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Heaven And Hell
Gary Smith
December 21, 1998
Sammy Sosa's dream season was a nightmare for the man who taught him baseball but had to follow the home run race from a snake pit of a prison in the Dominican Republic.
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December 21, 1998

Heaven And Hell

Sammy Sosa's dream season was a nightmare for the man who taught him baseball but had to follow the home run race from a snake pit of a prison in the Dominican Republic.

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He swallowed his tea and hurried toward the door, calling out, "I hit three! I hit three!" Outside, he hooked his plastic chair over his arm, used the holes in the cinder blocks for footholds and scrambled onto the roof of his two-story barracks inside the fort that also served as a prison. From here he could see his entire life: The abandoned hospital seven blocks away where Sammy used to live, right across the street from the house where Héctor lived 16 years ago, when he took Sammy under his wing. The ball field immediately outside the prison's south wall, where Héctor spent four, five, sometimes six hours a day instructing Sammy. And the house Héctor and his family rented now, hard by the prison's west wall, a little hovel of turquoise-painted palm wood that let sunlight through its walls and rain through its roof.

He whistled in that direction and waited for his 12-year-old daughter, Dancing, to climb a tree onto the neighbor's roof. He held out both hands, like a man reading a newspaper; she caught the signal and scrambled down. Then he waited for el pasador, the passer—a bald prisoner who had slit open an evangelist and stuffed the man's Bible inside him—to appear on the tall, ancient tricycle that he used to ferry food and gifts from the prison gates to the inmates. Perhaps today the passer would bring a letter from Sammy, a reply to the one Héctor had written begging for help.

No. It was just the newspaper, but today that was enough. Héctor scurried back to his barracks to devour it alone. Beneath the glassless window that poured both light and rain upon his bedding, he studied page after page devoted to Sammy's feat. The first jonrón had traveled to right, the second to left, the third to left center—every field, just as Héctor had taught him!—and ay, dios mío, each one of them more than 400 feet! When he had read each story twice, he carefully tore out the photographs, mixed flour and water and pasted the pictures on the scarred green wall above his bedding. Then he opened his notebook and recorded the particulars—the date, the opposing pitchers, the pitches and the stadium—of Sammy's 22nd, 23rd and 24th home runs of 1998.

How could Héctor explain to someone who had never been in such a place what these home runs meant to him? For one day, at least, he could go to the toilet—a five-foot-wide concrete hole dropping into a stinking 30-foot pit that serviced the 40 men in his barracks—and cocoon himself in reveries of something heroic, something magnificent, something he had helped sculpt. A cocoon so airtight that the violent odors barely penetrated it—nor, for once, did the memory of the prisoner who, in his attempt to clean the pit with a rope and bucket a few months earlier, touched an exposed wire that stuck to him like a scalding leech and nearly killed him. For a day, at least, Héctor could lie on his thin cushion—on a concrete floor that collected the oozings and bandages of men with chronic wounds—without the urge to howl or to weep. For a day he could mingle in the yard with the 435 prisoners who spilled out of the 10 barracks between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day, revel in the tide of Sammy happiness swelling through the jail as the news began to....

No! He could not do that. There was too much rage bottled here, too many inhabitants fond of lifting their shirts, the way a wolf lifts its upper lip to flash its teeth, and revealing daggers as long as a man's forearm. Besides, some prisoners still scoffed at the notion that Héctor was the man who had transformed Sammy from a 13½-year-old shoeshine boy who had never played organized baseball into a major league prospect. Neither Héctor's age, 37, nor his thin chest, long arms and skinny legs carried the authority of mentor, of manager, of master. His blood would boil when he saw the doubt cloud people's eyes, but this was no place for overwarm blood. Just three weeks earlier an inmate had decided to solve an argument with a pot of boiling water, missed his target and scalded the stomach of a sleeping prisoner, who awoke screaming, produced a knife and stabbed the perpetrator—who in turn threw a rock at the burned man's skull.

Héctor returned to his rooftop perch and stared as infield drills began on the ball field just outside the wall, likely the only prisoner in the world sentenced to sit and watch someone else perform his job. From there he couldn't quite see the dugouts that Sammy had helped him build, or home plate, or the left side of the infield. But the rest of the field upon which Héctor had spent all day, every day, for most of the last 20 years stretched out before him. It had been going to seed in the nine months since his nightmare began, grass tickling boys' knees in the outfield, for who besides Héctor would stand beneath the merciless Dominican sun, hacking endlessly with machete and scythe?

Suddenly a foul sailed along the rightfield line and floated over the wall into the prison. As Héctor's eyes followed the ball, his mind floated with it...and he was back there, on a summer day 16 years gone, staring from the mound with his hands on his hips, exasperated by all the foul balls that his newest student kept slicing into the prison. Such large hands this new kid had, such a fine rack of shoulders for a boy so thin, such a god-gifted arm and bat speed. And such hunger, such wolfish hunger to prove he could excel at a game he had played only on the street with a glove made from a milk carton, a ball made from wadded rags and a stick that he clutched cross-handed. God almighty, was Sammy Sosa raw.

La universidad del béisbol was the only place to send the boy. That's what Luis, the oldest of the six Sosa children, called Héctor after three years of playing on his teams: the university of baseball. In his heart Luis earned the ashes of his own pro dream and the memory of a dead father who loved the game. At least one Sosa, Luis believed, must carry the torch in a town of 125,000 that had produced more major leaguers per capita than any city on earth. He made a promise to Héctor, who had become his friend: "I will work my fruit stand full time so Mayki doesn't have to shine shoes and wash cars all day." (For no good reason, Mayki was the Sosas' pet name for Sammy, the closest they could come to pronouncing Mike.) "You teach him to play ball." He pointed to a kid with a big smile who yearned to master Héctor's game but couldn't afford to pay for it. An eighth-grade dropout working to help support his family after his father died of a stroke, who at that moment was whirling around the yard outside the abandoned hospital wearing a couple of socks stuffed with rags for boxing gloves and throwing some of the wildest haymakers Héctor had ever seen. Energy, he noted, would not be an obstacle—but channeling it might.

There stood Héctor on the mound in those ragged yellow sweatpants with the red stripe, that crumbling straw hat shading his ebony face, the old tennis shoes and the dirty T-shirt he forgot to change, or just couldn't afford to on an income of $30 a week—El Sucio, kids called him behind his back: the Dirty One. Héctor, hiding the fatigue of managing 11 teams in the league he had founded, the fatigue of knocking on doors to scrape up money for uniforms and equipment, of teaching the game for four hours each morning and four more each afternoon to more than 100 children, half of whom sometimes paid him the weekly instruction fee of about 67 cents.

There stood Sammy, digging in at the plate in his blue-jean cutoff shorts and an old Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt, with that tattered cloth around his left wrist that he imagined was a sweat-band and those gashed Campeón sneakers, reeking of ancient sweat. Gago, kids called him, because of his speech problem: Stutterer. But they ran when they did so because they knew he and his fists were on their way.

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