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What Smith knew made him dangerous to my All-America mind As I shipped out for Mexicali in the Arizona-Texas League, he laughed softly, polishing his dark glasses on his pastel shirt, knowing what I was in for.
Mexicali was not like the Padre training camp. No. Almost without exception the players were younger and Mexican and almost without exception they had a brand of ambition, a dreaming determination to evade the pits of Mexican poverty that I could not, then, understand. Along with that determination they had an inordinate love for the game, which was equally hard for me to appreciate.
Soon, because I knew some Spanish and because I was black, I got on with my teammates. I became exceptionally good friends with three, Ronnie Camacho, Moises Camacho and David Garcia. They taught me Spanish, insulted my genitals when I failed to rough somebody up, accompanied me to meals and kept the invitation-eyed girls away from me. Later, Nate Moreland, a militantly black schoolteacher in his 30s, was to assume their supervisory duties.
Most of our time was routine gaming. Strangely, we did not learn much, or I should say I was not taught much. The management's policy seemed to be "throw 'em in the water, let 'em swim and let the big fish eat what they must to survive." My buddies seemed not to care as much about learning as performing. Blessed with magnificent hands, they could perform. David Garcia, at short, and Moi Camacho, at second, turned double plays as swiftly as a four-handed pianist doing trills. Ronnie Camacho lived to pull and would never go to the opposite field. Given their gifts, I still sensed that we were being cheated out of our regal right to learn the intricacies of the game. Baseball was a game of perfection, as I thought, and I wanted those little disturbances filtered out of me I was right.
The reason that there are minor leagues, aside from providing the circus for a bored populace and employment for the ancient heroes, is that major league ball clubs want to give the young ballplayers in their charge an opportunity to develop their judgment. Set aside your geniuses—your Mays and Mantle and Aaron and Kaline—there is still room, as the rosters testify, for the man with rather conventional skills who has good judgment. Indeed, the adulation that the geniuses enjoy is often transferred, unholily, to the intrepid, ingenuous "intellectual" who makes his way by a highly developed sense of baseball perception. Judgment, tricky in its connotations and unequally distributed among ballplayers, can be taught. As he thinks through game situations that recur like profane mythological events, the ballplayer sees what maneuver most profits him and his club.
That was what I was after in those days. That and something more. For as the spring turned into serious baseball, the game was changing for me. Moreland, the most experienced pitcher on the Mexicali staff, took it upon himself to teach me how to catch and rode me incessantly. My manager, convinced of my nonaggressiveness, began to punish me with his silence. Dragging through the caterwauling towns, where scourging those "black boys and spies" was the civic entertainment, I began to carry a very heavy bat. Certainly, I was used to jockeying but I had not expected to be thrown into such virulence, and such loneliness. As we moved in our cantankerous bus across the burnt flatness of Arizona and Texas, I learned that the dream could come high in psychic as well as physical energy and, even though I could sense that my troubles were not unique, I felt deserted, lost, far away from baseball as I knew it.
I was always in some turmoil, always brooding about myself, or, in a sympathetically keyed way, about my teammates and in some cases my opponents. I couldn't get used to the hard-riding ballplayers, whose uniforms seemed spiked eyes pointing only for me. And, on the rare times that I became a base runner, I was always surprised to hear the chorus from my dugout, "Knock him over!", which meant that I was to tumble some squeaky-voiced infielder into delivering the ball into the box seats. My manager kept insisting that when some bull-eyed kid pitcher set me on my rump at the plate I lay one down the line and run up his back. This, to say the least, disturbed me; I was a hustler but not aggressive. I had formed my own ethic, hard and clean, but that ethic would not take me very far in professional baseball.
It was not that I was soft; it was that I was too willing to take punishment uncomplainingly. Runners barreled into me because they knew they needn't expect a faceful of mask if they were rough. David Garcia, whose stocky little figure was softened by his filmy dark hair and the gold tooth he wore for a perpetual smile, would jostle me and laugh, "Wright. Cojones, hombre. T�mbalo!" No one would go standing up or thunderingly hard into a bag he covered.
I'd look at him and at Moi Camacho, who with his hint of corpulence and white, Veracruzian shirts always reminded me of a hidalgo, with a little awe. Off the diamond they were as gentle as priests but on it they were out to impale somebody. I thought of Ronnie Camacho as the only one of us who carried that aggressiveness out of the ball park. But I was wrong. What I took for easiness in David and Moi was simply well-controlled dignity and pride, an unspoken assertion that no one was going to handle them improperly.
Eventually Ronnie was shipped off to another league, and Moi and David became my walking partners. Phoenix, at that time, couldn't make up its mind what to do with black ballplayers, so it responded by treating them as it did its own black population—isolating them, refusing to serve or honor them. It was there that Moreland and I were offered our meals in our hotel room to keep us out of the dining room. Moreland refused to eat in the room and spent every Phoenix trip fasting until we left, while I contented myself with takeout sandwiches. Before Moreland had taken me in hand, I, knowing nothing about Phoenix, made the round of dyspeptic caf�s with Moi and David. When I was refused, they would rise, hurl a few Mayan insults at the management, the clientele, Phoenix, its mothers, God and our flag and fling themselves out into the night with me, going off to the ham hocks and beans that would fill them but not titillate them.