Bringing the Heat

A couple of weeks ago, Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker made some startling observations about black and Latino baseball players and high temperatures. And speaking of heat, did Baker ever feel it. A lot of gnashing of teeth over whether Baker's comments were racist followed his claim that minority ballplayers perform better in summer conditions. "We were brought over here for the heat, right? Isn't that history?" the African-American sports jefe said.

Well, we don't know whether Baker's got a point or not, but if he wanted to gather some empirical evidence for his claim, he might come down to Perry Park east of downtown on any summer weekend.

He'd find the mostly Latino ballplayers of the Sun Valley League smacking jonrones in their unique brand of béisbol. Recently, on one of the hottest weekends of the year, even the brown-skinned jugadores were wilting, but there wasn't a white person in sight.

"We aren't just Mexican. There are a bunch of us," says Fermin Hernandez, 36-year-old player-coach of Los Angeles (the winged variety, not the city). "We have Venezuelan, Dominican, Puerto Rican. We enjoy the company of each other. We even have six or seven white players," he claims. But none of them could be found on this scorching afternoon, with temperatures in the 110s.

The league has 40 teams in its beginners division and 16 at the more advanced level, and the talent varies greatly. Even within the league's top division, there are ex-pros from Mexican leagues mixed in with guys who should probably be relegated to keeping score. Some look like they're in their 50s. "One guy on our team is 53. He's our best player," Hernandez says. For many, the league play is an opportunity to relive their glory days, where they played in countries where baseball is worshiped only less than soccer.

"Some play fútbol. But to us, this is it. Puro béisbol," says one player.

Adding to the foreign flavor, vendors work the small crowd selling not hot dogs but mangos on a stick and other south-of-the-border treats. "I peel and slice them," one seller says as she shows the cucumbers she was offering, "and add lemon and chili powder. Who are you? Why are you writing things down? Are you going to interview the other vendors?" she asks in Spanish. She points out a couple of other cucumber and mango sellers pushing converted grocery baskets lined with chicharrónes (fried pork rinds), Mexican candies and, for some reason, Japanese playing cards. But the big sellers under such a cruel sun are Gatorade, sodas and Mexican ice cream.

But even those kinds of refreshments can't seem to revive the Angelitos, who are trailing. "What do you want to know? That we're getting our ass kicked?" says Julio Jacamo, a Venezuelan who seemed to strain Baker's theories. "Put someone else in. It's too hot. I'm starting to get sore," he complains.

But he's the exception, not the rule. The rest don't carp about the heat. Hernandez, meanwhile, tries to rally his team with one-liners and jabs at his players.

Behind the backstop, a pair of regulars heckle the plate umpire. "The heat is affecting you, pollo," one says. "He looks like a chicken," another responds when they're asked about the name they'd given the official. They taunt the ump to clean home plate so he can see it better.

"After I get some water," the ump responds, referring to his handy container.

"What do you mean, water? You know it's beer!"

Pollo the Ump looks back and winks at that comment.

There's even more hilarity when an outfielder flubs an easy catch. Everyone howls with laughter: players, fans, even the mango vendors and some homeless park denizens sitting nearby.

"Qué manchada!" mutters the ump, shaking his head while he uses the expression, meaning, "What a foul-up."

Most of the players are showboats, but none seems as sure of himself as Angeles player Jose Jimenez, a 29-year-old Dominican from Miami who's glad to pose for a photograph, saying, "Send me a check, compadre, send me a check!" When things really get ugly for the team -- one home run by their opponents narrowly misses an SUV on 32nd Street, another gets by the Angeles left fielder, which brings out the hecklers from both teams -- Hernandez turns to Jimenez to get the squad out of a jam. Jimenez moves from first base to the pitching mound, but even the supremely confident Dominican can't save the day.

"Ay, I'm tired," coach Hernandez sighs as he watches his team go down to defeat in the dust and sweltering sun. "Good thing I don't drink beer no more," he says. "Tomorrow makes three days I've completed [without a drink]."

"Qué barbaro!" one of his players yells in commiseration.

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Dan Cortez