El Maquinista: Our Hero (Introduction)

Three convictions burrowed themselves into Rubén González‘s mind as he approached the Rincón benches.

The first was that it would rain today, and possibly during the game, which might delay them enough that he’d have to head into town and find someone with both an available room and the patience to await La Central’s eventual reimbursement.

The second was that, no matter how credible or justifiable the emergencies his colleagues had cited for their absence, nothing in the world should compel a man to umpire a baseball game on the day of his birth, especially in a town that was not his own. The poor devil who had nearly battered his blessed door down that morning, wearing a thick film of sweat and salt that covered even the telegram from the regional commissioner tasking him with securing an emergency umpire. He had given the Caribbean Sea the fruit of his sinews until González had had to substitute his inexpert hands. He was sure the fellow would recover soon, but tonight he would man no other oar.

Third, and most ineluctable among these invasive notions festering in his mind as he stepped over the patch of dirt that in those days served as home plate, was the sense that someone was messing with him.

Unlike many of his fellow umpires, González had actually played the game he now arbitrated. Like many of his fellow players-turned-umpires, that game had treated him rather well. Despite the rather inglorious ninety-seven innings Florida had received from his right arm—of which the most effective eighteen had been when he pitched from the second bench—they had liked him well enough to pay for a few more years of service, during which his most strenuous duties had been throwing practice for the strikers and providing a supernumerary body during fielding drills. It was better than most men got, at least if they had begun their careers in the sixteenth round of La Selección and nearing forty.

In that role, he had been considerably more successful. After all, Florida—less than a day’s ride south of the ground on which he stomped—had only once glanced upon the glory of the torneo, and it had been at the end of the 1874 season that perfectly intermediated his attempt at a pitching career.

During those years, too, he had learned the occasional managerial stratagem. He knew how to recognize a tipped pitch, how to reshape the mound to unbalance a particularly finicky pitcher, and most pertinently, he knew that some managers of the 1870s deliberately scrawled the lineup card, waiting to see what their opponents would do before determining their final assignments. Such the umpire would be too illiterate to notice, or if they did, too shy on the subject to upbraid the offender.

Like many players, González had learned his letters on the benches, and like many players, he was rightly quite proud of what was still a rare accomplishment in the second decade of the Insular Republic. He knew that whatever mash of letters was written next to “right field” on the card he had been handed was incontrovertibly wrong, even though the same hand had filled out the rest of it and committed no other cacographies.

Surely this was not the work of Báez, who had invited nothing but general adulation as long as González had known of him, thanks to a penchant for defending his players with nothing more than the quiet voice of a man utterly convinced of the righteousness of his cause. He had to have delegated this to his bench coach. Perhaps one of the players had wanted to play a little joke and convinced his skipper to let him write the card.

Regardless, even though González had never yet umpired a game in Liga Hostos, he had played there. He had never pitched against Rincón, but he had sat on the second bench while his teammates did, methodically pushing his way through discarded political pamphlets, prayer books, or whatever else was sufficiently portable to take with him to the next town.

Simply put, Rincón had not, did not, and absolutely would not start something called “A. Govea” in right field. It was impossible.

A chart of the 100 players to have started the most games in right field. It starts with Esteban Mejía, at 320 games, and ends with Daniel Guzmán, at 1078. Our hero Víctor is the fourth-most-prolific right fielder on the list, as he's started 1071 games.

So González set his shoulders back, walked up to the bench, and waved the card in their faces, whose immediate bemusement did nothing but escalate his annoyance.

“What the devils is this?” he thundered, or did his best to thunder. Báez raised an unpracticed eyebrow, tall and still placid like a palm tree in a cooling breeze. “Do you think that I don’t know who you’re going to put in right field?”

There was a chastened silence along the bench, and manifold silent recriminations, and finally, as Báez prepared to address him, a deep and rumbling chuckle, as if a stone were laughing for the first time in years.

“Did I not tell you, don Primitivo,” the man on the second bench—what was he doing on the second bench?—said as he stood, the deep burnished bronze of his muscles adorned with veins of cupric red. Too much face surrounded his wide smile, and more than a little stubble, for this was May and the season was well underway. “We should have warned him.”

