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"We gotta field first," Luis said.
"No," Ariel said, "we gotta hit first."
A thick hardwood tree stood in a corner of the yard. Using a fender washer and a four-inch screw, Luis had attached a tire to the tree to make a tool for hitting practice like the ones he used growing up in the Dominican Republic. The tire had a way of separating good swings from bad ones. Luis showed me a good one, striking the tread hard and straight on with an aluminum bat, and the tire recoiled with a loud pop.
Ariel disappeared inside for a bowl of Cheerios and then came out for some hitting. Luis picked up a bucket of 80 balls and began throwing them toward Ariel, who was thicker than his brothers in the arms and torso but was otherwise average for his age. He swung very hard, and the bat made a violent metallic sound as it sprayed baseballs around the floodlit yard.
"Ariel," his father said, "stop moving your feet all over the place. You're trying to show off."
"Lemme hit lefty," Ariel said.
"I'm a smack you with a lefty if you don't start hitting right," Luis said, as if he were a character in a sitcom. Ariel giggled.
During a break in the action Luis explained the gravity of his mission. He wanted his sons to play baseball well enough to get athletic scholarships at a good private high school. This way they could avoid the local public school, James J. Ferris High, one of the lowest-rated in New Jersey, where students were occasionally beaten and robbed in the halls.
It was after 11 when the boys finished playing. They gathered the 80 balls from around the yard and plunked them in a tall white bucket. Ariel wanted to keep going. "Come on, Yamil," he told his older brother. "Come on. Field grounders." A few minutes later I walked inside to find the boys and their mother watching television in the living room. Ariel was curled up in an armchair, drinking from a Sesame Street sippy cup.
ON SATURDAY MORNING, while Luis decorated New Meadowlands Stadium with sheet-metal signs, the rest of us piled into an old white Honda Odyssey for a ride to Yamil's baseball game. First we had to stop at Lube Land for an oil change and a car wash. The boys behaved more or less at age level: Yamil moonwalking in cleats, Ariel and Gordo taking a mysteriously long time in the bathroom, Yamil suggesting that a ghost was driving their minivan as it rolled along the track of the automatic car wash, Ariel and Yamil arguing about whether one could grow up to be both a baseball player and a ninja, Ariel sprinting down the hallway after estimating its length at 30 miles.