanatics makes me think of Hemingway’s questions: “Why should the people be operated on without an anesthetic? Why are not all opiums of the people good? What do you want to do with the people?” For now, I want to join them in their yays and boos. I want to loll where smalltime, scratching-it-out America eases back for a rest. Where America clears its throat and bellows. Where all America is on familiar ground and everyone is an expert, everyone an American — even Kim! The story goes that after being taken to his first baseball game, psychologist Carl Jung made the pronouncement that Americans are people with the minds of Europeans, the souls of Indians, and the public behavior of Africans. Sounds good, except that Europeans act rowdier at their soccer matches than do the mellow black old-timers nursing hip flasks who populate baseball bleachers. Leaning back, unloosening the starched business shirts they wear beneath their Levi jackets, the Tijuana fans fill the air with sighs instead of hollers. I can’t tell if these groups of buddies escaping their families are holiday respectful or just holiday weary. These Mexicans display the Indian stoicism, an accusatory quiet. Given a style of play that stresses speed and defense, the grandstanders find their excitement not so much in brute force as in proper execution. They wait for a steal of home plate, even a meager single, the way their ancestors must have waited for the rain during a drought. They give thanks in the same time-honored way, not with howls or even chanting, but with knowing nods, nearly imperceptible twitches.

“Baseball good for looking,” says Kim. “But nothing happen!” The usual plaint of the baseball virgin. And it’s true — nothing happens, until things happen so fast that you can barely keep up. I can only tell her, “Baseball is a waiting game.” It begins with the catcher, mum as a movie Indian, settling on haunches and adjusting his ceremonial padding, beckoning in sign language toward the next sentry. A sturdy ump shares the vigil, stooping to see as the mitt sees, guarding his zone of air yet eager for its violation, trained to serve as judge in this trial of patience yet unable to speed his verdict. The hitter needs time each time to rediscover what dirt feels like in his palms, what wood feels like in his grip. He must align elbows and tendons with his telescopic sight, adjust testicles and superstitions, bounce on heels to keep his span in the box from becoming a sentence in a cage. Nobody’s in any rush to begin what must end too quickly.

The pitcher remains king of the hill, invulnerable on his sandbox mound, clutching the power to relieve all his adjutants of their poised attendance until the ball’s released. It’s not easy to heave away superiority, and before he does he will squint in search of the catcher’s coded command, fidget with his cap’s bill just to share the fun, toy with resin bag and suspense, hope for an encouraging configuration of shadow and windblown hot dog wrappers, seek the extra heft of an inner gust. Behind him, the infielders gauge barometric clouds, shift gloves, sweep semicircles in the dust. Between expectant crouches, these human springs resting on tolerant knees will try anything to uncoil. Banished to the farthest reaches of vigilhood, isolated as frontier sheriffs by the distance they patrol, the outfielders are pitifully alone on their watch. They do not catch the ball as much as the ball catches them. The traveling orb’s a spotlight that shines only fleetingly on these vaudevillians in cut-off trousers. An arc of horsehide in their direction is the cue for soft-shoe routines meant to contain the moving prop sent their way.

In the wings waits a chorus line of leathery poupees mecaniques, set to pop into action as the lineup turns. With bubble-blowing dalliance, they stroll from dugout to bat rack to on-deck prayer circle. One by one, each steps forward gallantly, foolishly, so relieved to be done with his anticipation that he’s willing to step through a hoop of fastballing fire.

Bench to batting box, they dance a severe minuet, a grim promenade that ends with most of the club-bearers returning to their seats, like wallflowers at a teen dance damning the whole awkward ritual while itching to get asked to rise from the bench once again. But more often than not, nothing happens except an almost indiscernible discernment, the refusal to act just quite yet, a flinch or a turning aside pitch after pitch. And the waiting continues.

In what other sport does warming up entail slowing down? Before each contest, teams must relearn how to move to the gentle and archaic meter dictated by the game’s measured tasks. The players honor an unwritten code no less strict or convoluted than the official rulebook: when to catch and when to soak mitts in cow’s milk, where to scuff shoes in the clay and where to test the traction of the Bermuda grass, when to spit tobacco juice, when to put dirt in their back pockets, when to sit cross-legged, turn their caps backwards, and meditate upon all this foolishness, when to strut in the sunlight. None of these mercenaries ever looks too studious, too overwrought.

Baseball’s delight is in the unrealized, in the infinite rotating of situations rather than its limited results. In this sport, as in life, the ratio of event to expectations is impossibly large. The wait is often better than what we’re waiting for. Baseball teaches its devotees to refrain from heaping too many expectations on one play or one game or one lifetime.

Resigned to the mundane, yet always on the lookout for the inevitable mysteries to come, the fans wait, as the catcher waits, ump waits, batter and pitcher wait, fielders and batboys and benchwarmers wait. Because the distinctions that ultimately get made — the hesitant embarrassed undemocratic culling of champ from chump, Hall of Famer from Alibi Ike — are minute and highly cumulative, judgments that only all the waiting, all that time can provide. Baseball — the creation of a young nation with time on its hands — defeats empty time, perfects the waiting until it no longer feels like waiting at all.

