Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Our Man in Williamsport

The Mexicali Little League baseball team is on ESPN, slugging it out against Venezuela for a chance to advance to the finals. Little boys are mugging for the cameras and making amazing plays on the field. One of the happiest looking kids on the Mexicali team is my new favorite ballplayer, a shrimp named Vicente Bejarano. Number 3.

Vicente's father, Marco, was one of my mother's all-time favorite waiters. He works at a restaurant called Celia's, in El Centro, just across the border from Mexicali.

My mother wasn't herself the past several months, squeezed by the grip of Alzheimer's. But her companion, Darold, always made a point of "taking her out" every day to eat at restaurants where employees like Marco made her feel loved. Even on her worst days, Marco's brilliant smile cut through the fog of her fading consciousness.

Mom died last week. The family gathered in El Centro and, of course, we had lunch at Celia's.

Like the waiters and waitresses at all Mom's favorite spots, Marco teared up when he learned about our mother. Restaurant employees develop a special bond for their regulars and become part of the extended family. They take news like the death of Mom hard.

Later at lunch, Marco told us about his son, Vicente. The boy is in Williamsport, he said, representing Mexico at the Little League World Series.

Of course, Marco would have loved to be with him in Pennsylvania this week, but he couldn't afford the time off. His wife was there, though, and Marco got to watch his son play Mexicali's first game on ESPN against Chinese-Taipei. His excitement lifted our mourning spirits.

The next day, after the family spent the morning tending to Mom's final business, we checked in again with Marco at Celia's.

He was amped, his smile even more sublime. Regulars at the restaurant had collected enough money to send him to Williamsport. He'd get there in time to watch Mexicali's second game on Sunday.

He had no idea how he was going to get around once he arrived, how he'd pay the bills when he got back, but by God he was going to watch his son play. You never get a chance like that again.

My mother wasn't a born baseball fan, but she acquired the skill while raising six kids. She was a single mother, working a bunch of jobs but finding the time to root on her brood of little leaguers.

She showed up at all my games. She was there when my youngest brother, Tony, got shelled, in an all-star sectional final, by the first Mexicali team to earn a trip to Williamsport.

She never cared much for professional ballplayers. Her best baseball memories were scored at dusty little fields built for kids.

Near the end of her life, when Mom's children were scattered elsewhere and raising their own little leaguers, people like Marco were always there to smile for her. And now one of them was sacrificing a week's pay to watch his own boy play a game. Mom would've reached into her wallet to help, but she wasn't there, so we did.

On Sunday, we raced home to watch Mexicali's game against Japan, hoping to see Marco in the stands. In the fifth inning, an ESPN correspondent interviewed him, letting him share the story about the customers who got him to Williamsport.

There was that smile, that enthusiasm, that warmth, broadcast nationally and in HD.

It was like Mom and Marco had arrived in heaven at the same time.

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