Cassidy Sanderson and Alberto Cruz have jogged nine miles, through a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood and twice around Elysian Park, and now the kid is starting to complain he's tired, they should quit, so she reaches past the ache in her thirty-five-year-old knees and sets an unforgiving pace, through a stand of pines up Stadium Way, panting, "What do you want?" a mantra she often uses to get young players focused on a goal.
"I want to fall in love with you," replies Alberto Cruz, and gives the wondrous smile.
"I make a joke."
An unseasonable intrusion of hot desert winds has combusted the wet winter weather like a Christmas tree going up in your living room. The air is scathing. Her allergies are acting up. It feels as if someone's done her nasal passages with a bottle brush. "It's the dry air" is supposed to explain a lot: the flu that nailed the family over New Year's. A freak tornado that blew out the windows of a restaurant in Long Beach.
Things are stirring with a will of their own. Men in business suits have begun to appear at Dodger Stadium on their lunch breaks to buy tickets. The sky has a smooth shining quality, the air whisper-thin and clear, and sometimes the Santa Anas blow, knocking over power lines and café umbrellas, creating supernatural eddies of hot and cold in the most ordinary places, like the backyard.
It is hard to run up the mountain in this kind of heat, coming off in sheets from the hard-packed trail, scalding the calves and wicking moisture from the throat.
"What do you want? You want to be a Dodger?"
"Sí, I want to be a Dodger."
So she burns it. This impressive burst of speed will cost her, but it will send an important message. What is the message? Sometimes she wonders. Certainly she has nothing to teach Alberto Cruz about running -- eighteen years old, he runs like a deer -- while she has long since compromised the breath, nothing left in the legs, glucose-depleted, everything hurts, half a mile of straight-up switchback to go.
They pass an Asian mother and two daughters on their way to the playground. The girls are walking primly beneath Little Mermaid umbrellas while the mother shields her face from the sun with the Los Angeles Times. She may find it unusual to see a black man and white woman trot by -- both in incredible shape, both wearing backpacks and carrying baseball bats like some sort of sports SWAT team -- but her urban wariness reveals nothing.
For her part, Cassidy would never let the rookie see how much more it's hurting her than him, so her eyes stay fixed upon the horizon, singed this morning like a candle passing close behind a page. She keeps the features of her Nordic face relaxed, not strained, as if she's not preoccupied with a hundred other tangles, long blonde braid whipping sweat off her back. Loping easily beside her now, Alberto snorts with adolescent disdain as the trail yields in small rocky falls beneath the aggressive hammering of their high-tech neoprene soles.
The road rises at a steep angle along a brushy slope and Cassidy and Alberto break their third or fourth major sweat, tossing bright drops into the chinquapin and yucca. As they ascend, the view of the Los Angeles basin expands into an arc from Century City all the way around to Glendale. Coming at them directly ahead is the downtown cluster of high-rises and the shriek of jackhammers where they've finally begun to demolish buildings and excavate a huge pit, digging the bones of the old pueblo for a new sports and entertainment center.
Each day's heart-busting effort is Cassidy's deliberate reminder to Alberto of the work accomplished and the work ahead. When she scouted him in the shantytown of Río Blanco he had been laboring in a sugar mill. Seven weeks later, she has taken him an extraordinary distance -- signed by the organization and brought to the United States to train. Now, as they reach the summit, the reward comes into view: beyond a picnic area and down a hill they can see Dodger Stadium itself, set in the center of the bowl of Chavez Ravine like a three-quarter crown with the crest turned away so you can look directly into the field.
Fifty yards to go and an old instinct kicks in and Cassidy pours it on, sprinting to the top, beating Alberto by a footfall and feeling a ridiculous amount of sneaky satisfaction in pulling it off, although now she has to bend over and concentrate on counting to twenty in order to keep from retching.
It is strange up here, high above the city. The lone woman with a big dog, the four Caltrans guys sitting motionless in a yellow truck, seem isolated and surreal, as if the constant desert winds have scoured the surface of ordinary things, turning them into symbols of ambiguous intent. They skirt a tumbleweed, then jog slowly past a Mustang with a vivid royal purple paint job, like the powdered candy that comes in envelopes and stains children's palms.
"Drug deal," Cassidy remarks.
Alberto keeps his eyes ahead.
A volley of shots resounds from the police academy below.
They head toward Bishop's Canyon Park, ditching the backpacks and squirting water down their throats.
"How did you sleep last night?" she asks.
"What did you eat?"
"What did you do?"
"Did you help with the dishes?"
"She don't let."
"It's polite to call somebody by her name."
"Mrs. Dulce don't let me wash the dishes," Alberto repeats, and Cassidy sees she will have to have another talk with Dulce Rodríguez, administrative assistant in the scouting department and den mother to young Latin players, who puts them up in her house when they first arrive in the United States and spoils them silly, just like back home.
"How about the laundry?"
Alberto rolls his eyes.
Cassidy pulls a warm-up jacket out of the backpack and slips it over the black halter sports bra slashed with hot pink.
"Oh, I see. You think doing laundry has nothing to do with playing ball. Laundry is for women. Ball is for men."
Alberto shrugs with shoulders so loose they pop up to his ears.
"You tell me."
He perches on top of a picnic table, knees jutting out of huge baggy shorts, gastrocs flexing the long stringy calves; six foot three, he will need to gain at least thirty pounds to compete. He is wearing the same shirt with the Aztec zigzags as when she first saw him at the mill, and the same gold chain with the Virgin inside a plastic heart. Even with the pencil mustache and shaved step hair he does not look like every other skinny homeboy. He looks exotic, uncomfortable in woodsy North American light.
