The Death Of A Pitcher

So this piece has been selected for the 2010 edition of Best American Sports Writing. Pretty amazing. It’s one of the first serious posts I ever did for this website and something that honored or not, I’m very proud to have written. If you’ve found it via the book (or news of it being in the book), then thanks for dropping by. I hope you enjoy it. -eric.

I.

They ran the bases for Jaime Irogoyen. His family, his friends, and his teammates were all there at Estadio Carta Blanca in Juarez, Mexico at 11:00 AM on January 17. I like to imagine they were still dressed up from the funeral; that they came straight from church. I like to imagine that they filed out of the dugout in their suits and lined up behind home plate like Little Leaguers.

In my version they all stand silently for a while, unsure of what to do. There is no pitcher to get things started. No base coach to windmill them around the diamond. They stand silently in the quiet sanctuary of the empty stadium. They scratch their heads and ponder life and death and the way a baseball field can make everything outside its lines or walls or fences disappear. Finally an old man (maybe a grandparent or a coach) grumbles impatiently; he knows death well. Let’s do something, he says. Vamanos.

The first person to run is Jaime Irogoyen’s sister. She jogs with her eyes on the dry clay in front of her, rounding each base perfectly, so that her foot only barely touches the inside corners of the bags. The old man who grumbled before nods at her technique. The next mourner runs and the next one. Each waits for the person before to reach first base before taking off. Each runs with his or her head down so as not to offend the imagined pitcher. After all, Jaime Irogoyen was a pitcher.

II.

Estadio Carta Blanca was built in the early 1970s, an era of rapid and unregulated economic growth for Mexico. Oil production and manufacturing rose sharply, but rampant corruption and poor fiscal management marred all that. Times that should have been prosperous became trying; as jagged and hard-to-navigate as the Sierra Madre mountain range that begins just a couple hundred miles southwest of Ciudad Juarez.

The reason for Estadio Carta Blanca’s construction was hopeful: the return of big league baseball to Juarez. The city hadn’t had a franchise in the top league, La Liga Mexicana, since los Indios de Juarez of the 1930s. Now, after years of second tier American minor league and Mexican semi-pro clubs, los Indios de Juarez were coming back. They threw their second first pitch as a franchise in 1973.

Like any expansion team, los Indios struggled their first few seasons. But in 1976, they tied for first in their division. In ’82, led by former Dodger and Red pitcher Jose Pena, they won the championship. Celebrations were short-lived. At the end of the ’84 season, after two years of hectic swirling rumors, the franchise was sold and moved to Laguna. After just a dozen seasons, seasons that saw a stadium built, a championship won, and a fan base develop, the Indios de Juarez were defeated for good.

But the name of the team, like the stadium, still lingers. Now the name, los Indios de Juarez, belongs to a local university. In the springtime, you can watch the kids play under the lights at Estadio Carta Blanca. You can close your eyes and imagine all the empty bleachers are full of screaming fans from a bygone era. It seems that in Mexico, the institutions of baseball can outlive governments. Regardless of the times, history is echoed through stadium speakers even as it is occurring.

III.

More than 7,000 people have died in Mexico’s drug war since 2007. A plurality of those deaths, nearly 2,000 of them, have occurred in Chihuahua, the border state in which Juarez is the largest city and Estadio Carta Blanca the largest baseball stadium. The persistent, increasingly macabre march of murder in Juarez is almost cinematic in its over-the top gruesomeness. But this is not a movie. Decapitated heads really are being found in ice chests across the country. Bodies really are piling up in the alleyway behind the Starbucks in Tijuana. Morgues really are overflowing. A New York Times headline called Mexico’s drug war a Wild Wild West Bloodbath.

To be sure, not all of the dead have been innocent. Many of the faceless (or headless) corpses belong to corrupt police officers, wily drug-runners, and gutless gunmen. But many more don’t. Many are mothers struck by stray bullets, innocents misidentified by flailing cops and soldiers, well-meaning immigrants trekking to America, robbed, raped and killed by their hired protectors. Some even are students and baseball players.

IV.

There was precious little media coverage of Jaime Irigoyen’s death. In the United States, our press has not yet begun putting human faces on the bedlam below our Southern border. In Mexico, there are so many dead, so many exceptionally tragic stories, that it is hard for journalists to single them out. Why is Jaime Irigoyen’s death more notable than that of any other innocent civilian caught in the crosshairs of anarchy?

From what is available, in both English and Spanish, it becomes possible to piece together a story. Jaime Irigoyen was 19 years old, a law-student at Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez and a pitcher for the school’s baseball team, los Indios. Judging from available information, he was a good one too. As he got ready for bed on the night of January 12, 2009, that was his reality: baseball, school, girls probably.