There’s a saying that hours spent at the ballpark are never subtracted from one’s lifespan. Baseball, the sport with no clock, is exempt from time’s merciless progression. Dream time. And if that’s so, then watching baseball in Latin America is doubly dreamy. Never mind if I pass on the pig's knuckles. Or if I’ve got to protect Kim from the attentions of benchwarmers and bat boys who’ve noticed this exotic good-luck charm in the stands and want to pose for pictures with her at game’s end. Lounging in the December balm, I can’t squelch a grin. This is cheating. It feels as though I’ve laid down a bunt on the universe.

Back in town, we follow the celebrants toward a feria around the cathedral. Everyone crisscrosses the plaza hurrying to be with family. Pig-tailed girls carry sparklers, trinkets, plastic sacks of spongy cake from the panadenas. Blocks around are clogged with toy vendors, carnival games, and stands frying up deep bucketfuls of the horsetail doughnuts called churros. Husbands and wives behave stiffly, awkwardly, unused to letting go their separate burdens of subsistence. The children, many children to each pair, point without much hope toward bins of toy dump trucks and rubber U.S. infantrymen. They may have to wait until Epiphany, the big day for gift-giving in Latin America. Wafting over the cries of the vendors, the controlled clamoring of the children, the hubbub of bartering is the Gabriel call of the mariachis. This holy night is hardly a silent night. Here, there’s no false separation between the sacred and the mundane. The church bells drown out the honky-tonk. A magnificent sunset radiates from the hills, like the last wail of a cowboy ballad. The chill of semiwinter descends. Somehow, the world seems in its place. It’s for these people that carolers and pontificators everywhere intone “Peace on Earth.” Maybe this isn’t Miracle on 34th Street — but it’s close enough.

And this is most definitely el mundo Latino, though I can’t tell exactly what makes me know I’ve wandered into the jaws of a cultural monster that won’t let go from here to Tierra del Fuego. Could it be la raza’s arresting faces, well worth a second and third stare, faces that show more than a hint of red clay and raw suffering, faces where that suffering emerges as faint illumination in the eyes, wistfulness in the smile, creases that form a road map to inarticulate wisdoms? Or could it be the planters filled with cacti that frame lurid portraits of the Virgin Mary tacked to the windows above? An emerald-colored shed that proclaims itself the Garage Los Tigres? The elegant sidewalk stacks of cowboy hats and silver belt buckles? The dusty and nearly unstocked hardware stores, the torta shops exuding smells of rancid pork fat and cumin? Is it the daubs of color applied wherever there’s room, as though to cover some inherent blemish? Is it the fraying around the edges, the ribs showing on the dogs? Is it the comforting transparency of all pretensions, the sense that culture here is but a string of colored bulbs draped on a tar-paper shack?

“Is like a painting to walk through,” says Kim. “Is Paul Klee, is Kandinsky.”

Certain places stay with you forever, even if you only pass by them for an instant. It’s almost as though some destinations have been waiting all along to be found, like unglimpsed potentialities within ourselves. This is when we know why we travel. These are the moments that remind us nothing is ever so familiar as the strange For me, each turn around the plaza tells me I can’t properly define myself anywhere else.

Then why am I so concerned about getting back across the border? The excuse is that we’ve got a flight to catch and Kim must return to her classes. The dozen or so lanes of traffic are backed up like rush hour on the Triboro Bridge, but pedestrians form an “express” line at the supermarket of dreams. The secret, when it comes to bureaucrats, is not to provide them with anything to check. But Kim’s work-study visa and Korean passport are unlike anything the Tijuana rubber-stampers have seen. “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “Nobody ever got barred for the crime of going to watch a baseball game.” She’s reassured further by the treatment of the two scraggly chicos filing up to the single counter ahead of us. Without luggage or passports, they strike me as prime suspects for la migracion. At the Formica portals, I hear one claim he’s a senior at Escondido High on a day trip, though his school ID is Escondido somewhere. The second says he’s running an errand for a sick aunt. Both are waved through with me. The harried clerks won’t let me stay by Kim’s side and argue her case. Powerless, I have to wait on the American side of the revolving door. While minutes go by, an unbreachable torrent of Mexicans washes past.

