The catcher walked.
His team trailed 5-3 in the bottom of the second inning—it was already one of those games—with runners on the corners and two down. The pitcher, a spindly little Venezuelan, aimed his 3-1 pitch, leaving the slider way outside to load the bases.
The pitcher barked some unmentionables into his glove as the merry-go-round twirled around him.
By then, the murmurs had begun to spread around the stadium.
The Cuban lineup card featured a notable change at the cleanup spot, and as vehemently as the manager claimed he was just trying to save his player’s knees for the second half of the doubleheader, nobody was much buying it.
“The catcher,” they said in the stands, “had walked.”
He’d slipped out of his hotel room a few hours before first pitch. It was the second of three group stage games at the U-18 tournament, long enough to lower his handlers’ collective guard but before the situation got too desperate.
“Coca-Cola,” he muttered to the guard in the hallway, shielding the fear in his eyes with a cupped hand.
The catcher walked across the street to the bodega, the one whose well-concealed back entrance had caught his eye during the team’s first day in the city.
He took his time buying the soda, hoped his trembling fingers didn’t give too much away. Sat down at the counter, playing it cool—they’d be watching, he knew. Waited for a group of tourists to crowd the counter, giving him momentary cover. Snuck out the back door into a humid alley.
Walked, they’d call it later. Ran, is what the catcher actually did.
He wasn’t known for his wheels—what backstop is?—but he swore later that he’d have outrun Ricky Henderson down those streets if the famous base stealer had challenged him to a race.
His plan, he knew, wasn’t exactly well thought out. Just get free and pray, essentially.
He shouted his nationality at strangers, hoping that one word would be enough to get his point across. This country wasn’t exactly sympathetic to his cause, given the lasting bonds of community dictators.
But just when he really began to panic, looking over his shoulder as something curdled in his chest, an arm beckoned from a nearby doorway.
You’d think the face of his savior would be burned into his mind forever, but no matter how hard he scrunches his mind, the catcher can’t recall it.
He remembers the smells. The acrid filth of his three days in that basement, of his five days crammed in a sloop’s hold with far too many others, of that way-station in Mexico where they demanded money none of them had.
Nearly two decades later, it was still singed into his nostrils. Sometimes it came involuntarily, from a man on the sidewalk not wearing deodorant or an unwashed towel.
The catcher, truth be told, cherished that smell.
It kept him grounded, a constant reminder of how lucky he had it. The life of a Major League Baseball player is full of little injustices—a strike three that was actually a few inches outside, a day off you didn’t ask for, a—gasp—demotion.
Clubhouses are filled with the sound of complaints about matters big and small.
That’s especially true on a team like the Reds, when it feels as though everything is teetering. Every losing streak feels like the death knell, every nerve is constantly exposed. Light a match after a multi-run loss, and the whole place would go up in flames. Always hovering around .500 and on the brink.
Everybody bitched—it was a stress reliever. Everybody, that is, but the catcher.
He remembered the fear in his chest, remembered the smell. He remembered just how lucky he was to walk out in front of tens of thousands of fans and swing a bat.
The catcher smiled, regardless of whether he struck out or walked.