... and it all comes whistling back. Who he is. Why he's here. What he comes from. The morning when he was seven, playing baseball in the neighbor's yard in David, Panama, and his mother's scream shattered the quiet. Carlos running into his house and asking her what was wrong, his mother looking up through her tears and ordering him to return to their neighbor's house until she called for him.
He tried to obey her, but his nervous eyes kept watching one car after another pulling up in front of his house, dispatching relatives, friends and strangers: Something in it felt familiar. Forever passed, finally the boy was permitted to go home, and at last came the truth. On his father's last shift before a long vacation, a tire had blown out on Sgt. Joaquin Ruiz's police jeep as he patrolled a nearby town. The jeep spun into a ditch, flipped, flung the unbelted man from his seat and then crushed him. Two weeks after Carlos's grandmother died of cancer, his dad, too, was dead.
Carlos, the eldest of Inocencia's three sons, knew at once that he must become the new father. "Don't worry, I will play in the big leagues one day," he informed his mother not long after, unaware that the odds of that were roughly two in one million. "I will take care of the family." At the cemetery he dug himself an even bigger hole, repeating the promise to his father's spirit. Then he grew silent and watched what men did, so he could become one too. At 10, Carlos became a laborer in the coffee bean fields, filling his apron pockets with beans till the fields were stripped bare. Then he began walking a half hour to a farm to carry crates of tomatoes on his head for three quarters of a mile to the Pan American Highway, turning around and racing back for the next crate. At dusk he'd take the precious three dollars he'd earned to the grocery store to buy flour, tortillas, yeast, eggs and milk, and stand tall, for such a short boy, when he laid them on his family's table. But he knew that wasn't enough, nor ever could be, unless he kept his two-in-a-million promise.
... O, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave ...
In the darkness of the bullpen bathroom, he hears the anthem closing. He pictures the place on the edge of the road where he stops at the end of each off-season, on his way to the airport to return to the U.S. for spring training—the cross and candlestick holders that mark the place where the jeep pinned his father—and remembers the words he whispers each time: I don't want to bother you, Father, but I am going to America and I am keeping my promise to you to help our family. God help me this season. I will continue to do my part. Thank you for being my father.
He feels the energy surge through his chest and legs as the crowd thunders to the song's last chords, the same gust that swept through him in Panama last December after he learned that his team had added Lee to its extraordinary stable of arms, that sent him flying on his daily run on the dirt road past the cows and the pasture and the forests, past the cemetery where his father slept in a little green chapel, as the voice in his head cried, Let's go! ... Let's go! ... We got Cliff! ... C'mon, let's go! ... I can't wait! ... We got Cliff!
He exits the bullpen bathroom when his pregame reflection is done, blesses himself, touches his fingertips to his lips and looks up to the sky. Then he pats his pitcher on the back with an open hand and pounds him in the chest with a fist. Everything's good now. Cliff Chooch Lee is ready.
It's 6:15 p.m. Another night. Another ace. Chooch, do Werth! ... Chooch, do Rowand! No, boys, sorry, no oldies but goodies tonight. Chooch drops his head and demurs, far preferring to spring his material when it's not expected, and recedes back into shadows: He's the Tailor of Panama. The discreet man whose job and joy is to make his client look and feel wonderful, materializing in the mirror beside him only to smooth out a wrinkle, make a subtle alteration or offer a few quiet words of praise or advice. "Our starting pitchers do not need a tailor to make them look good," he murmurs. "They make the tailor look good." The perfect tailor's words. The perfect fit for the Legion of Arms that has paralyzed National League hitters the first half of the season, hurling their team to baseball's best rotation ERA and best record in spite of their hitters' anemic support and the loss of Roy Oswalt, Joe Blanton and all three of their closers to the disabled list, their starters hanging up a 1.96 ERA in June that's the lowest that MLB has seen in any month in 19 years.
It's Hamels on the hill tonight. Chooch, do Cole, the one where Carlos imitates Hamels walking off the mound when the sky's caving in, looking upward as if asking God how this could happen to a man as talented and well-meaning as he, closing his eyes and drawing a deep breath and blowing out his deep exasperation with the cosmos.
No Cole skits. Tonight the two men, both sons of elementary school teachers, are one. They head to the pen for warmups, Chooch already becoming the man he must be tonight. Firmer and gentler both, more aware of every flicker in his pitcher's eyes, swifter to intervene, because Hamels—though day by day becoming less so—remains the most temperamental of the Legion of Arms, the one Chooch knows best from their long history hoeing on the Phils' farms together, the ace he's quickest to soothe or tease or bark at after a bad pitch because theirs, says Cole, "is a brotherly love. He'll get on me if I throw a bad pitch. I'll say something right back at him. We can bicker back and forth. He'll curse and shake his head. But he really believes in you and really cares."