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THE NEW YORK YANKEES' top prekindergarten prospect lives in Jersey City and plays baseball with his three brothers in the dusty courtyard behind their apartment. They made me umpire. You're the empire, they said. I was a bad empire, studying my notebook as plays unfolded, but I was watching when Ariel Antigua lined a home run onto the roof and stumbled on his way to third and lay in the dirt, crying, while his brothers retrieved the Wiffle ball by using a shovel to pull down the ladder of the fire escape. After the game, when Ariel had cheered up, he cracked open a can of Coors Light.
"Want some?" he asked me, smiling wide enough to reveal his sharp white baby teeth.
"Ariel!" his mother, Jessica, said, mortified to see her five-year-old son dispensing alcohol. That night she showed me his birth certificate, unsolicited, which saved me from having to ask. Yes, Ariel was five. He would not turn six until Oct. 25. On this point his father was telling the truth. Luis Antigua's other claim would be proved or disproved in 48 hours, with a measuring tape and a radar gun, in the same batting cage where Ariel became an Internet celebrity at some cost to his family's reputation.
This all started last October, when Ariel's father set out to show his friends he was not a liar. The evidence cost him $150, most of a day's wages from his job with the sheet-metal union, payable to a videographer. The videographer made a highlight reel that ran two minutes and 39 seconds over a sound track of heavy drums and rising strings that brought to mind an action-adventure film. It began with a name in white capital letters. ARIEL ANTIGUA, it said. THE ONLY FIVE YEARS [sic] OLD BOY TO HIT A BASEBALL AT 85 MPH. "How you doin', everybody," said a jolly man in a baseball cap. "My name's Edwin Ortiz, owner of The Hot Corner, batting cage and training facility for baseball and softball. Have my little man Ariel, he's about five years old, one of the most incredible sights you'll ever see. Sits on my top pitching machine, it's about 86 to 88 miles an hour, and the kid consistently hits it lefty and righty."
The kid stood before the machine and swung righthanded with such force that some of his follow-throughs twisted him slightly away from the plate, as if the adult-sized bat were swinging him. Nevertheless he made solid contact nine times with pitches that screamed in like tracer bullets. "It's gonna be a pleasure to have him in our facility for the next 14 to 20 years," Ortiz said, with plain sincerity.
On Nov. 2, 2009, the videographer uploaded the clip to YouTube. He wanted to promote his work, and Luis wanted to show his skeptical friends he was not overstating his son's talents. Only a few hundred people watched the clip in its first five months on YouTube. Then, in April, someone sent the link to Barstool Sports New York, a blog that amuses its readers with semiliterate vitriol and shortcuts to pornography. The editor, known only as kmarko, posted the video with 213 words of commentary, many of them obscenities. Oh look, kmarko wrote, he hit a meatball crossing the plate straight as an arrow. Sweet. Throw this idiot a curveball and watch his knees buckle. ... Yawn. Another day another child prodigy destroyed by the cold hard facts.
The Internet has a way of sharpening tongues. Cloaked in anonymity, people say things they would never say in person. yeah, said a commenter on Barstool Sports, but why is he so UGLY??
The video was viewed more than 16,000 times through the link on Barstool Sports, and it spread quickly from there. Much of the coverage had a wild and speculative tone: The Mets should sign him. The Yankees should sign him. By age 15 he'll be hitting 246-mph fastballs. A Dugout Doctors poll compared Ariel's imagined future career with that of Bryce Harper, the first pick in this year's major league draft, and 61% of respondents said Ariel would be better. It was not clear how many of those votes were ironic. Pat Tomasulo, a sports news anchor in Chicago, crafted an online video in response that was longer than the original. "Yeah, he's making contact," Tomasulo said over footage of Ariel in the batting cage, "but he wouldn't have reached first base on any of those. We've got a groundout, foul ball, fly-out, groundout, foul ball, groundout, pop fly. No base hits." If Tomasulo was scoffing, which he obviously was, but also kidding, as he later claimed, what was the net rhetorical effect? Praise? These things get harder and harder to tell.
TOMASULO: Those are some pretty special talents for a kid his age, which was, uh, what again?
CLIP OF ORTIZ: Have my little man Ariel, he's about five years old.