El Maquinista: Maunabo, October 1891 (Prologue)

In those days, Maunabo still relished its privacy—or, more accurately, still had privacy to relish.

The previous summer, the railroad men in San Juan (in their infinite wisdom) had sent their hired German engineer, with his big bushy yellow beard and his haphazardly-stored explosives and his crew of indefatigable carrileros, to poke around the Sierra de la Pandura and come up with a place where they could blast and drill and drive through good, solid mountain rock, and finally—with luck and fire and sweat and (hopefully) minimal death—they could link La Esquina, this last little triumphant hideaway, to the rest of the Republic.

Unfortunately, after Herr Kunzmann had spent barely a week traipsing uphill, he had tried the local salmorejo de jueyes, and promptly discovered he was viciously allergic to shellfish. Once he had recovered, he left, with a much lanker beard, fewer carrileros, and most of his explosives entirely intact, and the railroad men bothered the heroic Southeastern shores no further. Clearly, there was no profit to be had in bringing this sleepy little shore town into the new decade, and that suited the maunabeños just fine.

Somewhere in the shadow of those same great hills, pockmarked with the best work of washouts from the artillery school just a mile or two up the road, in the salt-sprayed breeze of a restful October, two men stood eighteen-and-a-half meters from each other in the bashful silence of wounded masculinity. They had both been here for Herr Kunzmann’s fiery little experiments, including the one that had covered the outfield in a rain of hot pebbles. They had likely wondered why anyone would want to bring a train to one of the few pristine refuges left from the smoke and noise of all that Industry.

Right now, however, the older man wished a bit of well-placed dynamite could solve some of his problems.

As he retook the batter’s box, he was not yet fifty, and you would have assumed his hair a luxuriant black if the setting sun were not striking cupric sparks off it. His mustache adhered flat to his face, weighed down with the frustrating sweat of a long afternoon, yet he stood on unyielding feet, and the circles the bat in his left arm traced were as steady as the horizon. Age, despite its best efforts, had in every respect failed to wither him.

“Again!” he cried, and cocked his bat over his shoulder, pointing it at the mighty Cerro la Pandura, from where the lookouts had sighted Topete’s squadron and saved the nascent Republic.

In another man’s arms, the bat might have sagged or wobbled on a tired elbow. Here, ramrod-straight and immobile, it lay in wait for the next delivery. The man holding it, like the hill behind him, had spent a lot of his years standing and waiting for the projectiles others threw. Much like the hill behind him, he’d taken plenty of punishment for it, though in his case there had been rewards to reap alongside the occasional bruise.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.

Hours ago, he had let the rest of the Jueyeros go home, given that the primaverales wouldn’t start until February, and absolutely no one involved with the team saw much good coming from the winter market. Don Armando considered the navy caps and striped uniforms he had ordered from his beloved American tailor to be sufficient improvement to the roster.

Even Apolinar, who had once been the storied quarry of seventy-four clubhouses, had left by now. The pitching coach had asked him to try an unfamiliar windup, and repeating it had eventually put too much strain on an arm already exhausted of being beaten.

For Maunabo, which had proven particularly resistant to developing homegrown pitchers, it was a tragedy. His fastball still had the same explosive velocity that had impressed scouts when he had signed at eighteen, but after a few years of primaverales, the Cotorras had correctly sussed out that he would never learn to command it. They had baited the Tranquilos with stories of the incredible potential and work ethic of their top prospect—all of which was true—and watched as he became one of the least effective starters in Liga Betances.

Now, across the most fraught distance of exactly eighteen-and-a-half meters anywhere in Puerto Rico, there were only these two men left, without an audience.

The pitcher came set.

Unlike Apolinar, he’d been no one’s special project. No team had pursued him for months. There had been no braying pack of scouts and coaches throwing absurd sums of money at his feet. Like many aspiring players did every winter, he had signed the only contract available to him, and while his dedication had occasionally impressed La Central, he had still been forced to pitch his way up the ladder in Maunabo to become a starter, even managing to have the odd season where his individual excellence far outstripped the success of his woebegone side.

Now, as he hid his grip from his coach, he knew this was likely the last chance he would get to show any kind of improvement. No one in those days knew how to turn pitches into geometry problems. They used instinct, and practice, and no matter what the trick was or who’d told him about it, none of them had worked. He had changed the angle at which he planted his leg and the angle at which he delivered the ball; tinkered with the placement of his fingers on the ball and his feet on the mound; even tried throwing northpaw for a day or two. None of it had been enough.

