Héctor rocking back into that easy motion—he was only a few years removed from pitching and playing shortstop on the Dominican Republic's national junior team—and launching the grimy ball once more. Sammy going to pieces in his eagerness to hit the ball, just as he did when he tried to pronounce a four-syllable word. Sammy's head flying up so often that Héctor would order someone else to pitch, stand beside the boy and hold his skull in place as he swung. Sammy's front foot jumping forward so prematurely that Héctor would slip a noose around the kid's front ankle and pull the other end of the rope to rein him in. Sammy's back foot stepping into the bucket so insistently that Héctor would place a ball behind the foot, then a fungo bat and finally, in frustration, a broken beer bottle.
Sometimes Sammy scowled. Sometimes Sammy seethed. But not once, in all his years with Héctor, did he walk away. Day by day, the Dirty One tamed the Stutterer, and the Stutterer stole the Dirty One's heart. When the field was too wet even for them, they walked home through the puddles, the 21-year-old man whose mother had died days after she gave birth to him, whose father had never lived with him and rarely saw him, next to the teenage boy whose own dad was dead and whose mother spent all day on the street selling food. Ping. Ping. Ping. That was the sound the hard corn made ricocheting off the walls of the Sosas' cramped apartment on rainy days as Héctor pitched to Mayki, kernel after kernel. Clack. Clack. Clack. Those were the bottle caps—look out!—Héctor threw when Mayki needed work on handling the curve. "Everything Héctor did took me to another level," Sammy would say years later. "He killed me...kind of like a father."
Héctor rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, blinked and found himself in prison, 4 p.m. lockup drawing near. He descended from the roof, entered his barracks and walked upstairs. From nails high on the wall he removed the plastic bag that contained his log of Sammy's home runs and the rolled-up rectangle of foam on which he slept. He snaked his arm out the window, reached up to his secret ledge and felt the two chunks of concrete: his weapons. He sat on his cushion, lit a cigarette and waited for the night.
Came home runs 25, 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30, in a torrent over the next six days. A miracle was occurring: Suddenly Héctor's protégé was engaging Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark McGwire in a home run race at a record-setting pace! Through the window Héctor could hear people spilling into the streets, chanting, ¡Sammy, querido! ¡El pueblo esta contigo! Sammy, loved one! The people are with you! Héctor and the inmates caught the verse and tried it on for size. It tasted strange, joy did, coming off Héctor's lips. Like sugar. Like acid. Then, once more, his heart filled with his howl, his head hammered with the wild jumble of proof that he did not belong in this jail.
Sammy Sosa's professor? Could no one see? Just look at his body! These calluses at the base of the ring finger and pinkie on each of his hands, forged by an infinity of fungoes and grounders—they meant nothing? This right elbow, which used to throb as dusk fell on another day in which Héctor had hurled a thousand pitches of batting practice and Sammy kept cocking his bat and demanding, "¡Más!"—couldn't it be introduced as evidence? The notebook, the one in which Héctor had written the names of the 185 players, his players, who had been signed to play professional baseball—mother of god, no other baseball instructor in the world had more than 40, he'd bet on it!
Suddenly he was there again, back on the day, Sept. 23, 1997, when he was led, handcuffed, into the prison. Barefoot, since the guards had just confiscated his sneakers. Holding up his pants, since they had taken his belt. Trembling with fear and disbelief at finding himself inside the military prison off whose walls Sammy used to bounce rubber balls. For god's sake, Walls of the Fort—Paredes de la Fortaleza—was the third line in Héctor's home address!
Oh, yes, he knew the hellhole he was walking into—as well as any outsider could. He knew there was water crawling with parasites in there, lungs loaded with tuberculi, testes teeming with AIDS virus. His knees came undone as he neared the gate. An urge came over him to dig in his heels, drop to his knees, explain to his jailer what the police refused to believe: that a man with these calluses, this right elbow, this crazy love of teaching baseball couldn't have been attached to those 600 milligrams of cocaine that three undercover agents had found wrapped in plastic 10 days earlier at the park bench on which Héctor and two other men were sitting; that he had gone to that neighborhood only to look for Júnior Martínez, one of his former players who, he had heard, was flying to Chicago, and to see if Júnior could get some bats from Sammy; that after he failed to find Júnior, he had sat on a green bench beside two other men he knew only vaguely to wait for a collective taxi, when suddenly he was being handcuffed, accused, sealed away in a holding cell.
Yes, he would admit, he was guilty of knocking down five or six tall Presidentes and rising from his table when the music moved into his hips and bade them to dance the bachata. Yes, he had tomcatted—two of the five children he had fathered during his 13-year relationship with his wife, Elsa, had other mothers. Maybe, as some who knew him say, his roaming at night carried him into a circle of characters whom the police had under surveillance. But cocaína"? Héctor? Ask Morillo, the graying, barrel-chested lieutenant who had socialized and played softball with Héctor before the arrest, who had spent 18 years working at the prison surrounded by drug users and knew well their proclivity to lie. He, like many in the barrio, couldn't picture Héctor as anything more sinister than the baseball rat to whom parents took their sons. Ask Sammy's mother or his brother; they insisted on Héctor's innocence. Ask Sammy...oh, god, if only Sammy weren't so far away, if only he could materialize here before Héctor had to take that next step, his first step inside.
Click. The guard unlocked the gate in the barbed-wire-topped fence. Click. The guard unlocked the main barracks door, the one through which every convict had to pass to reach, through a series of hallways and stairwells, his own barracks door. Click. The guard unlocked the door to the barracks called Vietnam. Héctor smelled los tigres. That's what the violent ones, the ones with pitiless predator's eyes, were called. The tigers. The door to Vietnam shut and locked behind him.