There are 108 stitches on a baseball. I should know. I've run my fingers over every one. The first and last stitches are hidden beneath the surface. But believe me, I've felt those too.
I was up on my toes, shifting my weight from side-to-side. It's important for a shortstop. You don't ever want to get stuck in one spot, unable to move. So you learn to stay light on your feet. As our pitcher went into his windup, I was focused on the baseball in his left hand, following it all the way through his release.
Spinning out of his hand, it was just a seed of white to my eyes. A split-second later, off the hitter's bat, it had turned into a scalding line drive headed right at me.
On instinct, I raised my glove in front of my face, almost in self-defense. The baseball stuck in its pocket, stinging my palm through the soft brown leather. Then I reached inside, gripping the ball by the seams before I tossed it around the infield diamond.
Six years ago, on my 10th birthday, Papi gave me this glove as a present. At the time it was brand new and way too big for me.
"Don't worry. You grow into a glove. Then you'll have it the rest of your life," Papi said, as I struggled to keep it on my hand. "We'll play lots of catch together, every day. That'll help you break it in."
Before I went to bed, Papi oiled the glove's pocket. He put a stone that was slightly bigger and heavier than a baseball in its center. Then he tied the fingers tightly closed around it, using string from Mama's kitchen.
"Do this every night and the ball will feel like a feather when it hits your glove," Papi promised.
So I did.
Every kid I knew was jealous of me. That's because baseball is practically a religion in my country. And Papi walked through the streets of our hometown, Matanzas, like a Cuban-god with me trailing behind. He'd been an all-star pitcher for almost a decade. Not only for the Matanzas Crocodiles, but also for the Cuban National Teamthe Nacionalesin all of the big international tournaments.
Fans called him El Fuegofor his blazing fastball that no batter could touch. The only way Papi could have been more respected was if he'd been a general in the military or a high-ranking government official. But most of that respect would have been out of fear.
A few months after my birthday, though, everything changed.
The Cuban National Team traveled to play an exhibition in the US. I was so excited. Papi promised to bring back lots of presents, like blue jeans for Mama and my younger sister, Lola. And if he could find a way, Papi said he'd bring me a 10-speed racing bike, right out of the store. I would have gladly settled for a pair of new tires and a chain for my old bikemore than most kids' fathers can get them here.
Every night Papi was gone, I dreamed about that bike while that stone sat tied inside my glove.
When the Nacionales swept all three games of the US exhibitionagainst the Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubsit made the front page of every government-run newspaper in Cuba. Only Papi's name wasn't mentioned in any of the stories. I figured he might have injured his arm, or the team's manager decided to use other pitchers. Either way, I was completely disappointed and didn't know how to explain it to my friends.
The day the team arrived back in Cuba, I was waiting for Papi at home with Mama and my sister. We'd put up red, white and blue streamersthe colors of the Cuban flag. Along with a big congratulations banner that read: FELICIDADES! Mama even made Papi's favorite dishfish casserole with sweet onions, green peppers and yellow riceas a victory feast. But the hours dragged past with no Papi and no celebration.
Mama must have screamed at us a dozen times about picking food off the plates. And as her dinner turned cold, the shadows slowly climbed the pink and purple walls of our single-story concrete house, touching our wooden front door.
Finally, there was a knock.
It was one of Papi's teammates.
Mama let him inside and I could tell by the way his eyes were focused on the floor that the news was bad. Maybe Lola could tell, too, because she buried her shoulder into the side of Mama's chest, waiting to hear. Only I stood on my own, pushing my toes hard into the ground, bracing myself.
"In Baltimore, the hotel lobby," he said. "El Fuego walked out the revolving door, got into somebody's car and drove off with them. He never came back."
"Defected?" Mama asked with a twinge in her voice that sounded like a combination of amazement and fear.
Papi's teammate nodded his head. Then his eyes rose up and looked out the window, as if to check if he'd been followed to our house.
"Dios Mio," she said, letting go of my sister just long enough to cross herself.
That's when I realized Papi was never coming home. He couldn't. Not without going to prison for being a traitor.
I was in total shock. I could feel an earthquake starting inside of me. My legs got so shaky I had to lock them at the knees to stop the trembling from taking over my entire body.
"Right before he left," Papi's teammate continued. "El Fuego whispered to me, ‘Tell my family I'll find a way for us to be together.'"
That night, the three of us cried in each other's arms. There were tears of joy for Papi's freedom and wondering what our future might be with him in the United States one day. But there were tears of worry, too, over what might happen to us in Cuba as the family of a defector. To make those worries even worse, the very next morning, police officers confiscated Papi's car before we could even think about selling it.
In all the time that's passed, there hasn't been a single word from Papino letter, no phone call, no message delivered by a friendnothing.