And yet the good face shines, the eyebrows flying off the forehead like butterfly wings, a wide and hopeful look; in his eyes, the intangibles that make a ballplayer -- openness and balance, fire and desire -- and the smile, still that of a boy who is eager to please.
"You may be a rookie who hasn't even been through his first spring training," Cassidy is saying, "who hasn't made it to the minors, who might be sent home tomorrow, but you are still a professional ballplayer. You have already beat out thousands of kids for the honor and responsibility of representing the Dodger organization, and in doing this you have also agreed to be a role model. Do you know what 'role model' means? To show other kids how to be a good person. We are privileged to play this game. We don't just take, we give back. You're a guest in someone's home? Find a way to help. What's the matter?"
Alberto's face squinches up. "You talk like my big sister."
In reply, she tosses him a 32-32 Adirondack bat.
"Ready to work on those hips?" recalling Alberto's swing in effortless detail from scouting him on the rock-strewn playing field in the DR. Pedro had been right about his arm strength and ability to run: she had seen right away he was locking his lower hips. There had been flies and merengue and scampering boys wearing nothing but bathing trunks, and sweat and dust and Alberto's hips not fluid, not rotating into the ball. He has to open his hips and keep his head down, learn to trust his hands.
He hasn't moved.
"What's the matter?"
Alberto shrugs again.
"Is there a problem?"
"Yo no sé."
Enough of this crap.
Cassidy pulls out one of her coaching aids, a file folder labeled sluggers. Before the talk of body balance and wrist action, before the soft toss and repetitive swings, they are going to take a look at the batting stances of the Old Timers in magazine photos she has laminated.
Before Alberto creates history, he's going to learn it.
"Who's my top player of all time?" Cassidy muses, although Alberto hasn't asked. "Roberto Clemente."
She flips the plastic sleeves, past Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and for a moment they are blinded by a spot of sun sliding across the plastic.
"I'd even put him ahead of Griffey."
A hot wind sends curlicues of brown eucalyptus leaves floating down around their shoulders.
"Clemente could do anything. Run, hit for power. The whole picture."
And she shows it to him: the famous Puerto Rican right fielder on the follow-through of one of his sizzler line drives, enormous extension, shoulder in, chin pointing toward the ball. She's got a portrait of him, too, in which his deep brown face is cast in shadow and you can see, in the furrowed brow and eyes not looking at the camera, the tension in a hitter with a lifetime average of .317 who would always be an outsider.
Cassidy becomes so engrossed in looking at the picture she fails to notice Alberto has been holding something out to her, a scrap of paper worked between his fingers.
She takes it from him. In childlike printing on lined paper it reads in Spanish: Dear Señor Cruz, I know what you did. Worry when you see me. Pay $10,000 by 1 February or you will die. Box 182, Nagua, DR.
It is so preposterous Cassidy smiles. "Gee. What-all did you do?"
Alberto says, "I do nothing."
The paper has been folded and massaged so often it feels like cloth. Cassidy realizes he has been worrying it over and over, trying to rub the message away.
"Players get stuff like this all the time."
But his wide-hewn handsome face remains grim.
"Forget about it. Not your problem. I'll give it to security."
Then Alberto reaches into his pocket and comes up with three more identical notes.
Worry when you see me. Pay $10,000 by 1 February or you will die.
"Where did you get these?" Cassidy sifts through the damp soft papers, a lot less happy now.
"They coming to the stadium."
"I don't know. I throw out."
More frustrated than she would like, "It would help if we had the postmarks. The dates." Then, "Are there more?"
Alberto shakes his head and sits back down, looking toward the San Fernando Valley. Now Cassidy knows why he has been lagging, why the good face has become a pout, carrying the weight of this, afraid to say anything, afraid to hold back.
"Where is Nagua?"
"In the north."
"Who do you know in Nagua?"
"I not go there."
"You didn't do something back in your country that might have made somebody mad -- "
"No! Why you not believe me?"
"I didn't say I don't believe you."
But she knows very little about his past. On Friday she had seen him play, by Sunday she had made the deal and was out of there.
Alberto picks up a twig and breaks it.
"I do nothing."
Cassidy tries to ignore the pressure building in her chest. Threats against players on the Internet, pornographic letters, crazy fans acting out in the stands -- there must be so many incidents of sports rage every day in professional ball you'd need a team of computer geniuses just to keep track. Still. You could dismiss one or two stupid notes, but four? Four is starting to sound like an obsession.
"We'll take care of it," she assures Alberto, hating what she has to do next, which is report to her scouting director, Raymond Woods, there is some trouble with this kid. The one kid, of course, she risked her job to go out and sign. It would be less agonizing to run up the mountain again, backwards, wearing ten-pound ankle weights.
Alberto says, "Okay," and picks up a piece of the twig and starts to tap it against the picnic table.
He had extinguished a welding torch and come slowly through the ash-white smoke. He had taken his time, not intimidated by strangers waiting for him. Cassidy had liked that. Underweight, but tall. She had liked that, too, an elongated figure moving with an easy gait through a huge open threshold, out of the shadows of the sugar mill and into the searing humid sun.
When it was explained the blonde American woman had come to the ingenio in the middle of the afternoon to see him play baseball, Alberto did not betray surprise and did not look away.
His fawn brown eyes held hers, as they do now, in a shaded grove at the top of Los Angeles, with curiosity and patience; as if he were used to waiting a long time for things that mostly don't turn out.
Copyright © 2001 by April Smith