By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"And another thing," La Liga Latina de Béisbol president Jose Acosta tells the sixty or so team representatives assembled in a small room at the Bladium on a Saturday evening in early April. "If anyone sees or knows Rolando Castillo, tell him that he is suspended for eight games."
Last year, in a game with playoff implications, Castillo made a poor decision. It was the eighth inning, tie ballgame, man on second, batter at the plate. Castillo was catching when the hitter knocked a single to the outfield, sending the runner around third and hurtling toward home. The throw came in wild, flying all the way to the backstop, and the runner glided safely across the plate. Since Castillo couldn't stop the go-ahead run, he did the next best thing: He collected the ball out of the dirt and fired it as hard as he could at the jubilant runner, who was still jumping in the air in celebration. The ball hit the runner squarely in the chest. Castillo was ejected from the game.
A few years back, bad behavior was the norm at league games: arguments on the field, fistfights with umpires, the occasional drunken infielder. But these days it's all business for La Liga, a wildly popular, sixty-team Hispanic league that stretches all the way from Pueblo to Greeley to Grand Junction and back. The quality of competition is high -- ex-big-leaguers-in-the-league high -- and so are the expectations. So Acosta must hammer home las reglasto make sure that everyone is on the same page and things run smoothly. If you're going to stay after the game and drink and watch other games, don't just throw your bottles under the car and then drive off, he explains in Spanish. Unless your wife has a vendor's permit, ask her not to sell burritos in the city's parks. Leave the fields in good condition for the next team. These are rules that would seem obvious to those reared in the American athletic environment of permission slips, facility fees, licenses and athletic regulations. But in a league where the games can be as much cultural gathering as competition -- in a league where many fans re-create the atmosphere they fondly remember from their childhoods in Mexico, where attitudes were a bit more carefree -- such bureaucratic obligations must be reiterated.
Some of the team reps listen attentively, nodding their heads. Others from the better, Class AA squads yawn and roll their eyes; they've heard this all before. For these former college athletes, the more pressing issue is wooden bats, which the league is using for the first time this year in an attempt to curb the profusion of home runs. Several men from the lower division -- men wearing goatees, ball caps, cowboy hats and belt buckles, men of all shapes and sizes, a couple of whom don't look fit enough to last three innings -- completely ignore the speech, letting their cell phones interrupt with a variety of festive ring tones.
After Acosta finishes his talk, the relieved room explodes with chatter. Friends who haven't seen each other since last October embrace. Shortstops from rival teams commence yet another season of epic shit-talking. Men rush the table at the front of the room, snatching schedules, rosters and boxes of brand-new white baseballs.
Tomorrow is opening Sunday of La Liga Latina de Béisbol, and everyone is ready to play ball.
For Gabe Molina, La Liga Latina is a layover. He hopes. A former star pitcher from Kennedy High School turned major-league closer, Molina has been in more than forty games for the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. But now, at thirty -- "not old but definitely not young by any means" he says -- he's at a crossroads in his career, released earlier this spring from the Colorado Rockies organization after pitching for the Sky Sox in Colorado Springs.
"I've still got a lot left in the tank," Molina says. "I had a good season there last year, did well and everything. They just wanted to go in that young direction instead of having veteran players. Every team has a certain direction, and you just have to understand that."
For a while, it looked like the only direction for Molina was up. Selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 21st round of the 1996 draft, he steadily worked his way through the farm system from rookie league to A ball to AA, then AAA with the Rochester Red Wings in 1999. He was called up to the bigs that same season, playing twenty games for Baltimore and posting a 1-2 record with a 6.65 earned-run average.
"I'll never forget that first day I was called up," Molina says. "I was warming up, and the players were tossing the ball around, and Cal Ripken Jr. was playing third. When it's time to start pitching, the third-baseman throws the ball to you. So I turn to catch the ball from third and it hits me: ŒHoly shit! That's Cal Ripken giving me the ball! I'm in the big leagues!'"
But life in the big leagues is a tenuous dance, and Molina shuffled between AAA teams and their major-league counterparts in Atlanta and St. Louis for the next few years. During 2004 spring training, he injured his elbow and had to sit out the season after coming home to Thornton for surgery. Last year, the Sky Sox had him for a few months, but now Molina is without a team and still ready to play, a phone call away from dropping everything and joining a professional squad.