The lefty tilts into his windup in the bullpen. It's been heaven, Cole's '11: an All-Star selection, a 2.32 ERA and 11--4 record in the first half that could easily be three wins fatter with a little help from his friends. He uncorks a belt-high changeup. Chooch looks back over his shoulder and opens his right hand, as if asking an ump for a new ball after a pitch has been hit 450 feet, and studies Hamels's jaw. Good. It's grinning, not gritting.
Ohhhhhh, say, can you ... ? That's Chooch's cue.
He enters the dark bathroom. Walks straight into himself ...
... on that night in 1998, in the dark, when he broke. He was 19 years old, sitting in a telephone agency in La Vega, Dominican Republic, the loneliness and hopelessness inside of him about to burst through his ribs. He dialed his mother, terrified of the words on the edge of his tongue. He looked and felt like a 10-year-old among the tall, athletic prospects surrounding him at the Phillies' baseball academy where he'd just begun. He was playing a position he'd only taken up a few months before, at the urging of the scout who'd signed him as a long shot for a mere eight grand but told him he was too slow to play his native position, second base. He couldn't gauge pop-ups from this new angle. He kept trying to short-hop pitches in the dirt like an infielder. He felt like a small insect inside this strange hard shell he now wore. The telephone call went through to Panama. "Hola, Mami? ..."
Suddenly the power went out in La Vega, the phone went dead, darkness fell over the world ... and Carlos surrendered. Tears streamed from his eyes as he sat alone in black silence. When the electricity finally returned, and the signal crossed a thousand miles of sea, he had nothing left. "Mami, be ready," he murmured. "I cannot do it. I am coming home."
"O.K., my son, come home," she said.
Suddenly he heard a male voice on the phone. "Carlos," cried Uncle Elias, his mom's brother, "if you come home, it is me who will be waiting at the airport! It is my face you will have to see! This was your dream. You must take it. You cannot quit! You are a man now!"
Carlos sat there, stunned. He returned to the dorm at the academy and lay looking at the ceiling in the eight-man bunkroom. He taped his father's picture to the inside of his locker, stared at it and began sending shallow breaths back into the promise he'd just nearly crushed. Observing everyone and everything from the shadows from that day on. Mimicking. Arising in the off-season at 5 a.m. in Panama to drive to the farms to fill and hoist 45-liter tanks of milk onto his stepfather's dairy truck until he was 26, mixing cement at his uncle's construction sites, then laying out orange cones for his daily footwork and balance drills.
Chucha! That was the word that seemed to burst most from the quiet man's mouth over the long, harrowing years that followed. It was the equivalent of the f bomb in his native land, and in the spring of 2004—when his bat utterly betrayed him—it escaped his mouth so often that his minor league teammate and roomie, Anderson Machado, began to address him that way ... and it stuck. How Chucha cringed when he heard his new nickname, praying that no Panamanians were in earshot. His hitting agonies spilled into summer that year, his second season in Double A, but then came his break when Reading's starting catcher was injured and the chance to play regularly brought Chucha's bat back from the dead, his .284 average marking him—at the borderline age of 25—as a man who ... well, might be a backup big league catcher one day. When his call-up came in 2006, the Philly writers, thank God, anglicized his nickname to Chooch, and the Philly fans took it as a children's train reference, even sending him cute locomotive pictures as they began to fall in love with his pluck. The man with the steamy nickname became the Little Engine That Could. At age 27, two decades after uttering it to both of his parents—one dead, one alive—Carlos had kept his promise.