Víctor Nieves was not tall, especially in a profession so full of giants, and yet when he offered González his hand, it was like greeting a mountain.

“That man over there,” Nieves said, indicating a much younger and wirier man on the first bench, who shyly waved when he noticed the attention, “is Sr. Govea. He was our left fielder last year. They tell me that you umpire in Arecibo, so you would not have seen him.”

González felt his cheeks redden. A distraction was necessary. Anything would do.

“W-why are you not starting?” he finally managed, by which point it sounded less like the demand of an aggrieved authority and more like true confusion.

“Sr. González, I am almost forty years old,” Nieves said, his smile straightening the corners of his mustache, “and it is going to rain.”



It is a testament to the well-buttressed reputation 19th-century Rincón baseball had for fundamentally sound logic that Rubén González, when he sat on his porch with a fresh cup of coffee and told that story to some nameless gacetero who made no effort to prevent the sweat of their journalistic brow from smudging their considerable notes, insists that explanation sufficed.

González was telling the story several decades later, by which point his umpiring days were receding into the same pallid mist that had claimed the majority of his extensive memories, but he nonetheless managed to recall an improbable amount of verifiable detail about this specific game. For example, he offered unprompted that it was considered a home game for Rincón, despite being held in Barceloneta, because the Rincón campo had been mistakenly loaned out to the Insular Forces, whom even Rincón owner Hermógenes Cárdenas could not afford to offend, for a training exercise.

Specifically recalling that it was Ananías Govea who started that game in right field further attests that González had not yet entirely surrendered to the relentless obliteration of his advancing years. Govea, carolinense like the man whose knees he was providing with much-needed rest, was in his second year of wearing green socks and, simultaneously, in the first year of one of the most frustrating careers in the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña of the 1880s.

Govea was two weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday when he signed with Rincón. Perhaps that explains why, despite a great year at the plate that included a 148 OPS+, a five-hit game and 126 starts of sterling defense—enough to earn a campeón selection that year—the team chose to keep the music playing in the carousel they had continuously nurtured at left field. 

Rather than stand by a man who had authored one of the best hitting seasons in Rincón history, the team quietly shifted Darío Acosta (whose defense in center, it must be said, had abruptly declined) to left field, promoted rookie Ricardo Mancera to play center, and moved Govea to the second bench, where he would remain for the rest of his career. He acquitted himself so well as a first base-and-outfield backup that he became a key member of an organization completely unwilling to honor him with one of its precious nine starting positions. 

When Govea retired after 1891, nearly half of his at-bats, hits, and runs, and more than half of his total contribution to the team (4.8 of his 9.2 WAR) came from that first season. He had not taken the field during a Rincón game since 1889. Erazo kept him around to run outfield drills and occasionally let him coach first base, but the forty-year-old Govea spent two entire seasons as one of the dozens of warm bodies that Rincón could call upon in an emergency—and never did.

A scatterplot showing every Rincón player who started at least 100 games in left field. They're plotted by how many seasons they were on the roster after their debut on the X-axis, versus how many games they started on the Y. A red dot marks Ananías Govea, who spent eleven seasons on the roster—exactly the middle of this sample—but started only 192 games, fewer than any of the rest.

Had trading been allowed when it was first proposed to La Central in 1884, Rincón could have probably gotten some value for him, and Govea might have ended his career as a major contributor to the future championship teams blooming in Salinas, or enjoyed a comfortable but consistent workload in Rubén González’s old Florida stamping grounds.

Instead, by the time it became a possibility four years later, Govea was a thirty-seven-year-old man who got exactly one inning at first base over the course of the season. He had become the rare oversight of an organization that prided itself on finding ways for every player to succeed, whether they continued to wear green stockings or not. Whether Govea himself felt slighted is lost to time. As baseball fans, however, we can certainly look back and wonder what other feats he might have achieved working for a front office that did not feel the need to maintain the population of an entire village under contract.

The ultimate irony was that, in becoming the third player to ever start at right field for Rincón, Govea was replacing the first person to ever ride that carousel—eleven years ago, when that man had still been unbent by age; unlearned in, and therefore undaunted, by the eccentricities of this sport he barely knew; and absolutely unwilling to contradict the coach who spent the first two weeks of the season sending the worse throwing arm to right field.

