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South of the Border
Leo W. Banks
August 30, 1982
Minor league ball in Mexico is beer-induced sleep on 20-hour bus trips. It's also a wild kind of fun, a last chance for the unvanquished
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August 30, 1982

South Of The Border

Minor league ball in Mexico is beer-induced sleep on 20-hour bus trips. It's also a wild kind of fun, a last chance for the unvanquished

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The ride from Nuevo Laredo to Reynosa is only five hours, a jaunt compared with the Juárez-to-Nuevo Laredo odyssey. Things go smoothly this time. No breakdowns. No immigration to deal with, no Aduana.

There is talk among the players that Reynosa is also one of the worst towns in the league—lunatic fans, no decent restaurants, bad bars and a hotel that rates at the top of the oh-my-God list. Back in Juárez, Kekich, a former New York Yankee, now living in El Paso and going to medical school in Juárez, said it was partly because of places like Reynosa and Coatzacoalcos that he had fled the Mexican League after the 1981 season.

The desk clerk in Reynosa hands out the first room keys. Players go upstairs and then come back with ashen looks. "No way I'm staying in that room," says Pitcher René Quiñonez. "You know what a room smells like when there's a rat in it? I'll sleep on the bus before I'll stay there." He's pointing his thumb to the ceiling and holding his nose.

More players trickle down the stairs with the same complaints. They slap their room keys on the counter and glare at the clerk, who takes a few steps back in case things get ugly. Rightfielder Greg Biagini appears with a streak of white paint on his shoulder. He says that the wall outside his room has just been painted, but there is no WET PAINT sign. He opened the door to his room just wide enough to smell something awesome and quickly closed it again. He is talking about throwing one of the stink bombs that he bought at Joey's Novelties in Laredo, Texas, into the room to soften it up before moving in.

The small lobby is packed with suitcases and impatient ballplayers. The hotel is being renovated and there are loud banging noises, and now and then construction workers wearing straw hats wander by. The road manager is hovering over the desk clerk, yelling. The clerk is juggling room keys trying to find everyone a room that doesn't stink.

Check-in drags on for two hours. The smell is tentatively identified as a combination of high humidity and wet paint. The rat report is unconfirmed. It is evident that some rooms have been sealed for a long time and that humidity has warped the floors, making it nearly impossible to open the doors. There is something ironic about struggling to get inside a room that smells as though its last inhabitant was a rodent.

I've given up dreaming about the big leagues. I hit .348 last year and I didn't even get a phone call. There are guys in the majors who hit .220 year after year and they are still there. I'm a mercenary now. I'm in this for the money.

It is getting close to 6 p.m. The players are in uniform and the bus is waiting. The park is only a few miles away, but the ride is long because the bus has to wind through narrow back streets. The neighborhood is crumbling. The houses are shacks. The noise of the bus draws a lot of attention. Kids run alongside it, grinning and shouting. People step from storefronts and wave. Men hoist their beers in a kind of salute. A player lets a stink bomb go on the bus. It smells almost as bad as the hotel rooms, and the players hang their heads out the windows and groan and make funny gasping noises. People on the street turn and stare. Some think the players are greeting them, and they smile and wave wildly.

Biagini, possessor of a vast array of weaponry from Joey's Novelties, takes this as some kind of signal and begins pelting the citizenry of Reynosa with small firecrackers that explode on contact with the sidewalk. Moments before, he had given the bat boy a piece of joke-shop gum that turns teeth blue. Now everyone is waiting for the bat boy to smile.

"Hey, Zandokan," Biagini shouts to the bat boy. "Heard any jokes lately?"

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