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FIVE-YEAR-OLD SLUGGER
THOMAS LAKE
August 30, 2010
THE VIDEO OF HIS BATTING-CAGE EXPLOITS HAS TURNED HIM INTO AN INTERNET CURIOSITY AND A MEDIA STAR. HOW CAN A KID SO SMALL AND SO YOUNG HANDLE 85-MPH HEAT? ARE HIS PARENTS UP TO SOMETHING? IS ARIEL ANTIGUA FOR REAL?
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August 30, 2010

Five-year-old Slugger

THE VIDEO OF HIS BATTING-CAGE EXPLOITS HAS TURNED HIM INTO AN INTERNET CURIOSITY AND A MEDIA STAR. HOW CAN A KID SO SMALL AND SO YOUNG HANDLE 85-MPH HEAT? ARE HIS PARENTS UP TO SOMETHING? IS ARIEL ANTIGUA FOR REAL?

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TOMASULO: Could you repeat that again?

CLIP OF ORTIZ: He's about five years old.

TOMASULO: Ohhhh. Now he's about five years old. [Makes air quotes with fingers.] O.K., I've seen this movie before. Young Latin baseball player gets the scouts salivating, they come by, all of sudden no one has a birth certificate. One team still can't resist, gives him millions anyway, and then his real age comes out. It's the ollllld Otis Nixon trick. We think he's five, when in reality he's just a really short 32-year-old.

Luis's video did not serve its intended purpose. Even after watching it, Luis's skeptical friends were not persuaded that his son could hit an 85-mph pitch. They would not stop calling him a liar.

On the Internet the comments were worse. Several people noticed a sign in the batting cage that said ALL PATRONS MUST WEAR A HELMET. Ariel wore no helmet. His father would later go on the websites to apologize and to explain that Ariel usually wears one but had taken off the one he was given that day because it was too big. No matter. In composite, according to the commenters who swept in like a shiver of tiger sharks, Luis was stupid, pathetic, greedy, an ogre who had stolen his son's childhood, the male equivalent of a pageant mom, a loser living his failed dreams through his children. Many of these epithets were also directed at Jessica. The anonymous watchdogs presumed Ariel to be "another kid who can't just be a kid" who will "grow up hating his father." One poster wondered "if the kid even knows his alphabet."

I watched the video and did some wondering of my own. Who was Ariel Antigua? Was he a real boy? Was anyone watching over him? I called Luis to ask if I could spend several days with his family for a magazine article.

No one would have blamed them for shutting me out.

They let me in.

IN JERSEY CITY rust bloomed on the railroad bridges, a car wash promised to wash away acid rain, and street signs threatened prison for anyone seen playing a boom box. Near the center of town, by a closed corner grocery whose windows hid behind rolling sheets of metal, I came to a first-floor apartment with a sticker on the front door that said PROUD TO BE A UNION SHEET METAL WORKER. All six members of the family lived there, in two bedrooms: Luis, 29, Jessica, 29, and their four sons, Luis Jr., 11, Yamil, 10; Ariel, 5, and Yariel, 3, whose nickname is Gordo because he used to be fat. Jessica is expecting a baby boy in November.

"Ariel, you're gonna break a window," his father said a few minutes after I arrived, on a hot Friday night in April, as we chatted by my car. Ariel paid me no mind. He and a friend were hurling a ball against the armored windows of the grocery store and catching it with their gloves. To get any distance on their throws they had to stand in the street, which in this neighborhood seemed to pass for a front yard. There was very little traffic.

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