"Hey! Who's that dude?" yells Fat Ritchie.
"I think he's selling Tupperware?" Lucky cracks a joke, making the rest of the Chicano kids from the Ramona Gardens housing project burst into laughter.
I sigh, wondering, "What have I gotten myself into?" I know these kids, since I used to be one of them. I remember playing a great game of baseball and ignoring my homework. Then one day a coach made all the difference. He encouraged me to get into organized sports and made sure I went to college.
Finally I get the nerve to approach these kids. We are at Murchison Elementary's baseball diamond on a hot Saturday afternoon. "Hi," I say. "Would you guys like to play in a baseball league?"
"My mom says not to talk to strangers," says Mayto.
"Wait, I know this guy," Beto responds. "He's cool, but I think he's trying to get in good with us so he can date my sister, Antonia."
"I want to see if you guys want to be part of the East Los Angeles Little League. I'll be your coach," I say.
"Why should we listen to you? You probably don't even know how to play."
"Who's your best pitcher?" I ask.
Nene steps up to the plate.
"OK, if I hit a home run, will you listen to me?"
All the kids, Nene, Lucky, Mayo, Fat Ritchie, Peanut Butter, Beto, Chato, Buddy, Herbie and Kiki hoot and holler, and roll on the ground, and point at me. I guess they don't think I can do it. But, and I can hardly believe this, I hit the ball out of the park. There is absolute and total silence. Then Nene saunters over and holds out his hand. As we shake hands he asks, "What do we have to lose?" We become the Ramona Gardens Sluggers.
We are officially part of the league!
Eager to begin, the kids bring their equipment: old gloves, broken bats and baseballs ripped at the seams. So my older brother, Salo, the artist, draws numbers and last names on our uniforms with black makers. From a distance, the jerseys look professional.
Peanut Butter pronounces them "professional looking." "From a distance," he adds.
"OK, guys," I say, "if we win this first game, we'll go to McDonald's, and if someone hits a home-run, he'll get a Big Mac instead of a Happy Meal."
Every one of the Ramona Gardens Sluggers cheers with all his might. We are on our way!
Our first game is against the Montebello Bombers. They think that they're better than we are because they have new uniforms.
Nene gives up only one run, and the Sluggers lead, 3-1, by the end of the seventh inning. Suddenly, the umpire calls time out.
"It's time to switch pitchers," the umpire says.
"Why?" I ask.
"Didn't you read the rule book?" the umpire responds. "A pitcher can't throw more than seven innings."
Nene moves behind the plate to catch. Needing to score twice to tie, the Bombers load the bases with two outs in the last inning.
Nene's reliever, Lucky, takes the next batter to a full count. The batter hits the next pitch to left field. The player on third tears down the base path and crosses the plate, making the score 3-2. The runner on second rounds third and heads for home, trying to tie the score.
The Sluggers' left fielder heaves the ball home, trying to nail the runner. Nene catches the ball and the runner slides into Nene's glove.
"You're out!" the referee yells.
"We won! We won!" the Sluggers scream, making their way to the dugout. We're all hot, sweaty and tired. And happy. And I'm just as happy as they are.
"You guys did it," I say, proudly. "Who knows? If we go all the way, maybe next time we can go to Chuck E. Cheese."
The cheers get louder.
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Special thanks to Andrew Huerta for illustrating this story.