I comfort myself by pondering baseball’s remarkably proportioned architecture, with its ability to make apparent the minute amount of leeway within which all human activity takes place. If the strike zone were a millimeter wider or the bats six inches longer or the mound a foot shorter or the bases a foot farther apart, then the advantage would swing to either offense or defense. How could this precarious balance of forces and dimensions have been devised without computer imaging or, at the very least, a crew of statistical engineers? Yet the first foul lines were crooked, the field paced out, the floppy bases flung here and there. So it is with the balance of payments, the adjustment of currencies and wages against the dollar. Were the peso worth even a smaller portion of a penny than it is, there would be rioting and social upheaval; worth a few more, and the flow at the great border station might turn the other way. The web that holds rich and poor in place is no less fragile than the design that keeps a hitter from beating out a ground ball by less than a single step. The real games of inches are politics and diplomacy and economics — but also friendship, courtship, and reproduction, a game of uterine inches. Every game, in a sense, is a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that nothing would be possible if we did not wake up each morning to the same general set of ground rules. That’s what keeps us abiding by even the most oppressive of rulebooks and makes us shudder to think of what might be let loose should our common field of play be redrawn.

“Kim can be crossing! America says okay!”

But exact fare is required for the automatic trolley, and all we have are centavos. While Kim waits, shivering at the turnaround, I try McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Sambo’s. The cardboard signs Scotch taped to the cash registers say “No change.” And they mean it.

In February 1988, the other team owners in the Mexican Pacific League voted to expel the Potros from the league for owner Jaime Bonilla’s alleged bribery of players and umpires. This piece, written before the expulsion, is an excerpt from the forthcoming book El Beisbol, published by The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.

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“Playing again has lifted everyone’s spirits.”
"That first glimpse of smooth maternal infield curves, the comfortingly symmetric alignment of bases, always feels like the first and the 10 millionth time."
"That first glimpse of smooth maternal infield curves, the comfortingly symmetric alignment of bases, always feels like the first and the 10 millionth time."

The trolley’s last stop nestles under the big gray armpit of the last wide freeway curve on the way to the drive through customs station. But the asphalt arm’s gone, amputated. No attempt has been made to blunt this stump of America. Too many lanes go nowhere, sit on too many stanchions, making this look like some overinflated rubber highway. On the other side, the lane markers don’t glisten, and there just aren’t enough cars. The frontage roads are lined with shanties and yonkerias — the closest translation of junk shop. Just in case anyone has a case of cholesterol panic, there’s a McDonald’s a dozen steps or so from the border crossing. It’s only a few steps more to ground chili and lime on everything. A stroll through one linoleum corridor and at the end, chaos. No amount of posted officialese can smooth the abruptness of this most-traversed demarcation between First and Third Worlds, soften the sharp distinction between two ways of being on the planet. Maybe the world’s think tanks ought to be located here — where we confront the “other” and make sure its papers are in order.

But I’ve come for a ballgame! Our taxista balks at first, explaining that the stadium is located far beyond the Tijuana city limits. He follows the main highway out of town past fitful attempts at suburbs, stopping three times to get directions from roadside gypsies huddled by garbage can bonfires in the dusk. At last, he finds the correct way up the hump of a canyon wall. The road turns to dirt as soon as the civilized world can’t see. A tract subdivision claims one side of the dark chasm. The staggered boxes climb one front door at the level of the next one’s roof. One good rain could wash away their bare front yards. Momentarily, the taxi spins its wheels in a mudhole. Looking toward the top of the crest, I spy a familiarly circular form hovering ominously. Though it’s taken a half-hour to get here, a coil of concrete is nuzzled below a craggy ridge that must be back in California. The northernmost ballpark in Latin America sits less than a Dave Kingman poke from the U.S. This could be where illegals gather to make their midnight dash. Unfortunately, the stadium, light towers and all, squats in the dark.

The bulldozed shelf of dirt lots is empty. My league schedule has obviously been revised. Already Latin America conspires to spoil my best-laid plans.

“Manana,” the driver announces, my first of many mananas. My sidekick doesn’t care if the game’s on or off. This is her first archaeological site, and Kim insists on taking a turn around the turnstiles, the ticket booths, the smooth, graded slopes of grandstand. “Pyramids!” she cries out, as though I’ve led her to Chichen Itza.

The driver drops us along the Avenida de la Revolution. “Which revolution?”

Kim wants to know. With Woolworth’s and Denny’s and two-storied stucco lawyers’ offices, this could be broad, well-lit Main Street in any California valley town. Only a few basement-level strip joints, with suggestive names like El Unicomio, remain from the heyday of Tijuana’s sex industry. In this area, too, Mexico can’t compete with the productivity across the border. Our peep-show houses, take-home pom videos, and phone fantasy party lines deliver the explicit with greater efficiency. Kim and I stumble past ghostly warehouses of blankets and pottery, a glut of liquor stores offering deals on mezcal, farmacias well stocked in medicines the FDA hasn’t yet approved. These have become more typically Mexican sights than the street photographers who wait patiently to snap Mom and Pop in sombreros.

“Is Mess-ico only Polaroid?”

