Editor’s note: This story originally aired on September 10, 2011.
My basement is full of photographs of ballparks and baseball players.
A couple of weeks ago, it was also full of water.
Carlos Peña, one of the guys working for the company that helped us clean up after Hurricane Irene’s departure, was not surprised to see the water. He was thrilled to see the baseball stuff.
Though he never made the big leagues, Carlos Peña told me he’d played in the minors for a team in the Cleveland Indians organization more than twenty years ago. I asked him if he’d quit baseball, or if baseball had quit him. He smiled and shook his head.
“Believe it or not,” he said, “I was doing pretty good. I was hitting .345 that year. After the summer finished, I went back to the Dominican Republic, and I was in a motorcycle accident, and I broke my spine. I was in a wheelchair for four years. It was unbelievable.”
Carlos Peña tried coming back after he’d recovered. It didn’t work out, but that disappointment didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for baseball, perhaps because the game was part of his family’s history. At the foot of my basement stairs, there’s a framed magazine cover featuring my favorite ballplayer on the day he retired. Though that retirement happened before Carlos was born, he knew about the man in the photo, courtesy of his father:
“My father was an old-timey baseball player,” he said with a smile.
“So I understand,” I said. “And I guess when you went around the corner here, and saw a couple of pictures I have of Willie Mays, that sparked some memories.”
“Yeah,” Carlos told me. “My father faced Willie Mays in the ’60s. They took a team to the Dominican Republic with Juan Marichal, and my father was telling me a story about how he faced them.”
I have heard lots of those kinds of stories, so I had to test Carlos a little. I asked him whether his father had told him how it had turned out when he’d faced Willie Mays, perhaps the greatest all-around ballplayer ever to step on to a field.
“My father said he struck him out once, and Willie Mays hit a home run the next at-bat.”
For Peña, the family connections to baseball, now and then, don’t end there. Tony Peña, late a catcher with the Red Sox, among other teams, now a coach with the Yankees, is Carlos Peña’s cousin. Carlos himself coaches in the Framingham, Mass., Little League. A couple of times a year he takes groups of young players from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where he distributes as many baseballs, bats, and gloves as he can collect from donors.
“It’s unbelievable how the kids in my country play the game,” he said. “They use water caps and broomsticks.”
“You mean bottle caps?” I asked. “They’re hitting bottle caps with broomsticks?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “With the broomsticks. It’s fun.” He shrugged. “You know, kids learn.”
Kids learn with the help of guys like Carlos Peña, whom I’d probably never have met if the basement I’d filled up with baseball photographs hadn’t filled up with water.
So, hey, Irene, good riddance, but thanks for that.