But those interests were soon to become historical facts; the kind that are recollected in obituaries and recalled years later by nostalgic relatives. As the Irigoyen family watched television in their Juarez townhome, just miles from the Texas border, a group of masked commandos approached their house and knocked the front door down. They surrounded the family in the living room. “Him with the glasses,” a soldier said, pointing at Jaime who sat quietly in just his shorts and socks and those glasses. They dragged him from the couch, gagging him and blindfolding him as his family stood by screaming. Then, with no explanation they took him away.

The soldiers forced his son into an unmarked SUV and sped off down the dark residential streets. Jaime’s father was able to follow them at first. But after ten or fifteen desperate minutes, the captors lost him and disappeared into the Juarez night.

Jaime’s mother reported that like many of the 3,000 soldiers patrolling Juarez on President Felipe Calderon’s orders, the men who took her son spoke in Southern Mexican accents. But otherwise, the family had no clue as to who they were or why they had come. Her son was merely a student, a baseball player. He was just a good kid.

The next day, with some friends, the Irigoyens staged a protest outside a local military base. Jaime’s parents demanded to know the whereabouts of their son. But the military denied any involvement, releasing the following statement:

That whoever deprived him of liberty were dressed in military-style uniforms in no way says they were soldiers. We call on the general public not to be fooled by criminal gangs.

As if it made any difference to Jaime’s family whether the men who took him were soldiers or not. As if criminal gangs were somebody else’s responsibility completely, and the military had more important things to worry about. Regardless, it was not long before the Irigoyen family got its answer. Just 30 hours after he was taken, as his family stood outside the chain-link fence that kept helpless desperate people like them from spoiling orderly military procedure, Jaime Irigoyen’s body was found dumped on a Juarez street. His eyes were still blindfolded and his mouth was still gagged.

The military never accepted responsibility for Jaime’s death, but most in the media have chalked the murder up to a case of mistaken identity. Some speculate that a low-level informant, perhaps under the strain of torture, misinformed some police or military officer. But nobody will ever really know. Nobody but the men in the masks.

V.

The memorial at the stadium did not happen quite as I imagined. The real version is much more organized. Jaime Irigoyen’s casket is brought to home plate on the shoulders of his teammates. The teammates, dressed in jeans and their blue caps and jerseys crowd alongside family and friends. There are strangers there, come to mourn the death of a pitcher, the death of potential, the state of a nation so unraveled it could let things come to this. Photographers from local and national newspapers take pictures, and reporters try to make themselves invisible but still get a sense of things.

The bleachers really are empty, and some of the mourners really are dressed up in suits. The service at the church is to take place right after the baseball stadium memorial. Once everyone has spoken, everyone who was going to cry has cried, and every available memory has been shared if not digested, Jaime’s teammates lift the casket once again.

They hoist the heavy box upon their shoulders, in it their friend and the idea of their friend and the weight of symbolism nobody can help but feel. They make their way around the base paths; a gesture they realize is cumbersome and ironic. After all, Jaime Irigoyen was a pitcher. But nobody says anything like that.

VI.

December 2, 2008. 46 days before the kidnapping

An editorial by Luis Carlos Martinez on out27.com, a Mexican baseball website, addresses the growing violence in his city of Juarez. He suggests that fans turn to baseball for comfort, for relief. In the column, he refers to a promising young pitcher named Jaime Irigoyen.

Talk is unavoidable, but in the midst of these violent outbreaks that reign in our city, we must turn to something that offers a more flattering panorama. Baseball continues as an interesting alternative to divert our attention from these lamentable events.

Bullets come and bullets go, but the sport is still king. Those of us who love baseball are convinced that the show must go on, that praying to our Creator; we can remain a part of this baseball family. And through it all, the various tournaments in all categories and of all ages will continue to unfold throughout our beleaguered city.

Our most recent major tournament went off without a hitch. Behind great work on the pitcher’s mound by youngster Jaime Irigoyen, los Indios de La Universidad de Juarez, won the first division at the third annual Hector Molina Interleague Baseball Tournament.

A nation can’t let violence get in the way of living, especially when living is sometimes the only thing one can do to escape from the mental prison that violence creates. Bullets come, bullets go, but baseball stays. What other option do we have? Even when those bullets are spraying the infield dirt, splitting bats, and landing in the bleachers, baseball has to go on. Even as war plucks off baseball’s innocents and blood seeps over its innocence, it must go on. Even as the clubhouse ranks are thinned, baseball must go on.