Mexico is probably the most mysterious of our Latin neighbors because it’s so shrouded in false images. We know this place least because we think we know it best. Tijuana, for instance, has for some time been the fastest growing city in North America. A local economy revved up with oil revenues and the pocket change of immigrants gathered at the edge of el Norte has turned Sin City into a boom town. It sprawls down a narrow valley in huge boulevards that replicate the American West’s grimy fast-food, oil-and-lube strips — except that here the rotating neon needs translation. Tijuana is also visited by more Americans than any other destination outside the States. More than London, Jamaica, Tokyo. T.J. provides more U.S. passport holders with their image of foreignness, one day-trip at a time. And what is that image’ If first impressions are to be trusted — and most

Americans go no further — then Latin America must be the realm created to straighten whatever we’ve made crooked. The disordered, hilly grid of downtown is crammed with auto body shops, cut-rate dentists, and plastic surgeons. “Give us your dented, your misshapen masses!” says the Mexican Lady Liberty.

We wind up in Tijuana Tillys, one of those posh, stage-set versions of a bandidos’ watering hole. At one end of the broad-beamed dining room, mariachis blare; on the other, a six-foot projection TV screen shows rock videos. Neither noisy side manages total victory. The few college kids engaged in their time-honored semester-break rituals couldn’t care less about atmosphere. One frosh after another leans back in his seat and opens his gullet while an obliging waiter pours the Jose Cuervo down. I hope these are the fraternity’s all-star guzzlers. Their brothers count off booze consumed in seconds, not ounces. “Ten-elephant, twenty-elephant, thirty-elephant....”

Once we’ve polished off chrmichangas in puff pastry cups shaped like coffee filters, my escort asks, “Can you show artist true Mess-ico?” I drag Kim toward the Zona Norte’s unpaved mire of flophouses and cantinas. Here, the side streets are thick with vendors shucking mariscos, shoeshine boys selling a tenth of a tenth of a prayer at the loteria, hoboes sprawled where they can find solid pavement. Well-placed puddles cushion the fell of borrachos bounced out flapping red saloon doors. The poverty here is so Hollywood perfect that I feel like complimenting the wardrobe and makeup departments. The Mexicans know better than anyone how to infuse dramatic charge into personal defeat. Nowhere do' people fall so low or wallow so magnificently. Their mean guys look the meanest, nasty the nastiest, heartbroken the brokenest.

Kim coaxes me into one tavern that promises to offer a tableau of “The Lower Depths.” The action inside turns out to be as innocent as a junior high prom. A balcony encircles the oval-shaped dancing pit, like an indoor track above a YMCA gym. Up top, an all-brass orchestra in secondhand military regalia pumps out the outlandishly blaring, pathos-filled oompah-pahs of its Germanic-based norteno ballads. The throb in the horns is all Mexican, but the beat’s a reminder that this territory was once claimed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Below, a number of cowpokes are doing the fox trot. In formal, mournful coats, buttoned down to their knees, these men look like 19th-century hands just off a long cattle drive. They wear Stetson hats with various tassels attached. A tassel earned for each season on the range, I like to imagine, each duel with a mal hombre. As they do their best two-step sashay, the men barely smile, make no attempt at hanky-panky with for-hire escorts who barely reach up to their waists. The roly-poly, peso-a-dance squaws wrap their dark manes in buns; the lanky men sport bushy handlebars that seem to have collected the dust of the trail. The fleeting connection between these gents and ladies is effected with scrupulous dignity.

“Seen enough?”

“Artist must see world.”

So we cross the alley and head for a classier joint with mock Arabesque facade, poke our heads through padded doors that were the height of ’40s elegance. “A Thousand and One Nights” is apparently under new management. Leatherette booths, the loud, lucky red of a Confucian temple, are claimed entirely by Chinese men. Three male generations of the growing Chinese clan in Tijuana, from graybeards to bespectacled young clerks, sit absolutely silent amid the lurid decor, nursing drinks they don’t seem to want to touch, waiting for a pageant of harem girls that’s long been canceled. It’s as if they’ve come here to rehearse being Latin but their hearts just aren’t in it. I doubt any of them will work his way up to hooting,

“Ay, caramba!" Perhaps they’re consoled by the sight of one another’s discomfort. Hesitating at the door, I soon realize that I’ve made their evening by importing Kim. The men can’t help turning their heads in unison. They must not have seen an unclaimed, unfamiliar Asian female in decades. “Very bad!” Kim whispers. “We go now!”

We check into the Hotel Caesar, where the salad of the same name was invented. Today, the place doesn’t even have a restaurant, let alone room service Do we ask for singles or a double’ Is this terminology from baseball, too? I discover that a Korean lady’s idea of what to do in a fleabag hotel with a strange older man is pluck the first hints of gray out of his head, one strand at a time I’m unhappy only because she finds so many. Mexican late-night TV shows Jose Feliciano doing “Jingle Bells,” ads for canned lard. No carolers, no make-believe families sipping mulled cider, no pine needles on the carpet! This Christmas in Tijuana may be the best Christmas I’ve ever had.


