Learning to Appreciate Isaías Látigo Chávez

A performance you could feel, even over the radio. (via Julian Lopez)

Years after the fact, I learned that an amateur league teammate of Isaías Látigo Chávez had rooted for the Navegantes del Magallanes despite being a devoted fan of the Leones del Caracas team. It happened each time that Látigo started a game for Magallanes against Caracas. I knew of Látigo’s quality as a pitcher and a person; I understood his teammate’s attitude. But years before, as a young boy just learning the game, I couldn’t understand how, at the end of the 1967-1968 Venezuelan Winter League regular season, after pitching blood and fire against them, Látigo could now wear the Caracas uniform. Nor could I understand how my older brothers could root for the Caracas team that postseason; I had heard their sour discussions with Caracas fans.

I looked at Felipe and Jesus Mario warily; I considered them almost traitors. That’s why, when the game between the Leones del Caracas and Industriales del Valencia started on Jan. 23, 1968, I almost didn’t listen. I got up from the metallic sofa on the porch of my parents’ house on La Florida street in Cumanacoa. I didn’t want to know anything about that game; my favorite ballplayer wore the uniform of a hated rival and I couldn’t stand seeing my brothers rooting for the Caracas team. From the sidewalk near our garden, I listened when Delio Amado León announced that a Gustavo Gil grounder had gone between Látigo’s legs for Valencia’s first base hit.

When Dad arrived from Cumaná at about half past eight that night, my brothers invited me to play dominoes after dinner. Dad put his right hand on his forehead covered with sweat. He asked me why didn’t I want to play with Felipe and Jesus Mario. He got up, sad, and told me that I shouldn’t move away from my brothers just because of a baseball game.

It was very difficult for me to understand why my brothers, who had been confronting the fans of Leones del Caracas the whole season, now got excited and even jumped around the radio at every out Látigo made. Children struggle with these things. When Victor Davalillo hit the grounder that forced pitcher George Culver to make an error, which allowed Cesar Tovar to score the run to get an edge in the first inning, Felipe dropped the domino pieces on the table and Jesus Mario made a fist and raised his hands to his face. What was going on with them? Why so much excitement? I said that I was thirsty and went to the kitchen. I guessed when I thought the inning had finished, and went back to the porch.

Felipe told me that during each season Látigo had played for the Navegantes del Magallanes team, he had been picked in the reinforcement players draft for the postseason. By La Guaira in 1965, when they were champions, and Valencia in 1966, and La Guaira in 1967, and Caracas in 1968, when they were champions. Felipe had rooted for all those teams. Now, maybe it was a bit harder for him to root for Caracas, a hated rival, but the emotion of watching Látigo pitching so masterfully and winning was bigger than his devotion for the Magallanes team.

As the game kept going, I started getting closer to the radio. With each batter Látigo retired, the early hit faded further from memory. Delio Amado’s voice was each time more eloquent, piercing, punching. It sounded if he was describing a boxing fight. “Each inning that goes on, Látigo looks stronger. He hits more on the corners, his fastball is sharper and that slider has put the hitters on the ropes, it’s a pitching gem. His dominion is so big that all the outs have been routine ones. There hasn’t been any extraordinary play like those that happen in this kind of game.”

What impressed me more was that Jesus Mario, who always had a different opinion from Felipe on even the tiniest detail, this time agreed with Felipe completely. He even recalled more clearly each one of the times when Látigo had been a reinforcement player. “…all those times, Látigo was always the first reinforcement player picked by the teams qualified for the postseason. Even in the 1966-67 season, he was picked by La Guaira for the final series, despite not having a good performance with Valencia in the semifinal series, because they knew Látigo always put the best of himself in every delivery. That’s why I’m not bothered to follow whatever team Látigo is playing for. He’s a great pitcher…”

I had never heard Jesus Mario talking that way. It was very difficult for him to express words of praise, acknowledgement, or veneration to anybody. He was very tough most of the time and even sharp in his conversations with others. But not now. My trips to the kitchen started to decrease. That is how, in the sixth inning, I found myself as close to the radio as my brothers. At each pitch narrated by Delio Amado, our breathing was interrupted; it only resumed when the out was confirmed, increasing the streak of batters retired.