Luis Carlos Martinez could never have known that less than two months after his column was published, Jaime Irigoyen, the youngster who led his Indios to victory, would become a casualty. He could have never known that the game he turned to as a refuge from tragedy would soon bear witness to one. Or that Jaime Irigoyen would soon become a story much more prescient than any strikeout or tournament victory. He could have never known that so soon, the only option left on earth would be to run the bases and try to forget.

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23 Responses to The Death Of A Pitcher

  1. PMW says:

    Great post! I have lived in and traveled throughout Mexico, and am often appalled at the lack of coverage US-based media gives to stories like this one. I’m also a fan of the Liga, and have been fortunate enough to make it to several games. Thanks!

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  3. ManOutOfTime says:

    Congratulations on the acclaim for this moving essay. Whether it was the military or the syndicate who murdered this young man, doesn’t it seems too much of a coincidence that his name was in Sr. Martinez’s editorial. Does the syndicate want people to think the military murdered an innocent symbol of peace? Is one side or the other sending the message that baseball is NOT a refuge and diversion? What a tragedy.

  4. Daddy-O says:

    Congratulations, Eric. This post is a masterpiece. TPM led me here, and I’m damn glad they did!

  5. Janet Peters says:

    Eric, I just read your wonderful essay, which leaves me with great sadness. Sometimes I’m the grammar fairy, and I’m wondering if, in the line 3rd from the end of the essay, shouldn’t read “bear witness.” I don’t mean to nit-pick, but that usage jumped out and smacked me as not quite right. That does nothing, however, to diminish the beauty of your writing and its meaning for all of us who love baseball and read this terrible, sad, painful story.

  6. Eric says:

    Thanks for the comments all. And I’ll fix that typo.

  7. Sean says:

    Outstanding piece; congratulations on the well deserved honor.

  8. Stephanie says:

    Congratulations Eric, what a beautiful eulogy and frame on the ongoing violence in Mexico.

  9. mepmep09 says:

    Congratulations from another TPM reader. Such tragic stories need wider distribution, and I hope this recognition of your fine writing does just that, and in so doing, perhaps might just offer a slender reed of comfort to the family and friends of Jaime Irogoyen.

  10. Fantastic work here, Eric. Curious, how did you come upon this story with the lack of attention it received at the time of his death?

  11. Nick says:

    Congratulations from yet another TPM reader – a very moving essay about the game and the ongoing violence in Mexico. And I will be back to read more – something about baseball that has always inspired good writing.

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  13. Rick Wisotsky says:

    Eric,
    Your dad sent me the link to TPM. First, I want to say how proud I am of you for getting this excellent piece of writing included in The Best American Sports Writing 2010. Thank you for sharing the truth of what’s happening across the border and for bringing the story of Jaime Irgoyen to light. Job well done!

  14. Rob B. says:

    Eric, what a great piece. this story with out a doubt has a spot in the upcoming book.

  15. Ron H. says:

    Eric: We knew you had a talent for writing. Great story, and a testament to both your storytelling skill and your command of the language. This is only the beginning of a solid career or avocation for you as a writer. Congratulations on this moving piece of writing. Keep up the effort – keep looking for great subject matter – and keep writing at or beyond this caliber. You have a gift.

  16. cheryl says:

    Felicidades…beautifully written…I felt like I was in the stadium with the Irigoyen family…thank you so much for sharing!

  17. Jerry Grillo says:

    Powerful. So glad I found this (totally by accident, too). Congratulations on a much deserved honor.

  18. Andy says:

    Incredible job, a beautifully narrated tale that you handled deftly. I was incredibly moved.

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  20. vero irigoyen says:

    I am Jaime Irigoyen aunt, thhee years ago my family got the worst news ever. Thanks to the violence in Juarez, Mexico the life of my nephew was taken…but his memory will last in our hearts and great memories forever!! may he rest in peace and you will be missed forever!! You was the best pitcher, son, nephew and friend ever !!! I love you Jaime and we miss you!! Hechale Jaime !!!!!!! R.I.P.

  21. Eric says:

    Thanks for the comment, Vero. Hard to believe that was three years ago and things have only gotten worse in Juarez. Hope your family is doing okay. You still have, always have, my condolences.

  22. Veronica says:

    It is a sad possibility that Luis Carlos Martinez’ editorial extolling the civic pride of baseball and in particilar the virtues embodied in Jaime, may have sealed his fate; there may have been no informer after all, no mistaken identity. He was life itself unconnected to the war but in his murder Juarez was told that there can be no life unconnected to the war. As this poignant and superb piece makes clear it is not a city or an area or one or a thousand individuals but life itself in Mexico that is threatened.