He'd sit over his
schoolbooks with firm intentions, then bounce to his feet to channel Clemente,
slashing imaginary high-and-away fastballs to right, then grab his gym bag and
fly out the door. As long as he could cram that bag with a few dirty uniforms
and smelly socks, squeeze into the 7 train or jam into the back of Redwings
manager Bob Rywick's big green station wagon with a dozen teammates to go to
games, O had plenty of space.
But what if he
didn't make the bigs? He'd watched his dad, wracked with asthma exacerbated by
the fumes from the hot rubber in the Brooklyn sneaker factory where he worked,
unable to breathe if he lay down, sitting all night on his bed with his arms
and head draped over the back of a chair, then being strapped onto stretchers
and hauled away in ambulances. And still O turned down a scholarship from
Mississippi State and a college education. He seized the $13,500 offered by the
Oakland A's to sign as a 14th-round draft choice in 1978, gave half the money
to his parents so they could move back to the Dominican Republic--a democracy
at last--and so Lolo might breathe again. O stayed behind with his sisters and
staked everything on his dream.
The A's released
him after little more than a season in Class A. The Seattle Mariners didn't
wait even that long to decide that he didn't have the stick for the Show. It
staggered O. He had no Plan B. He'd been a bodega gofer, a Manhattan messenger
boy, a Chinese-food deliveryman, an apartment-building custodian, a mail-room
clerk, a nightclub bouncer. He'd hauled beef on his shoulder to butcher shops
in the mornings and sprayed perfume samples on Bloomingdale's shoppers in the
afternoons. What future did America offer a Dominican with a high school
diploma and a few bucks to his name?
He turned to God
for ballast, was baptized as a born-again Christian at a Pentecostal church in
Queens in 1982. Maybe it was time at last to hunker down, tighten the circle,
join a group.
The phone rang. It
was an old Corona Redwings teammate, Greg Sabat, who'd just been offered a job
coaching in Italy. Would O like to play for the Cogeta Jolly Rogers in the
seaside Tuscan town of Castiglione della Pescaia? Hot damn, yes!
He'd awaken each
morning, throw on his clothes and jog past the fruit and vegetable vendors,
waving and smiling and kicking soccer balls with the children as he ran. He'd
sip a cappuccino at an outdoor caf� table, poring over four newspapers in order
to learn Italian and Italy so he could connect with the old men screaming and
laughing over politics at the next table. He began to discover just how much
room there was inside him, more than a born-again son of a Dominican dissident
could dream. Room for the Communists' truths in l'Unit�, the businessmen's in
La Repubblica, the socialists' in Avanti!, the church's in L'Osservatore
Romano. Soon he was screaming and laughing with those men, in debates that
would've put his relatives in prisons or tombs. Then he'd run to the ball field
on the edge of town, sweat there for a few hours and slip into the
Mediterranean, where the sun played on the bare breasts and stomachs of the
young women lying on the sand near the fish restaurant, where the owners hugged
him at the door, filled his wineglass and forbade him to pay.
Soon the locals
would call out to the only black man in town--"Omi! Omi! Va bene,
Omi?"--pull him into their homes to sample their tortelle, their olive oil,
their fresh bread and cheese and their private stock of wine, and O would make
each one of them feel that his or hers was the finest in Castiglione della
Pescaia, and very likely the world. This was him, he came to realize in these
moments of connection in faraway places, him at his finest.
He boarded a
flight back to America after two seasons, born again again. Flushed with the
power of perch�?--what can unfold when you learn to ask a man why? in his own
tongue. Steeped in the beauty of benessere, the sense of well-being around a
table when the atmosphere, the company and the cuisine are right. But what had
they to do with baseball? O filled out an application to become a flight
His sister Sixta
greeted him upon his return with a message: Ralph DiLullo, the old scout who'd
signed him with the A's, had just called. Here's how the circle worked, it
began to dawn on O: Those ripples you sent out from the center, some so long
ago that you'd almost forgotten ... one day, out of nowhere, they rippled back!
Even someone you'd failed--a guy like Ralph, who'd thought O could play in the
bigs--might remember something about you, your real strength, and materialize
when you needed him most.
The wrinkled bird
dog met O outside Shea Stadium and took him to meet Bryan Lambe, DiLullo's boss
at the Major League Scouting Bureau. Would O, they wondered, like to become one
of them? Lambe could offer him a part-time job for $3,500, but he liked the kid
so much that he offered to call a friend who'd become the Texas Rangers'
director of scouting. A scout? O had never thought of that, but heck, yes, it
was a foot inside a door he thought had shut.