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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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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 asleep, everyone."

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 best defense.

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."

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