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Thank You, Adrián/Gracias, Adrián

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Reflecting on the player who taught me to see myself in baseball

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees
I mean, just look at him

[Ed. note: Please welcome Mario to the LL staff! We are very happy to have him writing with us this season. You can see some of Mario’s previous work on his blog here, which features articles about the team in both English and Spanish. Find Mario on Twitter here.]

I’m writing this on the 7th day of April, 2018, the birthday of one of my heroes, my first baseball hero. I’d like to thank him for what he’s done.

This past week, Adrian Beltre hit a milestone. He is now the all-time leader in hits for players native to Latin America and I couldn’t be more proud to be his fan. So much so, that I thought I’d retrace the steps of my fandom.

I was 7 years old, and on the St. Louis Cardinals of the Bell Gardens Youth Baseball League. I knew the basics; I knew I liked to hit, and I knew I liked playing third base, but that was pretty much it.

I was an uninformed kid with a terrible memory and an oversized baseball glove from the Goodwill. I didn’t know about baseball statistics or the nuances of the game. I didn’t know what players were good or bad. I didn’t know about baseball history, and when I tried to learn about it, l still felt detached from it all. I didn’t have a baseball icon to idolize.

I knew that the Dodgers were a thing, because I lived in East Los Angeles, and I knew that Mark McGwire hit home runs, because my little league coach gave me various iterations of his name as a nickname; different forms of “Mario McGwire” or “Big Man McGwire” or “Big Mac Mario.”

Though my father liked the nicknames given to me, I wasn’t too much of a fan. (In retrospect, better Mario McGwire than Mario Mendoza, but I didn’t know who that was then.)

At the time, many probably would have thought McGwire was my idol, because I’d wear my little league Cardinals T-shirt any chance I’d get. But I really didn’t see much similarity between McGwire and myself. He played first base, I played third. He was built, rugged, and strong. He looked like a polar bear to me. I was just a pudgy Mexican kid who couldn’t run the bases to save his life, but I liked playing the game. I stuck to it, and tried even harder to learn so as to not seem like a poor man’s version of Scotty Smalls.

One day I was lucky enough to catch a Dodger game on TV. For the first time, I truly paid attention to the game, to the infield, and I was fascinated with who I saw.

There he was, right where he should be. Right handed. Played third base. Spoke with a familiar accent. He wasn’t a hero of old. He wasn’t a superstar (yet). He was a spry young player who was never afraid of getting his uniform dirty, and who stopped balls at the hot corner with ease and flair. Never had there been a player in my eyes who could turn a 5-3 groundout with such panache. He exuded effort, grit, and grace. He was a player who was trying and having fun all at the same time.

Most importantly, he was someone I could identify with.

He was Adrián Beltré.

Now I had someone to look up to, an idol. I was enchanted by Beltré. I wanted to be him. Whenever I played, I tried to drop to my knee as I swung the bat because of course that was the right way to do it. Adrián was doing it, so it had to be. I tried to be the best defender I could at the hot corner (or lukewarm corner, in my little league’s case), because I had to make major league plays like Beltré.

Because of Adrián, I began to see more of myself in this game. I developed an internal confidence. I began to feel that baseball really was for me.

I wanted so badly to watch him play, but opportunities to go to the ballpark were limited for my family. I would have to be satisfied getting what I could from the occasional televised game.

In 2004, I learned that Adrian would no longer be with the Dodgers. Unaware of how baseball actually worked, I freaked out. I asked my mom if she could take me to a late season game as an early birthday present, just so I’d finally get a chance to see him play. She said she’d try.

Weeks later, in early October, my mom took a day off from work and drove me to Dodger Stadium. As we pulled up to the parking booth, a handwritten sign on the attendant’s window read a simple statement that would forever haunt me.

“Final series sold out.”

I sighed in the passenger’s seat of my mom’s Toyota Tercel, my eyes glossy. She turned the car around and we began to make our way back home in the LA traffic, moving farther, albeit slowly, from my hero. In the standstill of the gridlock, a new hero emerged, literally sitting on a tree stump with a sign of his own.

“Tickets?”

My mom stopped and, in broken English, asked the scalper how much the tickets were. I don’t remember what the man replied, but after a moment of silence, he offered to reduce the price. A mother looked at her son who wanted desperately to be a part of this world called baseball. She accepted the price. We’d be going to the game. I’d get to see Adrián play.

My eyesight was a lot better then. We sat in the worst possible seats, but I saw everything clear as day. Adrián, my hero, was playing in front of me. He went 0-4 that day. I was disappointed but by no means saddened. Just watching him play was cause for jubilation.

After 2004, he left the Dodgers. It didn’t matter, Adrián was Adrián, and he enlightened me. He taught me to love a game that I worried wasn’t mine to love, and he did it with style.

Whenever the opportunity came, I would try to convince someone (usually my sister) to take me down to down to Angel Stadium to watch Beltré play with the Mariners. Slowly, through the rare game at Angels Stadium, I was becoming a Mariners fan. In retrospect, I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I got to see Jamie Moyer pitch, I got to see Raul Ibañez, Ichiro, the return of Junior. All through the eyes of a young, dumb teen 1,200 miles away from Safeco Field.

I rode the Adrián Beltré fandom bus all the way to Seattle, and was dropped off there. When he left for Boston, and then Texas, I didn’t mind. I was happy he’d found a new place to blossom into the player he always deserved to be.

But thanks to him, I fell in love with other players; players who, like him, resonated with me. Thanks to Adrián, I learned to love watching underdog teams, and to love a game I thought I’d never understand. Thanks to Adrián, I learned that baseball garners a global esteem. Baseball, the American game, is made up of people from all over the world, and each player has something of value to contribute to this great game.

Thanks to Adrián Beltré, I felt and learned about the value within myself.

Thank you, Adrián. Happy Birthday.