Strike up a conversation with a big styrofoam hat, and chances are you’ll get a story. Thus it is with Iris Maluenga and her son, Cheo, in the corridors of Jose Bernardo Perez Stadium in Valencia, on this November Friday night.
Iris is from La Guaira, the port city home of los Tiburones; Cheo was born here in Valencia and is an ardent Magallanero. A mixed family.
When I tell them my story, and that I in fact like the Tiburones because Darryl Strawberry and Luis Tiant played for them, Cheo tells me that Darryl hit one out of this stadium, too (I’ve been told the story about the Caracas stadium a number of times; it’s a legendary shot.)
My dinner tonight begins with an appetizer of two Cuba libres—rum and coke with a healthy drop of Angostura bitters, developed here a few hundred years ago. A guy next to me orders one with the depricating humor Venezuelans have taken to in recent difficult times; “I´ll have a Cuba libre, even though we´re not free!” Bitter Angostura smiles all around.
Magallanes have the most stacked lineup of MLB talent, which tonight includes ex-Mets Endy Chavez and Ronny Cedeño, as well as Texas Ranger infielder Roughned Odor. My fanatico credentials receive a boost when I have to tell the guy next to me, a late arrival, that in fact Odor is playing second tonight, not the poetic Andres Eloy Blanco. (Come on, man!)
Alex Cabrera, still stinging from implication in a shipment of steroids supplies with his name on it (and a blow-up doll, probably), gets the usual “syringe” chants. Rene Reyes, the Tiburones DH, wears #77 and indeed resembles an NFL lineman. For such players the bateodor designado position was invented.
Things look good for the Tiburones going into the 9th with a one-run lead, and they bring in Gregory Infante–a righty Blue Jays prospect popping the catcher´s glove in warm-ups–to close it out. But he serves one down the middle and Ronny Cedeño turns it around, lining it over the centerfield fence. “Ron-ny! Ron-ny!” the chant falls down like rain.
Soon enough, however, the smiles are turned upside-down, In the top of the tenth, Jose “Cafecito” (small coffee) Martinez, son of ex MLBer Carlos “Cafe” Martinez, strides to the plate. Long and lanky, he resembles Strawberry. My neighbor Guillmero, a doctor, tells me that Cafecito is better than is brother Teodoro, who is among the league leaders in doubles and stolen bases.
He looks like Strawberry, he hits like Strawberry. Behind in the count, he turns on a fastball like an adolescent child turning on its parents, and bam! a looping two-run homer down the line and into the children’s playground behind the right-field fence. Just to make sure, Jamie Romak (a Canadian who’s starred for the Hickory Crawdads and Albuquerque Isotopes) ropes another one over the fence on practically the next pitch, and it’s 7-4: game, set and match to the seventh-place Sharks.
5 errors. 13 pitchers. Not a real clean game, but a lot of fun. I make a pit stop in the baño before leaving, and I realize that the guy behind me is shouting at me. (We were near each other in the game.)
“I used to be a pitcher! You have to waste a pitch on a 1-2 count! You have to fool the batter!” He´s mad about the two home runs, you might say. I tell him in my street Spanish that I fully concur. “I used to be a player until I hurt my knee….” his complaints drift into the Valencia night, while the Tiburones fans, with little chance to see their boys in the January round-robin which will send one team to the Caribbean Series, have a small moment of triumph.
When you’re a Shark, you´re a Shark all the way.