It took more than a year of waiting for this empty feeling to completely come over me. When it finally did, it stung more than anything I could imagine. It was like we didn't exist to Papi anymore, that we weren't his family, and that I wasn't really his son.
There are no professional baseball players in Cuba. All the Nacionales have other jobs. Papi was given a good one, coaching baseball at a nearby school. But without his salary, we couldn't afford to live in our house. Instead, we had to move into a one-bedroom apartment with sinks that sometimes back-up and a toilet that overflows. Now Mama works as a maid, cleaning tourists' hotel rooms. And I stopped attending school this year to bus tables in the hotel's restaurant.
Meanwhile, I heard on free radio from the US that Papi signed a second multi-million dollar deal to pitch in the major leagues for the Miami Marlins.
Whenever I cry now, it's always tears of bitterness.
A few days ago, the Marlins made it into the World Series against the New York Yankees. Game One of the series was played in Miami, and Papi came in to pitch in relief. I sat alone on a dark staircase with a small transistor radio pressed against my ear, listening to every pitch thrown by the great El Fuegosomething the police could have punished me for.
Papi threw a perfect ninth-inning for the save, striking out a pair of Yankees as the Marlins won 5 to 4.
When the game was over, with my blood beginning to boil, I ran into our apartment and snapped the string around my glove. Then I grabbed the stone from inside of it and marched down to the shore.
It's 90 miles from Cuba to the coast of Florida. That didn't matter to me. I reared back and fired that stone as hard as I could toward Papi. And after it left my hand, all that remained was an intense burning sensation in my right arm.
My name is Julio Ramirez Jr. Baseball is my whole life.
With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, we were ahead by just one run. It was an all-star game between the best junior players from here in Matanzas, and the best from Colon. Winning meant getting on a bus the next morning and traveling to play a series against other all-star teams in the city of Cardenas. And that's exactly what I wanted, a chance for the coaches of the Junior National Team to see me play more.
The name RAMIREZ JR. across the back shoulders of my uniform already gets me a lot of attention. It opens people's eyes and it closes them on me, tooall because of Papi.
I turned 16 this year. That means this is my last chance to make the team, to become a junior Nacional, representing Cuba against the best young players from other countries. For me, it's not about politics or national pride. It's strictly about baseball. It's about following my dream and having something special that's mine.
The team from Colon had a fast runner on first base. He was tall and lanky, like a baby giraffe with knees that almost reached to his chest when he was in full-stride.
I could tell by the lead he was taking, by the way he was leaning, that he was looking to steal second. That would put him in scoring position, to try and tie up the game. From shortstop, I used my glove to partly shield my face. So the other team couldn't see. Then I turned toward our second baseman and closed my mouth. It was signal, letting him know I'd be covering the bag on a steal attempt.
Our pitcher was working from the stretch instead of a full windup, determined not to give the runner a head start. He was a lefty, just like Papi. And he had copied all of Papi's moves on the moundthe way he snorts like a bull ready to do battle, the way he straddles the pitching rubber with his spikes, and the way he practically glares through a runner who thinks he can steal a base on him.
It doesn't matter that the government erased Papi's name from the baseball record books the day he defected. Kids from Matanzas still remember El Fuego. They talk about their hero all the time. They want to pitch like him. Most of them want play in the major leagues like he does, collecting mega-checks. And watching our pitcher work was like seeing a highlight film of Papi from 20 years ago, from before I was even born.
I kicked hard at the dirt beneath me. Then I pounded a fist into my glove, waiting for the next pitch. But after our pitcher came set with his hands, he hesitated for a few seconds, stopping the base runner from timing the rhythm of his pitches. Only that hesitation freezes me in my tracks, too, with my feet nearly glued to the ground.
As our pitcher strode toward home plate with the ball, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the runner explode out of his shoes. I held my position as long as I could. Then I broke for the bag, leaving a huge hole behind me at shortstop.
The batter swung and missed.
Our catcher leaped out of his crouch and the iron bars of his mask spun around his face as his shoulder flew forward.
He threw a perfect strike, just a few inches over the head of our ducked-down pitcher. I could feel the runner bearing down on me, going into his slide feet first, with his spikes pointed up.
There was a pop as the ball stuck in the center of my glove.
I swiped the tag at the runner's feet. His spikes caught leather, tearing at the glove's fingers. Then I pulled my glove away, showing the umpire that I still had control of the ball.
"Fuera!" the umpire cried, punching the air with a closed fist.
The runner was out, and the game over.
My cousin Luis raced in from centerfield, jumping on my shoulders to celebrate. I carried his weight for a few steps before we both tumbled onto the infield grass, laughing and smiling like little kids.
"Now we show those teams going to Cardenas what hungry Crocodiles can dotake a bite out of their behinds," said Luis, chomping at the grass with a big grin.