Kim was right. By day, the Tijuana stadium is a Mayan ziggurat placating the gods of the barren West. There is something pre-Columbian about the whole affair. The oval grandstand slopes upward in steep slabs, perfect for sacrificing virgins or sending packs of kids sliding down on the seats of their size-two Wranglers. The base is striped with tan, orange, and purple. Either the park is supposed to look like a big tequila sunrise or those are the home town Ponies’ high desert colors.

A banner strung over the ticket booth rechristens Christmas “El Dia de Los Fanaticos,” the Day of the Fanatics. It sounds like some rediscovered Garcia Marquez epic. After the foretold hot dog, 100 years of indigestion! Once the announcements begin, I realize that my translation is, like most things literal, wholly misleading. “El Dia de Los Fanaticos” is the Hispanic transcription of “Fan Appreciation Day.” The Tijuana franchise, like its counterparts across the border, will be rewarding its loyal patrons with giveaways between every inning — a merchandising trick to attract spectators for a final game unlikely to have a bearing on the standings. I don’t see anybody among this subdued crowd of 5000 checking frantically for a winning number on his ticket stub. Those who’ve chosen to be here on their holy day are fanatics in the original sense of the word, connoting attachment to the sacred. From the Latin fanum, meaning temple.

“Every day’s a good day for a ballgame” is the gospel according to Ernie Banks. So why not this Navidad mom that breaks chilly and serene, with visibility all the way to the land of opportunity? Pope John XXIII was only plagiarizing a Chicago dugout cry when he declared, “Every day’s a good day to be born and a good day to die.” My religion begins and ends with Mister Cub’s single commandment, “Let’s play two!” A doubleheader is on tap for this final day of the Mexican season.

“Please explain!” is Kim’s battle cry.

The rules of the game are difficult enough, but how do I tell her about the quiet joy I feel claiming our place in the sun? That first glimpse of smooth maternal infield curves, the comfortingly symmetric alignment of bases, always feels like the first and the 10 millionth time. This vision of green patch captured for my private use summons up the memories, dreary and magnificent, a remembrance of games past all the way back to the first time I stumbled down an Ebbets Field aisle holding my father’s hand and couldn’t believe I’d been let in on something so arcane yet intimately within my grasp.

Every ballpark is a nation unto itself: each with its own diverse citizenry, its unique customs of feeding, its distinct tenor of absorption and purpose, its disputed borders and one-of-a-kind vistas, its downtown box seats and remote bleacher cantons. The particular pitch and twitter of “hey-batta-batta” are no less clues to the native species than a forest glen’s murmurings. What a wise sport in which the venues not only influence outcomes but our experience! They become a part of what we come to gape at, rate, and rank. Think of the subway cars chugging back and forth behind the Yankee Stadium bleachers; the red-brick confines of Wrigley, somber as a Chicago slaughterhouse; the Cecil B. De Mille palms that fan Dodger Stadium, with its seats powder blue as a leisure suit. Think of the churchyards or shopping malls adjoining the sandlots where you played Little League or Sunday morning softball. Like its crystalline counterpart, the baseball diamond changes with its surroundings. No two jewels alike, that’s the game’s unspoken guarantee.

Here, the grass is well tended and particularly verdant against the mesa-brown backdrop. Wide-bodied lady vendors in flowery aprons prowl the red seats bearing trays full of tortas stuffed with pork carnitas, the Mexican equivalent of corned beef and onion roll, enchiladas that are mostly onion and cilantro, pig’s knuckles in gelatin, and a half-hardened creation in plastic containers that I take to be a fruit drink. The stands are dotted with more Padre caps than Los Potros headgear. I keep forgetting that San Diego is just over the next hill. The Ponies also offer their version of the San Diego Chicken. This mascot neighs from under an equine head, looking more like Bottom in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition, a local quick-change artist entertains the crowds from foul territory, first in drag as Cleopatra with her asp, next as Michael Jackson moonwalking, then satirizing the patrician image of former Mexican President Lopez Portillo, a modem emperor with no clothes but Roman toga and laurel wreath.

Mexican baseball, like the Mexican economy, is just a half-step ahead of the creditors. The precipitous decline of the peso against the dollar has virtually destroyed the league’s ability to attract decent U.S. talent. Complicating matters further, Mexico is the only Latin country with two professional seasons. The Pacific League operates in the winter, representing the main towns along the northwestern coast. The more popular and established league plays all summer, running its games concurrently, defiantly, with the majors up north. Out of stubbornness, pride, or custom, Mexican baseball owners rarely allow the U.S. major leagues to supersede their contractual rights. So Mexican players can only sign with big-league organizations once they’ve paid some owner for their liberty. The gringos have to pay what amounts to a finder’s fee, and often it is a steep one. This is the only Latin ball playing realm that’s not free territory for scouts. The condition of its winter leagues perfectly exemplifies the country’s relationship to the United States. Mexico refuses to admit that it’s a colony, though the nation might be better off to quit standing on ceremony.