Given that kind of decision-making, it is not very surprising that Rincón scraped together one win in their first six games as a professional baseball team. Two of their losses were directly attributable to José Galicia‘s comparatively weak arm, which often forced him to throw as he ran back towards the infield. The result was both aesthetically unpleasant and dysfunctional; it often pulled infielders off their bases, assuming it did not sail completely out of play.

Eventually, before they faced the Plataneros for the first time, the Rincón coaches made a small change on their lineup card—and may well have changed everything about their future.

Ironically, had Nieves been able to start those six games, he would’ve been second only to Daniel Guzmán in right field starts as he entered the 1882 season. The entirety of his disadvantage would have been the tiebreaker Guzmán’s Pescadores had played to determine which team would represent the Metro Sur division of Liga Betances—and in which they had been soundly defeated by the Coamo side, who scored four in the first inning and never looked back. Guzmán’s main contribution, other than a two-out reach-on-error that came to nothing, was to overthrow a flyball to third badly enough that it likely put the game out of reach for the Mojiteros.

In 1882, Guzmán started every game in right field for Salinas. His knees, with two fewer years of wear and tear than Nieves had put on his, were presumably fresher, and the Pescadores had not yet begun to assemble the outrageous surfeit of talent that made them the most feared team of the late nineteenth century.

Yet it was not Guzmán who concerned Rubén González now as he continued his defabulation. He swirled his clouding coffee, closed his eyes, and in a voice thick with memory, he went on.



It was the seventh inning, and the rain had not yet come.

A matter of time, González was certain. He told Ramos as much when the Barceloneta pitcher asked him. Perhaps that was why Máximo Ruiz was able to battle to the first full count a Rincón batter had seen in several innings—but nonetheless grounded out to open the seventh.

Rafael Miguel was not waiting to take his turn. He was pale, on the lankier side, and González had been surprised at how middling his speed was, at least for a shortstop. He scooped up ground balls not by running them down, but by predicting where they would land and minimizing his steps to get there—a rare perspicacity among the infielders González had been watching for over a decade.

The man holding a bat was the same height, but noticeably thicker. His skin was darker, and his mustache longer and better-formed. Where Miguel’s knees buckled at the plate, this man stood tall and ramrod-straight, his bat pointed at the backstop.

Víctor Nieves was taking the plate for two reasons. One, Ramos was a northpaw, and the orthodoxy of the times demanded Báez deploy a left-handed hitter, though neither Ramos nor Nieves had seen their performances differ notably according to the handedness they were facing. Two, the last time Miguel had come to the plate, he had lashed the first pitch directly at Barceloneta’s shortstop and into a double play, erasing the entirety of Rincón’s momentum in seconds.

This at-bat also ended after one pitch—because it pinged off Víctor Nieves’ forward elbow, which had perhaps crept its way closer to home plate than it was supposed to. He tipped his hat to the pitcher, which González presumed was a sign that he understood the accidental nature of the plunking, and trotted to first. Simón Guerrero moved him to second with a classic sacrifice bunt—and the next hitter failed to finish the job.

A graph of every batter between 1871 and 1889, which includes our mystery coach. They're horizontally plotted by hits-by-pitch and vertically plotted by bases on balls. Our mystery coach is a hilarious outlier: he's by far the one with the most hits-by-pitch, at 200 sharp, and has also drawn 650 walks.

The rain had not come. It would, soon enough, and now González watched as Nieves took back his kingdom in right field. Govea, the best remaining outfield arm for Rincón, graciously moved to center for his elder, and everyone present was promptly treated to the spectacle of a forty-year-old man, on knees that had suffered more than their share of abuse, chasing down a hard-hit flyball down the fair line and catching it with a single hand.

When Nieves next came up to bat, Govea was on as the winning run. This time, rather than simply straighten the bat, he practiced his swing, pointing it directly at first base, and González could have sworn he was looking directly at his teammate, whose lead had become a bit preposterous.