Now I understood better why my brothers always listened to the games of that Magallanes team– a team that always was in the cellar of the standing in the 1960s– and most of all when the team announced Isaias Látigo Chavez was its starting pitcher. There wasn’t anything that could pull them away from those games. They hid the radio among their books when they had study for high school tests. They ran like the best hundred meters race sprinter when Dad asked them to go on an errand to the grocery store. They took the radio to the bathroom and almost took it into the shower. They endured any scolding without complaint when they were late to respond to calls from our Dad, delayed by listening to the game.

“Wait a minute!” Felipe stressed vehemently, “…as soon as Látigo was taken out from the game I didn’t root anymore for that team. Sometimes the manager took him out when the game was tied and he wasn’t being pounded. That’s unfair, then in came another pitcher and he got the win after Látigo had hustled for seven or eight innings.”

When the eighth inning ended, Felipe tried to take the radio and stick it to his ear. Jesus Mario complained and I amazed myself by criticizing Felipe for monopolizing the radio. Who could have predicted that before the game?

After the first out in the ninth inning, Felipe turned up the radio’s volume; Jesus Mario almost climbed on the rocking chair’s arm. I tried to get my seven-year-old frame the closest to the radio from the porch’s pillar. Our happy expressions got erased when Delio Amado described a slow grounder that Octavio Cookie Rojas couldn’t handle for an error. The streak of hitters retired had finished at 25. Felipe remained a while with his gaze lost at the ceiling. Jesus Mario snapped his fingers in front of Felipe’s eyes. “¡Come on. Látigo can still complete the shutout!”

Despite knowing little about baseball, I completely enjoyed that final out. Felipe raised his arms with his hands balled into fists. It didn’t matter that Látigo was wearing the Caracas uniform, or that Caracas fans were the ones who carried him on their shoulders. Jesus Mario almost went inside the radio’s speaker. Delio Amado talked about a record, about something never seen in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Now I knew about a real hero. I had listened to what Látigo had done. It had happened at a place in this world, not in a comic book, or on a TV cartoon or in a movie.

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The next morning, I followed Felipe, avoiding his gaze, for seven blocks until arriving to Pedro Luis’ bookstore. When he saw me in Montes square, Felipe’s face got white. “What are you doing here? If Dad finds out that I brought you here at this time in the morning, he’s going to kill me!”

The rental car that brought the daily El Nacional arrived around eight o’clock that morning. Felipe took the newspaper’s package from the car’s trunk and Pedro Luis told him to take it easy. While still in the store, Felipe opened the sports section and went straight to the game’s recap: “Látigo performed his great work this way: 15 outs at first base (five grounders to second base, six grounders to shortstop, one to the pitcher, two to the first baseman and a pop up to first base). Three flies to left field; two to right field; three putouts from the first baseman, Gonzalo Marquez, to the pitcher Isaias Látigo Chávez, one strikeout, one forced out from Látigo to second baseman Rojas, a line drive to shortstop and one pop up to shortstop.”

A whistle from two blocks away made me run desperately; Felipe was upset because he was late. “If Dad goes into the bedroom and don’t see me studying for this afternoon’s math test, I won’t get to go out for the next three days!” I couldn’t help thinking that idolizing a ballplayer could be even greater than following a team. Three days without going out almost seemed like a fair price.

Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.
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Jetsy Extrano
Jetsy Extrano

It sounds like a reinforcement draft is used so the best players from the losing teams keep playing? I’d love to see Mike Trout in the playoffs for a non-Angels team. But I wouldn’t like to obscure the regular teams too much. I don’t know, interesting system to hear about.