Careful. Remember the nevers, Héctor reminded himself; too much attention could get a man killed. But how could he resist? He fed statistics, predictions and theories to the men he thought he could trust, just a little, all the while keeping a wary eye out for the ball-busters, prisoners like Loco Maca and George, who cherished each chance to chop down Héctor and Sammy, to insist that Raúl Mondesi was the better all-around Dominican player and George Bell the best ever to rise from the streets of San Pedro de Macorís.
On Aug. 16, Sammy drove an outside pitch into the rightfield seats at the Astrodome and tied Ma Miguaya at 47. Two days later, still deadlocked, the two men squared off in Chicago. One more homer, and Sammy would surpass not only the American giant but also the Latino record of 47 in a season held by Bell and two others. The prison, the city, held its breath.
Sammy fanned three times and went 0 for 5. "Your dead man struck out again," sneered Loco Maca.
Dead man? Héctor clenched his teeth against his rage; he would fight for Sammy, as Sammy once had been prepared to fight for him, racing in from rightfield and grabbing a bat when an opposing manager sucker-punched Héctor. "You want to blame someone for his strikeouts?" Héctor cried to Loco Maca. "Well, then, blame me! I'm the one who would not let him shorten his swing!"
Oh, he could tell them things, stories aching to rush up from the well of memory, stories truer than the yarns being spun on TV and in newspapers by people who scarcely knew Sammy, impostors taking Héctor's rightful place. A flat-footed singles hitter—how many of them knew that Sammy? The kid Héctor told over and over to swing big and swing hard at the risk of striking out, because he was appallingly slow and had no prayer as a spray hitter. The kid Héctor ran behind, knocking on his head with his knuckles, then overtaking him and crying, "Look at this old man running faster than you!" The kid whom Héctor worked so hard that one evening when they entered a cheap restaurant, the son of the proprietor sniffed at Sammy and declared, "You smell too bad to come in here." If only Héctor still had a voice, if only he still existed, he would tell the world what Sammy said: "That bad smell will be worth a lot of money one day." And how Sammy sat beside him and swallowed back a sob.
See, hardly anyone understood why Sammy talked so big back then and walked so macho and, when the money finally began to come, put so much gel in his hair and so much jewelry on his wrists and neck. Almost no one but Héctor knew just how much Mayki had to overcome, for how much he was compensating: the stuttering the other boys loved to mimic, the way words on a page could elude his grasp. No one knew how it felt in the belly as Sammy waited for his mother to come home from work at dusk with enough money for the day's first meal, how it felt in the heart on that Mother's Day when the only gift Sammy could offer her was one Monte Carlo cigarette. See, that's why Sammy, when Pedro Guerrero or George Bell flashed by in his shiny car after an All-Star or MVP season, had the nerve to tell people, "One day I'll be better than him. I'll have more than him because I'll be much better." Just a boy trying to convince himself!
The other Sosa children, who gathered around the table spewing gibberish, acting as if they were dining on lobster at a fancy restaurant and speaking sophisticated English, were pretending—but not Sammy. "You watch," he vowed when they teased him.
"It is going to happen." The other players giggled when Héctor gathered them and said, "One day one of you will make the big leagues, buy a car and drive me to the United States"—but not Sammy. Of Héctor's 185 players who signed, only three others (former Phillies outfielder Manny Martínez, former Phillies pitcher Bienvenido Rivera and former Atlanta Braves infielder Victor Rosario) made it, but only briefly. So don't ask why Héctor's eyes misted when Sammy, at 15, crushed a ball so far that it sailed out of the field named after former National League batting champ Rico Carty and through a window in an apartment building. Don't wonder why Héctor's fists still balled up 15 years later when someone slung darts at his boy.
Well, then, where's your boy now when you need him? Why has he left you here? Héctor gulped for air, like a fish on the sidewalk. This was all an inmate had to ask: the question that was embedded, like a hook, in Héctor's chest. His mind drifted back to the last time he had seen Sammy, just before spring training of 1997, just as Sammy was about to take batting practice at the local university. He asked his old pupil if there was anything, anything at all he could do to help prepare him. "No," Sammy said. "You've done your job, Héctor. There's nothing left to do." Héctor had wandered to the outfield, feeling lost, just another extra shagging Sammy's drives.
Discard Héctor? Is that what Sammy had done? Impossible! Not the boy who used to massage his mother's feet when she came home from work, the compulsive brother's keeper, the sufferer's easy mark. Giver of the big house to his mom, the cars to all his siblings, the boutique to his sisters, the computers to schoolchildren, the meals to shoeshine boys, the fifties to the homeless, the $100,000 worth of pesos that he tossed to the people of his hometown like leaves in 1993. Only a year before that, when the father of a player accused Héctor of "kissing Sammy's ass" after he threw his star student more batting-practice pitches than he threw to others, hadn't Sammy pulled Héctor aside, vowed to get him a visa and fly him to the U.S.? Hadn't Sammy given Héctor the most wonderful day of his life, the one at Shea Stadium during which Sammy brought him onto the field to watch batting practice and then into the clubhouse to be introduced to the other Cubs with words that brought tears to his eyes? "This is Héctor Peguero," Sammy said. "The man who taught me to play baseball." That very night, hadn't Luis Sosa told Héctor at the ballpark that Sammy was going to take care of him in a big way one day?