Luis is a year younger than me. He was still in school and probably wouldn't have been an all-star if his father, my Uncle Ramon, wasn't our hometown coach. But Luis already knew that and didn't have any crazy dreams that he could be chosen as a Nacional.
"A few more games in this uniform, off from classes. That's all I'm asking for. I don't even care if I ride the bench," he said, as we picked ourselves up off the ground and started toward the dugout, surrounded by our teammates. "But you were terrific todaythree base hits and some slick plays in the field. You know those big coaches are making notes on you, and everything they're writing is good."
"I just need to keep my mind straight. Stay focused on the game in front of me, not anywhere else," I said, tossing my glove, end-over-end, into the dugout.
"Maybe you should forget about listening to that radio for a few days," said Luis. "Let the Series go."
I nodded my head to his advice, even though I knew that wasn't going to happen.
Over the last five years, Luis and I had become much closer, almost like brothers. His mama died of pneumonia about 11 months after Papi defected. That left us like two puzzle pieces that suddenly had a need to fit togetherhim without a mother and me without a father.
"The two of you, get your gear together. Let's go home," said Uncle Ramon, his attention seemingly split between us and someone in the stands. "We've got traveling to do tomorrow. Get some rest. No partying."
"I'll be at a party, but it's not for me. I have to work tonight at the restaurant," I said, trying to give him a high-five as I walked past.
Only I don't think Uncle Ramon even noticed, because he never took his hands from the pockets of his red windbreaker. He just left me hanging out there.
Uncle Ramon is Papi's younger brother. They played together for the team in Matanzas for a while. Now Uncle Ramon works at one of the big sugar mills and coaches part-time at the school where Papi once did. He's tall and thin with a pair of strong legs that are usually rooted to the ground. And when his long brown hair blows around, Uncle Ramon reminds me of a palm tree that refuses to bend in the breeze.
I changed out of my cleats, packed away my glove and bats, and then slung my equipment bag over my shoulder.
On the walk out of the field house, our lefty pitcher threw an arm around me and said, "I hate that the Marlins lost last night. Now the Series is tied one game apiece. They're not playing tonight, right? They're traveling to New York."
"I know," I said, trying to keep any emotion out of my response.
"Of course, you know. Better than me," he said. "I hope El Fuego gets into the next game in reliefshuts down those damn Yankees. Imagine a pitcher from our town with a World Series ring."
"That would be something," I said.
"Don't forget, that's your genes, your blood," he said, before patting my back and then turning me loose. "Be proud."
"Without a doubt," I said, slowing myself down and letting him go on ahead.
That's when Uncle Ramon nearly walked up on my heels from behind.
"Sorry, Julio," he said, steadying himself, with Luis walking off to the side and joking loudly with some of our teammates. "My mind was somewhere else, thinking about things down the road."
In a quiet voice, I asked my uncle, "Did I make a big enough impression today?"
He stopped in his tracks. So I did, too.
"This is what I overheard some powerful people say," he answered in tone even quieter than mine. "Senior defected. How do we know Junior won't do the same his first trip outside of Cuba? Is he so good it's worth the potential embarrassment?"
Hearing that was like getting smacked across the teeth with a baseball bata bat that never connected with Papi's best fastball, but one that couldn't miss finding me.
"So I have to pay for his freedom? For him abandoning his family?"
"If some people get their way, yes," Uncle Ramon said, nudging me forward to start walking again. "Nothing's written in stone yet. I'm working on lots of solutions. You just concentrate on playing even better, nothing else."
I carried that heavy load out to the parking lot where there were more beat-up bikes chained to fences than cars, including mine. There, Uncle Ramon suddenly veered off to the right to shake hands with an old friend of his named Gabriel, who'd been hanging around our games and practices for almost two weeks. Luis told me that he'd even slept over their house a few nights.
Uncle Ramon had introduced Gabriel to us as somebody he used to play baseball with. Gabriel sort of nodded his head to that with an honest enough smile. But when a ball got away from some kids playing catch, I watched him toss it back. Gabriel's form was awful with a huge hitch in it. I would have believed he'd never thrown a ball before in his life. Besides, his hands were cracked and calloused. And the lines of his palms were embedded with grease, like he'd done more fishing than playing sports. Only I never mentioned it to anyone.
"See you tomorrow, boys" Gabriel called out, waving to me and my cousin after a short conversation with Uncle Ramon.
"Really?" I asked. "You're driving all the way to Cardenas to watch us play?"
"Not so far for me. That's where I live," he said, getting into an old Chevy. "I'm hitting the road right now. I'll meet you there. Maybe show you around."
It all sounded strange. But I had too much on my mind to think any more about it as my cousin climbed into the passenger seat of my uncle's car, and I unchained my bike.