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Hard Ball

My son's baseball coach, although a wonderful shortstop, is a remarkably bad pitcher. The 9- and 10-year-olds standing around him can throw more strikes. When Coach tries to reach 55 miles per hour, the standard for competitive 10-and-under teams, more balls bounce across the plate than fly. As we heckled...
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My son's baseball coach, although a wonderful shortstop, is a remarkably bad pitcher. The 9- and 10-year-olds standing around him can throw more strikes. When Coach tries to reach 55 miles per hour, the standard for competitive 10-and-under teams, more balls bounce across the plate than fly.

As we heckled Coach Anthony during a practice last Thursday, a blue sedan drove up. All of us cheered the car's arrival.

"Armando's here!" "Thank God!" "Somebody get him warmed up quick!"

Soon, the kids had waist-high strikes at any speed they needed under 90 mph. It's been that way for much of the last two and a half years. When Armando Reynoso wasn't injured, my son's team, the Southwest Sidewinders, had a human pitching machine.

But that soon will be gone. Armando's contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks is up. To them he's yesterday's news, a guy whose games lasted too long and whose neck was injured for a bit too long. The Diamondbacks didn't re-sign him.

Nine other teams are now looking at Armando. My bet is that he'll go to Tampa Bay. He wants to rejuvenate his career with his surgically repaired neck. Without pain, his ball is popping again, his location refined. He's an 11-year veteran with a lifetime winning record and a vicious pickoff move. Somebody will pick him up as a starter.

And then his life, and the lives of his lovely wife and four children, the youngest of whom is awaiting heart surgery, will once again be in disarray.

In recent days, all of Phoenix seemed focused on the woes of Matt Williams, a dedicated father who was being asked to break a no-trade clause in his contract, a clause placed there so Williams could be close to his three children who live in Scottsdale with his ex-wife. The Diamondbacks wanted to trade him and three other players to Colorado for superstar Larry Walker.

Both men objected to the trade, with Williams arguing that his kids come first. The deal collapsed.

So Williams gets to stay. He gets to remain close to his family.

Many others aren't so fortunate. Truth is, major league baseball is tough on any good baseball player who also yearns to be a good father and husband and family man.

The pain is compounded for Mexican players like Armando Reynoso and his young friend, Erubiel Durazo, who, because he was one of the players to be sent with Williams to Colorado, knows he's on the chopping block.

Phoenix is seven hours from Durazo's home in Sonora, Mexico. Denver or anywhere else would be a much more difficult trip for his family and legions of hometown fans.

Armando came to Phoenix from New York four years ago to be closer to family in Mexico. During his two years with the Mets, his wife and children stayed in Mexico. Now the family lives together in south Chandler while visiting their homes in Mexico often.

His family will remain in Chandler -- their schools and friends and teams are here now -- but he'll have to be gone for seven months out of the year. His neighbor, Jeff, will be charged with getting his oldest son, Armando Jr., to our baseball practices and games.

In his four years here, Armando became a hero for so many in the Valley's Latino community. He was a point of pride for Mexican immigrants -- a home-country big league star who was also humble, clever, dedicated to family and community and always willing to give of himself.

At my son's baseball tournaments, fathers and their sons of Mexican heritage still flock to him for autographs.

Anglos don't. White baseball fans in the Valley seemed to forget him, and demean him, and so quickly gave up on him, once his neck began to hurt. And so he goes.

Anglos seem uninterested that this Mexican guy was everything fans dream of in their ideal baseball hero. I don't know if it's racism. Perhaps just a majority culture looking to heroes who look and talk like them and come from towns like theirs. I imagine Mexican guys gave up on Matt Williams quicker than I did. And perhaps I would have forgotten Armando too if he wasn't my kid's pitching coach.

It's a tough game. But fans pay to be fickle. That's life in the majors. Veterans like Armando Reynoso, who is 36, know this is part of the game they love, and the game that pays their bills very well.

So outside the media spotlight, Armando doesn't complain about the painful choices he must now face. He is quick to count all the good things in his life. And considering how many of his countrymen leave their families for years for minimum-wage jobs in the Valley, he feels it would be outrageous for him to complain.

Still, it is not easy.

Two months ago, Armando and Yolanda's fourth child was born with birth defects. Among other problems, their son has a large hole in his heart, a hole that will require major surgery sometime next year.

The couple also has a 2-year-old son, Jesus. Both children sleep in the bedroom with their parents.

So both Armando and his wife are running on about four hours of sleep at night, if they're lucky.

He is constantly tired, but still driven to be a part of the activities of his children.

At the same time, he is driven to return to his former form in the big leagues.

"There have been many times I've considered retiring," he says. "But I feel so good again, so ready, that I want to keep trying, try hard, to stay and keep pitching. I know I can do it now.

"When you get hurt and you're not contributing to the team, it doesn't feel good. It's not about money. I'm looking for the right place to renew my career. I just know I have something left in me to give."

He is hoping to play for a team that holds its spring training in Arizona. That would give him an extra 90 days with his family.

That likely won't happen, though.

Beyond that, he must play for a team that will give him as many opportunities as possible to see his family. And he needs a team willing to let him leave the minute his infant son faces surgery back in Phoenix.

"I know this is going to be a tough next year," he says. "The two years in New York were very tough. I missed my family so badly.

"It's hard, but when you've done this for a while, you become more realistic about injuries, trades, moves to somewhere else. It's part of the life."

He's resigned to leaving.

I'm still angry he has to leave.

But the Diamondbacks offered nothing, and, although Armando wouldn't say it, it would probably be a bad idea to stay even if the right deal came through. Anglo fans here -- 95 percent of ticketholders -- seem to be finished with him. And with the Twin Towers of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the remaining three starters must always play the role of extra and lackey.

To some degree, with the dumping of Armando Reynoso and planned dumping of Erubiel Durazo, I hope the Diamondbacks suffer the consequences of abandoning the burgeoning Mexican-American community in the Valley. Both men were sports heroes in this community. And, while recent immigrants from Mexico probably weren't filling seats because of the high cost of tickets, they did turn on their televisions specifically to watch these players.

I guarantee Mexican and other Hispanic players won't be so easy to ignore in this market in the future.

But perhaps my frustration is all just balking self-interest.

I'll definitely miss having Armando's wit and good nature present at my son's practices and games.

And, okay, yes, I will also miss his arm. Truth be told, the rest of us dads can't pitch worth a damn.

It's Sunday morning and the team is warming up for an 11 a.m. game at a tournament in far north Phoenix. It's sunny, 67 degrees and the boys have formed a pickup game in right field. It's BP and Armando is pitching.

The balls come in waist-high at 50 mph. The boys are pelting balls left and right across the forest-green winter grass.

The dads make jokes about the pro getting shelled. The pro laughs graciously at the jokes he's heard before.

And I take a few pictures. I just want to freeze a wonderful moment, a moment that, like any other in baseball, will soon be gone.

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