- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Zamboanga, one of the southernmost cities in the Philippines, is on an island so remote—even though it is only 540 miles from the Philippine capital of Manila—that it has its own language, a pidgin Spanish called Chavacano. It can be said that Zamboanga does not share land with Manila, does not share language and does not share the same place in time. In Manila's harbor, huge freighters unload lime and gravel that will be used to rebuild the city's infrastructure. In Zamboanga a wobbly ferry docks and disgorges oxen.
The Moro Gulf, on which the city is located, seems a peephole into the maritime past. Vast outriggers with impossibly colorful sails skim across the harbor as if materializing out of history. You are told that smuggling is a thriving industry. Reports of piracy appear regularly in the papers. An American woman staying at the seaside Lantaka Hotel says she has heard gunfire in the night.
But for all the buccaneer tales, all the smoke on the water, there is no romance to Zamboanga. The small harbor beyond the Lantaka is framed by shanties. And bobbing in a nearby wedge of water are the boats of fishermen who have no deed but to the Celebes Sea. While admiring a fiery late-November dusk from the hotel's patio, you can watch the fishermen return from the sea, cook their catch over small fires in their canoes and, in preparation for sleeping, spread slats over the width of the boats and turn small sails into flimsy tents. As a Perry Como rendition of O Tannenbaum drifts from the hotel bar, a family of five bobbing on the water performs its ancient housekeeping.
Venturing inland is no less disorienting. The tropical bustle of Zamboanga, a city of 500,000 that is thick with commerce on the order of cigarette stands and snack bars, quickly gives way to a gentle jungle profuse with hibiscus and bougainvillea. The local word is that two years ago a Japanese soldier wandered down from the nearby mountains and asked who had won the war. It doesn't matter whether you believe this tale. When the pavement ends and the carabao begin to outnumber the tricycles and other modern conveyances, you are every bit as adrift in time as that soldier.
In this country, some eight miles from Zamboanga, is the village—or barangay—of Culianan (pop. 7,000), where huts on stilts form the skyline. Black pigs are tethered to porches, and on every porch stand old paint cans that have been reclaimed for planters. It is as if the people can separate squalor from poverty by their ability to organize nature. The roosters and goats, however, remain unorganized. They are everywhere.
Is it possible that this was home, however briefly, to the Little League baseball world champions of 1992? Home to kids who, on a faraway diamond, upset the sons of privilege and gave their country a shining moment, and then, just as improbably, plunged their people into shame? Could the riot of nature in these remote Philippines somehow produce an aberration of athletics or—every bit as unlikely, you would think—a sophisticated scam?
You meet a boy from that team, the team that won the Little League World Series in August in Williamsport, Pa., by beating a squad from Long Beach, Calif. The boy was the shortstop on the Zamboanga team, and he had two RBIs and scored two runs in the championship game. He may or may not have been 12 years old at the time. He may or may not be Ricardo Marcos Jr. It remains difficult to say for sure, no matter how many conversations you have here. The boy emerges from a small wooden house with a thatched roof. The entryway of the house—there can't be more than a single room beyond it—is decorated with a trophy and a certificate and a model car tilted for display.
In the yard, roped to a stake, is a cow. After his team won the championship, the boy was given some money by his town's congresswoman, the powerful and wealthy Maria Clara Lobregat (whose family amassed a fortune from coconut plantations); the boy spent most of his money, about $175, to buy the cow.
You may recall the indignation in the U.S. when Zamboanga's victory was revealed to be tainted and the title taken away and given to Long Beach. The Long Beach players and coaches had honored the integrity of Little League baseball, but when their victory came by forfeit, not on the held, it was received with very little ceremony and earned its winners very little distinction. It seemed so unfair to those kids from Long Beach.
The Filipino boy poses for pictures with his cow. Christmas carols float out of a radio and through the humid air, and you are suddenly stunned by the heat, nearly slammed to the dirt by it. The sweat just drips off your face.