For every Aurelio (“Senor Smoke”) Lopez, there are dozens of outstanding players — including one slugger known as the “Babe Ruth of Mexico” — who’ve been forced to spend their careers on bus rides between Hermosillo and Mazatlan. Those few who get to play in the States are therefore all the more celebrated. The Mexicans’ current duo of burly lefthanders, Fernando Valenzuela and Teddy Higuera (whose middle name is also Valenzuela), upstage the Mexican president whenever they appear in motorcades. Certainly, these pitchers’ economic houses seem to be in better order. As Babe Ruth once said when asked why he was being paid more than President Hoover, “I had a better year”

Valenzuela has even been made into a comic strip character called El Toro. One of his cartoon followers declares that this folk hero is “mas popular que la leche adulterada y que los kilos de 950 gramos.” Both leading Mexican stars are “more common than diluted milk or kilos of only 950 grams” because they emerged from peasant families living in back reaches of the Sonoran desert. Raised in a house without electricity or running water, Valenzuela is the youngest of 12 brothers; all played on a team representing their pueblito of Etchouaquila. Fernando the Bull has taken on godlike stature not only because of his eyes-to-the-heavens delivery and several varieties of screwball but because he plays in Los Angeles, a half-Mexican town where the Dodgers have been adopted as the unofficial national Mexican team. Los Esquivadores, as they’re translated, were the first U.S. team to offer Spanish-language broadcasts and have always made more of a conscious effort than other franchises to attract the Latin fans. Valenzuela, the pitching embodiment of the Mexican exodus, gives them a perfect box-office draw. With his pug nose, puffy baby face, and beer belly, he even looks like an indio Babe Ruth.

Like Ruth, Fernando stands as living proof that almost anyone can master this sport. Flesh and sinew can go to seed, because the trick is all in the hand, in the eye, and most especially, in the nerves. Baseball is all psyche, and Latins especially admire those like Valenzuela who can quietly, charmingly pull off the ultimate bluff.

El beisbol, after all, is about beating the Yankees at their own game. And Latin players seem to do this with a flair and zest that’s a throwback to the sport’s early, freewheeling days. The sport seems to have been invented for Latin America and its play-ball climate, its emphasis on individual bravado. Latin players who are regularly branded “hot dogs,” or show-offs, are merely relishing the game the way scrappers like Wee Willie Keeler or Three Finger Brown did at the turn of the century. Baseball is a game that encourages eccentricity: Jesus Alou’s preswing neck-twisting, Roberto Clemente’s 360-degree torero spins, Vic Davalillo’s leg-lift, Juan Marichal’s patented high kick, Luis Tiant’s gravity-defying gyrations and victory cigar smoked in the whirlpool. Baseball lore offers numerous tales of Latin pride runneth over — like Rusty Torres’s dugout brandishing of a revolver — as well as Latin values asserted. When, after a frustrating loss, Giants manager Alvin Dark tossed a post-game supper of cold cuts onto the locker room tile, a defiant Felipe Alou began eating off the floor — as though to say, in the words of his Dominican pal Juan Marichal, “Win or lose, you do not throw away food.”

Tijuana’s Potros have to win this contest to secure the final berth in the upcoming playoffs, but that’s hardly something I can get whipped up over. When Flaco Jimenez takes too wide a tum and gets picked off third, I have no way of knowing if that’s one of Flaco’s tendencies. A weakness is only interesting if it’s predictable. I am thrown back to studying my siblings in the family of fan. A ticket to the bleachers offers total transcendence of the self at almost no risk. Can more be said of any of the major religions? The occasions that make us rise out of our seats and wave our banners — they’re what count. The rest of our lives is the game. By refusing, for even one moment, to forget about it, I keep baseball in very high company. The opiates that ensnare us — those are what define us more surely than any claims we might make for ourselves. The Day of the Fanatics makes me think of Hemingway’s questions: “Why should the people be operated on without an anesthetic? Why are not all opiums of the people good? What do you want to do with the people?” For now, I want to join them in their yays and boos. I want to loll where smalltime, scratching-it-out America eases back for a rest. Where America clears its throat and bellows. Where all America is on familiar ground and everyone is an expert, everyone an American — even Kim! The story goes that after being taken to his first baseball game, psychologist Carl Jung made the pronouncement that Americans are people with the minds of Europeans, the souls of Indians, and the public behavior of Africans. Sounds good, except that Europeans act rowdier at their soccer matches than do the mellow black old-timers nursing hip flasks who populate baseball bleachers. Leaning back, unloosening the starched business shirts they wear beneath their Levi jackets, the Tijuana fans fill the air with sighs instead of hollers. I can’t tell if these groups of buddies escaping their families are holiday respectful or just holiday weary. These Mexicans display the Indian stoicism, an accusatory quiet. Given a style of play that stresses speed and defense, the grandstanders find their excitement not so much in brute force as in proper execution. They wait for a steal of home plate, even a meager single, the way their ancestors must have waited for the rain during a drought. They give thanks in the same time-honored way, not with howls or even chanting, but with knowing nods, nearly imperceptible twitches.

