Baseball Dreams

I dreamed I saw Joe DiMaggio last night, alive as you and me.

It was in the old San Francisco Seals stadium at 16th and Potrero Streets, where I occasionally went to games as a child. This was before the New York Giants came to San Francisco and ruined the fortunes of the Pacific Coast League (although a part of the minors, it was often called the Third Major because of the excellence of its play) and the San Francisco Seals forever. I saw memorable games played by men whose names I could not possibly remember now, most of whom never made it to The Bigs.

But in fact, the stadium in my dream was not the real Seals stadium. It was the stadium that existed in Boaco, Nicaragua, when I went there in 1986, and here's a description of it in fact and in my dream.

The stands were made of wooden planks. The entire stadium was also of wood, constructed in a rough circle with seating for a few thousand people. I bought a ticket upon my arrival, a small wafer of thin paper, from a woman who sat on a stool inside a tiny booth. Her head was the only object that appeared in the square hand-sawed opening in the exterior wall of the stadium. I gave her a few centavos and she gave me the piece of paper, the two of us talking about what a strange sight I was here in Boaco, a gringo so far away from anywhere.

Passing immediately into the stadium, I came into the area beneath the cascading levels of seats. If there was applause or noise at the game, which in Latin America is a constant, the wooden structures above me would echo with the sound of it all, like fast-approaching and receding thunder laced with laughter and many forms of humorous verbal assault.

But there was more down here in this angled catacomb. Women at wood-charcoal fires were making all sorts of delicacies for sale to the fans up above. Small tortillas with chopped tomato and white cheese. All manner of little cooked meat delicacies served on green leaves, chili-ed and salted. Small, delicious fried cakes resembling short pieces of garden hose, sprinkled with sugar. Other cooked sweets. Maize on the cob. Kids -- most probably relatives of the cooks -- awaited these foods, which they would distribute to the crowd from wooden trays.

There were also boys serving soft drinks, those made and bottled in the then-revolutionary and U.S.-embargoed Sandinista Nicaragua. So the bottles had real value and were not to be willy-nilly given to the crowd. Instead, the boys would empty a bottle of soda into a small plastic baggie, twirl it around a few times to seal it, and tie the twirled section into a knot. These they would also distribute to the crowd, and the thirsty fan would bite a corner off the bag and suck the soda from it.

This activity was all undertaken amid waves of smoke from the charcoal parillas, reminiscent of burnings in hell. Except that these were delicious burnings, and the rising smoke had the advantage of taking the odors of the cooking meats and vegetables up through the spaces between the wooden structure, to float freely across the stadium benches, thus tantalizing the noisy crowd watching the game. It presaged an immediate sell.

Gambling was rampant in the stands in Boaco and in my dream. But it wasn't just a single bet on who would win the game. Bets were being taken between fans on whether the next pitch would be a ball or a strike, on whether it would be a slider or a curve ball, high and tight or low and away, on whether the pitcher would be yanked before the end of this inning or at the end of this at-bat, on whether the play developing at home plate would result in an out or a run. In short there was betting on everything, while play was actively taking place, and it was conducted at a mayhem-like volume that made the immediacy and humor of its language a constant no matter where you were sitting in the stadium.

In my dream, I suddenly became a player. I found myself in a locker room, although there were no lockers, simply nails driven into the old plank walls on which we could hang our clothes. There was a shower room, with three or four 1940's-vintage metal shower heads leaking water onto a wood-plank floor. The players were gathered about, dressed in many different baseball uniforms, talking about the upcoming game. The general atmosphere was of very olden-times, impoverished minor league friendliness and youthful bravado, straight out of Hollywood casting and set design. All the players were young. I myself was about nineteen. And the stadium accommodations themselves were broken-down, threadbare, unpainted and poorly lit by bare light bulbs.

Suddenly we were on the playing field, and it was here that I discovered in my dream that I did not belong. I could throw the ball. But my efforts resulted in floating puffs that had no verve, no speed, and little distance. Other players would throw laser-like strikes to the waiting catcher from deep center field, way in advance of the base runner hustling to home from third base. An overall sense of strength and real ability infused all these other fellows. I tried and tried again. But I could not come close to what they could do. I received accolades and applause from the falling-down wooden stands, although most of that appreciation was laced with laughter.

The one person to praise my play in my dream was Joe DiMaggio, the immortal center fielder who had come up to the New York Yankees organization from the San Francisco Seals, making his major league debut on May 3, 1936. It happens that I lived for a few years in the 1970's just two blocks from DiMaggio's childhood home in San Francisco. Our apartment was across Columbus Street from the field on which he had played ball as a child, and in the 70's you could still see Italian fishermen mending their nets by hand on that same field. It was no longer dirt, as it had been in Joe's youth. Now it was paved and made more suitable for games like soccer and tennis. The fishermen mended nets there nonetheless. DiMaggio's father had been such a man, and I liked to imagine that one day I would encounter Giuseppe DiMaggio's ghost, working his own death-shrouded nets on that field, a friendly old shade barely speaking English.

In any case, his son Joe was famous for his sartorial elegance. He was the best-dressed athlete ever, perhaps until Derek Jeter came along. In my dream, DiMaggio wore everything Gucci, everything Yves Saint-Laurent, including the dark brown wool fedora that he tipped toward me in appreciation of my efforts as a player. We were standing at the entrance to the stadium, near the rough hewn window at which I'd bought my ticket.

The other players were leaving. The savory odors of the carne asada, maiz, tomates, cebollas, and quesos continued to waft in clouds about us. The stadium appeared to have aged many years in just the few moments of the dream, so that now it was close to being just rubble, planks and boards falling about at odd angles, rust invading the exposed nails in the boards, although the noisy crowd was just as noisy, just as Latin, just as celebratory as it had been throughout.

Two fans passed behind us, heading out into the San Francisco/Boaco countryside, and I overheard them wagering on whether or not the well-dressed man with whom I was speaking was in fact El Gran DiMaggio.

"You tried hard," DiMaggio said. "But you haven't got an arm."

I demurred.

"So..." DiMaggio tipped his hat again. "Tell me, is it hard to write a novel?"

"Yes," I said.

"Harder than throwing a baseball?"

"I'm sure it is," I said.

This time DiMaggio demurred. "Well... I guess so. But..." DiMaggio looked over his shoulder at the field behind us. "And your agent's got your new one?"

"That's right."

DiMaggio grinned, although only for a moment. "You know, I saw you out there in center field and... uh... well... don't give up the writing, Sport." He disappeared. The dream ended.

Incidentally, in this dream there were Latino players, many, many of them, all of whom threw the ball much better than I. One of them, a fully-uniformed child of about ten, threw it so well, a bit of smoke tailing off the rear of its curving, skittering flight, that I knew it was none other than Fernando Valenzuela, the great Mexican pitcher who distinguished himself so remarkably for the Los Angeles Dodgers several years ago. In the context of this particular stadium, the kid looked at home, especially when he was throwing that speed ball right by you.