We are leaving
Juárez, Mexico under cover of darkness. It is just after I a.m. on May 10, the
wind is blowing hard and the smell of bus exhaust is strong. Across the street
from Cruz Blanca Stadium, where earlier that night the Triple A Juárez Indios
split a doubleheader with the Chihuahua Dorados, the corner liquor store is
doing good business. Juárez players are stockpiling beer, filling ice chests,
paper bags and anything else they can carry for the long ride to Nuevo Laredo.
It is expected to take 17 hours and the beer will help them sleep.
Nuevo Laredo is
southeast of Juárez, about 600 miles away along the Texas border. The trip
takes 11 hours on the Texas side, but in Mexico, where the bus travels because
Mexican players cannot legally cross into the U.S., the only highway snakes
south, southeast and east before turning north to Nuevo Laredo—which adds about
400 tough miles.
It isn't long
before we realize that the estimate of 17 hours will fall short. Outside
Juárez, the bus is stopped by the Aduana—Mexican Customs. It's a routine check.
Coaches and players leave the bus to greet the officials, slap them on the back
and talk baseball. A coach gives the customs men two new baseballs and they
smile and rub them like third-base coaches after snagging a foul.
The baseballs are
enough to keep the Aduana from boarding the bus, where they might find
contraband—perhaps an American stereo or TV set that would bring a handsome
profit in the interior. Small-time smuggling by some Mexican ballplayers has
increased since the devaluation of the peso in February, which effectively cut
salaries in half.
Along the way,
there are two stops in small towns for food, both of which take about twice as
long as expected. Near dawn a loud boom from underneath the bus echoes across
the desert. A tire has blown. Add another hour. Time is such an enemy.
It is dark, but
some players try to read. There is very little conversation. There are a few
bunks in the back of the bus, but they are hard and smell bad. There is a
bathroom back there, too, but despite the beer it gets little business.
Reaching it means crawling over and under players whose legs, arms and torsos
form a human maze in the narrow aisle.
The sound of beer
cans being cracked open finally stops. There is a pace some veteran players
follow—two six-packs in five hours. By Chihuahua, 225 miles south, they have
passed out. Beer can be a very good friend if you're the kind of person who
cannot sleep when you are sweating and sitting next to another man, also
sweating, and you have your knees in your mouth and your head bobbing like a
dashboard puppy with every jolt. Outside the window there is only the
Chihuahuan desert, dazzling at sunrise and sunset, but in the dark it's like
the moon and after a while you cannot focus and everything seems strange.
We are about 20
minutes outside Nuevo Laredo when one of the players says, "Pretend you are
We are approaching
an immigration checkpoint and it's likely the bus will be boarded and our
papers checked. This is also routine, but you can never tell. If the
immigration inspectors are bored or feeling nasty or you don't look at them
right there is no telling what might happen. Feigning sleep is considered the
But this time it
fails. An immigration official boards the bus. He is short, heavyset and
attired in a light brown uniform and cap, like Ralph Kramden in The
Honeymooners. It is very dark, but when he comes close you can see his face. He
points his flashlight in your eyes and says, in English, "Papers."