Nothing changed, and Nieves stood in the box as normal. Two pitches later, Espártaco Chagoya, who had never been anyone’s idea of a good cutdown man, made Rincón pay for the mistake in communication by throwing Govea out at second. More than the regulation nine would be required.

By this point, both sides had become teams of Theseus, replacing players each inning until most of the original eighteen were watching from the third benches. The rain, apparently enthralled with the game, was still holding off, though its clouds burgeoned, heavy and gray.

Nieves remained at bat in the tenth, and when that straight swing of his found a Ramos curveball that had begun falling far too early, he would have likely put the winner aboard for Rincón—had he not, like the man he replaced, hit the ball straight at the opposing shortstop.

Before he took the plate again, he was twice called upon to garrison his corner, and twice he rose with habitual brilliance to the occasion. In the eleventh, he sprinted forward at full tilt from his midfield spot to face a blazing line drive, securing it in the right hand he casually stretched out at the last moment, to end the inning; in the twelfth, with Barceloneta’s putative winning run at third on two errors, he had all the time in the world to find the ball against the clouds, determine its path, and stroll leisurely to its terminus. It landed, rubbed soft with mud, in his cupped hands, and Barceloneta had wasted an inning.

Nieves would be second in the next half, and with a man on second and no outs, there was only one play any manager in 1882 would call.

He rolled the bunt out to Ramos, who threw him out by a mile—and then danced his way out of trouble, engineering a failed squeeze that stopped the run from scoring. Báez, ever placid and unflappable, simply shook his head.

An exhausted Guerrero, after a hundred and fifty pitches, gave up a single to open the thirteenth inning, erased the runner on the very next pitch, and signaled to the benches that he couldn’t go on. They would have to win the game or finally, at long last, pull an arm from the second bench.

It happened in nine pitches, the first of which Mario Rodríguez dropped just past the second baseman for an infield single. Ramos fought Flavio Juárez to a two-strike count—and then lost him to a gap liner that moved Rodríguez, the winning run, just ninety feet away without an out.

A long fly ball; a fire-drill grounder; almost anything other than a popout would likely bring the run home, and González prepared himself to call it, even as Juárez stole second without a throw.

This story was not rare in the 1880s. Domingo Godoy, whose gifted hitting had not completely succeed in disguising his considerable deficiencies as a third baseman, saw Ciriaco Triana‘s ground ball spurt to his left.

Godoy knew, as he readied himself for the scoop, that it would hop into the outfield if he did not properly secure it. He knew, as he placed his hand to await the ball, that he could throw home and prevent the run, though it would likely be too late for a double play.

He knew, as the ball bounced and rolled under his curled fingers, that he’d once again forgotten to put the rest of his body in its path, and as it bounced onto the outfield grass, looked up to see Rodríguez—his opposite number, to add insult to injury—tap the plate with his leading foot.

González waved his hands three times. It was over.

As the sides met at the pitcher’s mound to shake hands, González saw Nieves tarry, talking to one of his fellow elders. It would be Tito Feijóo‘s next-to-last season in the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña, in a career that had taken him from unheralded fourteenth-round pick, to the most error-prone shortstop in Liga Hostos, to second-bench warm body, to a surprisingly competent right fielder.

For him, this game had been a microcosm of his career: he had entered it in the tenth as the former, and left it two innings later as the latter.

Though Nieves talked warmly with some of the others, there was something different between men who knew that the sport they had played for so long was, at long last, exacting an irrevocable cost from their bodies. Feijóo’s gait, never graceful, now halted every few midsteps; Nieves held his left shoulder stiff, like he did at the plate, but now there was none of the energy that coiled the muscles when they held a bat.

González had been so engrossed that he had failed to realize the two men were walking towards him, or that the brim of his own hat was wet. At long last, the clouds were releasing their treasure.

“Señor González,” Nieves said when they reached him, “Tito tells me it is your birthday, and you do not have a place to stay in town. Why not come with us? We can surely find you a bed, and there will be good food and rum. Tomorrow we can leave you in Arecibo on our way to Guánica.”

González smiled at Nieves, stuffed the scorecard in his pocket, and went to pack. For the first time all day, he felt as if his burdens had lessened.

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