“Baseball good for looking,” says Kim. “But nothing happen!” The usual plaint of the baseball virgin. And it’s true — nothing happens, until things happen so fast that you can barely keep up. I can only tell her, “Baseball is a waiting game.” It begins with the catcher, mum as a movie Indian, settling on haunches and adjusting his ceremonial padding, beckoning in sign language toward the next sentry. A sturdy ump shares the vigil, stooping to see as the mitt sees, guarding his zone of air yet eager for its violation, trained to serve as judge in this trial of patience yet unable to speed his verdict. The hitter needs time each time to rediscover what dirt feels like in his palms, what wood feels like in his grip. He must align elbows and tendons with his telescopic sight, adjust testicles and superstitions, bounce on heels to keep his span in the box from becoming a sentence in a cage. Nobody’s in any rush to begin what must end too quickly.

The pitcher remains king of the hill, invulnerable on his sandbox mound, clutching the power to relieve all his adjutants of their poised attendance until the ball’s released. It’s not easy to heave away superiority, and before he does he will squint in search of the catcher’s coded command, fidget with his cap’s bill just to share the fun, toy with resin bag and suspense, hope for an encouraging configuration of shadow and windblown hot dog wrappers, seek the extra heft of an inner gust. Behind him, the infielders gauge barometric clouds, shift gloves, sweep semicircles in the dust. Between expectant crouches, these human springs resting on tolerant knees will try anything to uncoil. Banished to the farthest reaches of vigilhood, isolated as frontier sheriffs by the distance they patrol, the outfielders are pitifully alone on their watch. They do not catch the ball as much as the ball catches them. The traveling orb’s a spotlight that shines only fleetingly on these vaudevillians in cut-off trousers. An arc of horsehide in their direction is the cue for soft-shoe routines meant to contain the moving prop sent their way.

In the wings waits a chorus line of leathery poupees mecaniques, set to pop into action as the lineup turns. With bubble-blowing dalliance, they stroll from dugout to bat rack to on-deck prayer circle. One by one, each steps forward gallantly, foolishly, so relieved to be done with his anticipation that he’s willing to step through a hoop of fastballing fire.

Bench to batting box, they dance a severe minuet, a grim promenade that ends with most of the club-bearers returning to their seats, like wallflowers at a teen dance damning the whole awkward ritual while itching to get asked to rise from the bench once again. But more often than not, nothing happens except an almost indiscernible discernment, the refusal to act just quite yet, a flinch or a turning aside pitch after pitch. And the waiting continues.

In what other sport does warming up entail slowing down? Before each contest, teams must relearn how to move to the gentle and archaic meter dictated by the game’s measured tasks. The players honor an unwritten code no less strict or convoluted than the official rulebook: when to catch and when to soak mitts in cow’s milk, where to scuff shoes in the clay and where to test the traction of the Bermuda grass, when to spit tobacco juice, when to put dirt in their back pockets, when to sit cross-legged, turn their caps backwards, and meditate upon all this foolishness, when to strut in the sunlight. None of these mercenaries ever looks too studious, too overwrought.

Baseball’s delight is in the unrealized, in the infinite rotating of situations rather than its limited results. In this sport, as in life, the ratio of event to expectations is impossibly large. The wait is often better than what we’re waiting for. Baseball teaches its devotees to refrain from heaping too many expectations on one play or one game or one lifetime.

Resigned to the mundane, yet always on the lookout for the inevitable mysteries to come, the fans wait, as the catcher waits, ump waits, batter and pitcher wait, fielders and batboys and benchwarmers wait. Because the distinctions that ultimately get made — the hesitant embarrassed undemocratic culling of champ from chump, Hall of Famer from Alibi Ike — are minute and highly cumulative, judgments that only all the waiting, all that time can provide. Baseball — the creation of a young nation with time on its hands — defeats empty time, perfects the waiting until it no longer feels like waiting at all.

There’s a saying that hours spent at the ballpark are never subtracted from one’s lifespan. Baseball, the sport with no clock, is exempt from time’s merciless progression. Dream time. And if that’s so, then watching baseball in Latin America is doubly dreamy. Never mind if I pass on the pig's knuckles. Or if I’ve got to protect Kim from the attentions of benchwarmers and bat boys who’ve noticed this exotic good-luck charm in the stands and want to pose for pictures with her at game’s end. Lounging in the December balm, I can’t squelch a grin. This is cheating. It feels as though I’ve laid down a bunt on the universe.