A graphic of qualified pitchers for the 1891 season, plotted horizontally by innings pitched and vertically by ERA. Our hero is within the mass of pitchers hovering around 350 innings, which is about the workload most of them shouldered that year, and he had a 3.38 ERA, which was just the tiniest bit below average.

This time, he intended to throw his rarest pitch, which Puerto Rican hurlers had come to call la artimaña. Most of his colleagues had found more success with it than he had, but it took less out of his arm to throw than the others, perhaps precisely because of that mediocrity. Once, it had been a genuine third pitch, but by this season, he rarely threw it more than once an inning, or late in the game, when he was tired and he could take advantage of a batter who was sure he’d seen the entire arsenal.

Privately, the coach thought as the pitcher kicked, drawing every fiber in his frame into momentary tension, this poor boy was more likely to end up festooning the overworked benches of some Godforsaken team than meeting the promise he had once shown. He was too old now, too tired of pitching game after game for a team notoriously full of underperformers.


Eighteen and a half meters away, the pitcher drove his weight onto his front leg, lashing his arm forward into its wake, and let loose. The ball would have appeared to scream towards the plate, flopping down suddenly at the exact moment the batter’s eyes, working on instincts honed over years of punishing mistakes, told him to swing at what was obviously a straight-on ball.

Well, it would have done that, had the pitch been thrown competently.

Herr Kunzmann had not been the only storied craftsman to visit Maunabo that preceding summer. Don Armando, ever the Gringophile, had returned from a trip to the capital with don George C. Averill, who had installed the first permanent set of fences at the parks in San Juan and Orocovis over the past few years. They were the first two teams on the island that could boast of playing on true “fields.” 

Averill’s design in Maunabo was particularly striking. The fences had been cut of the same thick wood as the benches into which they interlocked, but they had then been painted the brightest white he could buy, and seamlessly surmounted by pieces gorgeously carved and painted into simulacra of the bright blue waves that lay beyond the bounds of the Parque de los Jueyeros. It had finally set the boundaries of an official home run in Maunabo beyond all doubt. No longer would outfielders have to range after balls destined to drop just beyond this week’s uneven lines of chalk, or ropes hastily stretched by the umpires a few minutes before the game began.

A chart of the dimensions of the 78 pre-war league ballparks, from what we could find. There are points along the bottom to show the distance (in meters) to the left field line, left field, left-center, center, right-center, right field, and the right field line. The average dimensions are in red, with about 96 meters to the lines and 122 meters to dead center. Maunabo's dimensions are thicker and in blue, and are slightly shorter than average in left but deeper in center and slightly deeper in right.

In this case, all those fences did was allow Sílvano Nieves to watch in profound and immediate horror as the ball he’d delivered—which had thoroughly failed to break, and instead simply tumbled into the wind like a particularly stubborn leaf, slow and steady and perilously, cruelly straight—tracked a rocket path off the bat and over the white wood, climbing gradually into the air like one last cannonball, fired twenty years too late from these famous precincts, to harry even the ghosts of the Spaniard sailors from their most notorious dolitorium.

By the time he had, as predicted, been traded—nearly across the island, too, but to the Marineros, where at least his occasional work in relief would bolster a team capable of making the torneo on a regular basis—he had made up his mind never to throw the pitch again.

Even his coach, who had known with near-scientific certainty the moment he heard the bat make contact that the ball would make the fence, if not necessarily surmount it, was a bit surprised. He’d certainly done that before, and he’d usually done so by getting the ball past the right fielder.A chart showing our mystery coach's home runs—he hit exactly 70—by where they were hit. While he hit a few down the left field line, or even left field, the vast majority were somewhere between right-center and the right field line, with a single one to center field. You do *not* want to know what it took to get this data.

A spray chart graphic showing how far each of the 68 non-inside-the-park home runs our mystery coach hit traveled, as well as what zone they landed in. The vast majority of them are under 120 meters, including all the ones to left field, but quite a few made it beyond that, including one that almost made it to 135 meters.In those days, pitch shapes were as obscure as Maunabo to the rest of the island. He could not have known that la artimaña, or whatever other names it eventually acquired, tended to work best against opposite-handed hitters, even if thrown by a pitcher who had not been prematurely drained of his middling talent.

Even though he’d learned to at least mimic a right-handed batter to help his staff practice, he’d given this particular pitcher the advantage, in recognition of how tired they both were.

He was a natural southpaw, anyway. A lot of them were. It was a family trait.

Víctor Nieves, once the conductor of the most precisely-engineered machine in Puerto Rican baseball, sighed, laid aside his bat, and signalled at his nephew to come off the mound.

Comment away! / Dale, ¡di algo!

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