The baseball felt strange in Mike Maerten's hand. The seams somehow were raised a little higher than the seams on the baseballs he had known for all of his life. There seemed to be a little more weight to the ball, too, a little more heft. There also was an out-of-the-wrapper gloss on the ball. Didn't the umpires rough up the balls before games here? Apparently not.
He stood on the mound at Ezeiza Stadium on March 11 and...that was another thing. The mound. There really was no mound. He stood on this flat circle of dirt in the middle of a green grass infield in a ballpark on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the cramped stands filled with Argentine fans who were singing and chanting and setting off skyrockets, and he was not ready for any of this.
"The weather has been lousy at home," Maerten, a 22-year-old St. John's University senior from Delran, N.J., said. "We were only able to practice outdoors twice before we came down here, and both times were on the AstroTurf football field. I'd been throwing all winter indoors, but it's not the same. You're not working with runners on base. It's not a game."
The letters USA across his baseball shirt weighed about a thousand pounds apiece. He was no different from any of his St. John's teammates. They were caught in a situation they could not control, asked to do things they could not do. Had any U.S. team ever been as unprepared for international competition as this one? Had any U.S. team—in this sport that is supposed to be a national passion, a national source of pride—been so overmatched? This was a happy field trip gone wrong.
"A letter came around last May looking for a team to represent the U.S. in the Pan American Games," St. John's coach Joe Russo said. "We jumped at the chance. We would have taken a trip in the spring anyway. We were thinking about going to Fresno, California. When we were selected, Fresno became Argentina."
The timing of this year's Games provided the opportunity. Since baseball became an Olympic sport again in 1984, the U.S. has sent college all-star teams to the Pan Am Games, the players forming the nucleus of the team for the upcoming Olympics. Those players were free from commitments because the Games were held in the summer. But this year the Games were in Argentina, on the other side of the equator; the reversal of seasons made fielding a competent U.S. team a game of chance. The high-powered NCAA teams in the South and West had already begun their long schedules. An all-star team was an impossibility, with too many schedules to be adjusted, too many classes to be missed. St. John's, a sometime Eastern college power, was the best available choice. The Red Storm's regular-season schedule wouldn't begin until March 28, against Rutgers.
"School is still in session, but we worked out everything with the professors," Joe Russo's wife, Cecelia, the team's academic coordinator said. "Everyone here has homework. I've already given three exams, and there's a study hall every night. On the way down I told them to look out the window to see if they could spot the dotted line when we passed, the equator. They didn't bite."
This first part of the trip was everything it was supposed to be. The members of the team flew to Orlando, just like the other members of the U.S. Pan Am delegation of more than 1,200 people in 38 sports. Uniforms were handed out, just like the ones worn by Mark McGwire, Jim Abbott and other players who have represented the U.S. in the past. The St. John's kids were just like Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller or hurdler Roger Kingdom, all headed in the same direction.
The dormitory was at the Colegio Militar, advertised as Argentina's version of West Point. Most of the Red Storm players had seen West Point, which they thought seemed more majestic, but they could live with reality. No window screens? They made a game of counting the mosquito bites on pitcher Todd Montesano's body. The number was 70. Dinner was planned on the first off day in this beef-happy country at a restaurant with a stuffed cow perched on the front step.
If there was one disappointment, it was that the baseball players were separated from the bulk of the U.S. contingent, which was in the seaside city of Mar del Plata, 250 miles to the south, where most of the Pan Am events were being held. Still, they shared their dormitory with an international mix of bowlers and pistol shooters and team handball players, which gave them a sense of village life.