Back in town, we follow the celebrants toward a feria around the cathedral. Everyone crisscrosses the plaza hurrying to be with family. Pig-tailed girls carry sparklers, trinkets, plastic sacks of spongy cake from the panadenas. Blocks around are clogged with toy vendors, carnival games, and stands frying up deep bucketfuls of the horsetail doughnuts called churros. Husbands and wives behave stiffly, awkwardly, unused to letting go their separate burdens of subsistence. The children, many children to each pair, point without much hope toward bins of toy dump trucks and rubber U.S. infantrymen. They may have to wait until Epiphany, the big day for gift-giving in Latin America. Wafting over the cries of the vendors, the controlled clamoring of the children, the hubbub of bartering is the Gabriel call of the mariachis. This holy night is hardly a silent night. Here, there’s no false separation between the sacred and the mundane. The church bells drown out the honky-tonk. A magnificent sunset radiates from the hills, like the last wail of a cowboy ballad. The chill of semiwinter descends. Somehow, the world seems in its place. It’s for these people that carolers and pontificators everywhere intone “Peace on Earth.” Maybe this isn’t Miracle on 34th Street — but it’s close enough.

And this is most definitely el mundo Latino, though I can’t tell exactly what makes me know I’ve wandered into the jaws of a cultural monster that won’t let go from here to Tierra del Fuego. Could it be la raza’s arresting faces, well worth a second and third stare, faces that show more than a hint of red clay and raw suffering, faces where that suffering emerges as faint illumination in the eyes, wistfulness in the smile, creases that form a road map to inarticulate wisdoms? Or could it be the planters filled with cacti that frame lurid portraits of the Virgin Mary tacked to the windows above? An emerald-colored shed that proclaims itself the Garage Los Tigres? The elegant sidewalk stacks of cowboy hats and silver belt buckles? The dusty and nearly unstocked hardware stores, the torta shops exuding smells of rancid pork fat and cumin? Is it the daubs of color applied wherever there’s room, as though to cover some inherent blemish? Is it the fraying around the edges, the ribs showing on the dogs? Is it the comforting transparency of all pretensions, the sense that culture here is but a string of colored bulbs draped on a tar-paper shack?

“Is like a painting to walk through,” says Kim. “Is Paul Klee, is Kandinsky.”

Certain places stay with you forever, even if you only pass by them for an instant. It’s almost as though some destinations have been waiting all along to be found, like unglimpsed potentialities within ourselves. This is when we know why we travel. These are the moments that remind us nothing is ever so familiar as the strange For me, each turn around the plaza tells me I can’t properly define myself anywhere else.

Then why am I so concerned about getting back across the border? The excuse is that we’ve got a flight to catch and Kim must return to her classes. The dozen or so lanes of traffic are backed up like rush hour on the Triboro Bridge, but pedestrians form an “express” line at the supermarket of dreams. The secret, when it comes to bureaucrats, is not to provide them with anything to check. But Kim’s work-study visa and Korean passport are unlike anything the Tijuana rubber-stampers have seen. “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “Nobody ever got barred for the crime of going to watch a baseball game.” She’s reassured further by the treatment of the two scraggly chicos filing up to the single counter ahead of us. Without luggage or passports, they strike me as prime suspects for la migracion. At the Formica portals, I hear one claim he’s a senior at Escondido High on a day trip, though his school ID is Escondido somewhere. The second says he’s running an errand for a sick aunt. Both are waved through with me. The harried clerks won’t let me stay by Kim’s side and argue her case. Powerless, I have to wait on the American side of the revolving door. While minutes go by, an unbreachable torrent of Mexicans washes past.

I comfort myself by pondering baseball’s remarkably proportioned architecture, with its ability to make apparent the minute amount of leeway within which all human activity takes place. If the strike zone were a millimeter wider or the bats six inches longer or the mound a foot shorter or the bases a foot farther apart, then the advantage would swing to either offense or defense. How could this precarious balance of forces and dimensions have been devised without computer imaging or, at the very least, a crew of statistical engineers? Yet the first foul lines were crooked, the field paced out, the floppy bases flung here and there. So it is with the balance of payments, the adjustment of currencies and wages against the dollar. Were the peso worth even a smaller portion of a penny than it is, there would be rioting and social upheaval; worth a few more, and the flow at the great border station might turn the other way. The web that holds rich and poor in place is no less fragile than the design that keeps a hitter from beating out a ground ball by less than a single step. The real games of inches are politics and diplomacy and economics — but also friendship, courtship, and reproduction, a game of uterine inches. Every game, in a sense, is a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that nothing would be possible if we did not wake up each morning to the same general set of ground rules. That’s what keeps us abiding by even the most oppressive of rulebooks and makes us shudder to think of what might be let loose should our common field of play be redrawn.

“Kim can be crossing! America says okay!”

But exact fare is required for the automatic trolley, and all we have are centavos. While Kim waits, shivering at the turnaround, I try McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Sambo’s. The cardboard signs Scotch taped to the cash registers say “No change.” And they mean it.

In February 1988, the other team owners in the Mexican Pacific League voted to expel the Potros from the league for owner Jaime Bonilla’s alleged bribery of players and umpires. This piece, written before the expulsion, is an excerpt from the forthcoming book El Beisbol, published by The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.

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