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One day in his college dorm Pierce logged on to the Internet, entered the name Spratt into a search engine and, after making several calls, located Robert's father in Vacaville, Calif., near San Francisco. "The phone rings, and it's a young man telling me he's Sean Pierce, my son Robert's friend, and he's wondering if I remember him," says Robert Spratt Sr., a buyer for a technology company. "I tell him sure I remember him, he was the little kid Robert used to play Wiffle ball with. He says he just wants me to know he and his brother Brett are still playing sports and that he thinks about Robert. He was playing football at San Diego State. I saw him once on TV. And now he's in pro baseball, is he? Playing in the minor leagues? What would Robert think of that!"
Tonight at Legion Park, Andres Astacio isn't without a rooting section of his own. His host family is actually one person, Mary Lynn Wojtowick, a widow who earns a modest income playing the organ and serving as a pastoral associate for St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church in Great Falls. As part of her personal ministry, Mary Lynn takes in Latin American players with big league dreams. While Pierce is the lone Dodger living with Mike and Staci Ferradas, Astacio is one of five players living with Mary Lynn in her Coyote Lane town house. Astacio sleeps on a sofa bed in one of the two bedrooms on the second floor. Hanging over the curtain covering the window next to his bed is a little kid's Dodgers baseball uniform. It's for his 10-month-old son, Andelson, and it's a gift from Mary Lynn, who also bought a stereo system for Astacio's father, Leonardo.
"Sometimes I feel bad because she buys us so much," says Jose Diaz, a Dominican catcher who also lives in Mary Lynn's house. "If I mention that I want something, she'll go out and buy it for me. We don't want her to spend all her money on us. When I go to sleep at night, I think, How can I ever repay her?"
The first time Astacio saw the place where he would be staying over the summer, he was riding with Mary Lynn as she drove her Buick LeSabre into the two-car garage. His eyes opened wide. Astacio's father makes about $2,600 a year, decent wages in a Caribbean republic of eight million where the annual per capita income is about $1,300. The Astacios, all eight of them, occupy a four-room house. When Andres was growing up, his parents couldn't afford to buy him baseball equipment. He learned to pitch by throwing hard, green fruit picked from the trees. His glove was fashioned from a cardboard box, his bat from a branch. At Mary Lynn's, as Astacio stepped out of the car onto the cement floor, the smile on his face suggested unspeakable joy. "It is beautiful," he said.
"But, Andres, this is the garage," replied Mary Lynn, who speaks just a little Spanish.
"It is the most beautiful home I have ever seen," he said.
Mary Lynn doesn't accept rent because she can't square taking money from young men who come from such impoverished backgrounds. She also buys the players' food and, on occasion, clothing, so her houseguests are free to send their paychecks home. The Latin players often struggle with the U.S. diet, becoming sick as they try to adjust to such staples as pizza and hamburgers. On road trips they bring Crock-Pots to prepare chicken and rice in their hotel rooms. In Mary Lynn's kitchen, pots containing Latin American dishes are forever bubbling on the stove. Her refrigerator is stocked with canned soft drinks made from exotic fruits. From a local market she gets special orders of plantains, yuca and avocados.
"I miss the food from home, mostly the fish," says Astacio. "I didn't get sick and throw up when I first ate American cooking, but I didn't like it at all. I didn't like the taste, so I would have to put a lot of salt on it. The meat was too undercooked, and it was too thick. The chicken here was rubbery. I would have to go to a Chinese restaurant and get the fried rice. It was one of the few things I could eat."
When one of the Latin players celebrates a birthday, as the Venezuelan second baseman Ricardo Cordova did in July, Mary Lynn throws him a party. Most of the Latin players don't like American cakes; nevertheless, when Cordova turned 20, Mary Lynn had a baker prepare a large sheet cake made with coconut. She hoped Cordova would appreciate a dessert featuring an ingredient common to his homeland. She held a party at a video arcade owned by her son-in-law and gave each player a plastic cup filled with quarters to pump into the machines. Astacio spent most of the night seated before a game called Cruis'n Exotica, which simulates an auto race.
No American players were at the party; the two groups rarely mix socially. On bus trips to away games in outposts like Provo (11 hours away), Idaho Falls (six hours) and Medicine Hat, Alberta (five hours), the Americans sit with their own, and so do the Latinos. The primary reason for this is the difficulty one group has communicating with the other. Even during drills in practice, the Americans generally go first and the Latinos follow. Without an interpreter to tell the foreign players what the coaches want, the Latinos inevitably imitate their American teammates. At meetings Astacio has sat and listened to his coach for half an hour without understanding a word.