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Playing in the league can also be a frightening experience. The local police sometimes like to hang out in the dugout, wielding M-16s as if they were Louisville Sluggers. Brunet says he's had a gun pulled on him five or six times. "No big deal," he says. Sometimes the local fauna can be just as scary. Ballplayers say there is nothing quite like the sight of fans pelting each other and the field with live snakes.
The high emotional pitch also takes some getting used to. "If it weren't against the law, they really would kill the umpire," says Brunet. In a game between Veracruz and Le�n, an argument with the umpire not only brought the Le�n manager to home plate, but also coaches, players, a dwarf bat boy known as Spider, reporters, photographers, radio announcers and interested spectators. As usually occurs in the States, too, the umpire prevailed.
As for life outside the ball park, well, sitting in front of an air conditioner is a major form of recreation. Mexico is, in the word of Veracruz Centerfielder Victor M. Felix, "ccchhhottt." Last year Felix played for Tabasco, which didn't have a sauce named after it for nothing. Another favorite pastime among Mexican Leaguers is lighting up the local brand of smoke. Outfield grass refers to what the players have during batting practice, not what lies beyond the infield. Brunet prefers the more traditional methods of intoxication. He's slowed down some since his days in the majors, though. His pet Chihuahua, Nurci, keeps him in line. "She won't come near me when I'm drunk," he says.
There are times when Brunet finds himself caught between two worlds. "I'm still an outsider down here. But it's not easy going back to the States, either," he says. "When I do go back, I don't know what they're talking about. It's like I just heard about the Lindbergh baby." But Brunet's position has made him a sort of unofficial ambassador in the Mexican League. Americans are always coming to him for advice, and he's always willing to tell them what not to eat, where to have a good time and whom to watch out for. "You've got to watch your glove at all times," he warns. "Even on the bench. You can never catch these kids. They just walk in, walk out and the glove is gone."
Some of the children may be thieves, but they are also a big part of what's special about Mexican baseball. They hang over the dugouts and even sit on the benches. They've especially taken to Davis, whom they call "Wee-lee," as in "Wee-lee, pelota, Wee-lee, pelota." Davis doesn't know Spanish, and the children don't know English, but they communicate. As one Veracruz coach says, "B�isbol universal." Veracruz even has its own version of the San Diego Chicken, the Aguila, a plump old man swathed in red-cotton feathers.
Veracruz is Mexico's largest port and oldest city, a working town that relies more on shipping than on tourism. Veracruz also has a baseball history: Josh Gibson, Monte Irvin and Cool Papa Bell have played there. Several years ago the ball club was sold and moved to Aguascalientes, but this year the team returned with Bobby Avila as the principal owner. Avila, the 1954 American League batting champion with Cleveland, is the former mayor of Veracruz. The club had been averaging 4,000 fans per game before the strike, thanks in no small part to Brunet and Davis.
In their four months together, Brunet and the 40-year-old Davis made quite a team. Davis' philosophy of running a ball club can best be summed up by his belief that "if you step on people in this life, you're going to come back as a cockroach." Needless to say, he runs a loose ship, which suits Brunet just fine.
Davis brings special skills to the job. Twice during Brunet's birthday shutout he somehow conjured up double plays. He is so mesmerizing that he even has Brunet believing in reincarnation. George believes he can come back as a major league reliever. Very soon.
"I know I can pitch two or three innings at a time up there," he says. "I know I can pitch better than what's his name, Burgermeyer [Tom Burgmeier, who, unbeknownst to Brunet, is having a fine season]. But somebody would have to ask me, and those days are gone. People up there must think I'm a fat old man who can barely get the ball up to the plate. Guys come down here and say, 'George, is that you? I thought that was your son pitching down here.'
"Maybe I'll go home in September and ask Jim Fregosi if I can work out with the Angels. All I ask is for someone to give me 30 pitches on the side and I'll show them what I can do. If I can't do it, fine. They can say, 'What is this piece of dog doo doing out here?' "