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The Art of Pitching Unmasked
By Staff Writer
Once upon a time there was a masked Mexican wrestler. That sounds like a funny way to begin a story about baseball, but that's where it startedwith El Gordo, the Big One, the Masked Mexican wrestler I met in La Jolla, California. It started with El Gordo and ended with a heavyset man with a briefcase in his hand scrambling up the right field light tower. In between was the no man's land between reality and fantasy. I'd call it the Twilight Zone, except I'm not in the habit of calling it that. I'm in the habit of calling it the land of the Texas Leaguerjust beyond everyone's reach.
He showed up at our spring training camp in 1969. He was wearing a thin silver mask and skintight elastic leggings and no shirt. He introduced himself (in perfect English) as El Gordo. (Perfect English, that is, until he got to the Spanish part.) El Gordo. The Big One. He didn't look that big to me. I guess compared to the Native Americans of the Yucatan he was large. El Gordo was portly, polite, powerful. He offered to throw for us. "Can we get you a shirt?" No, no, he preferred the mask, tights, and bare chest.
Well, he got on the mound and threw a fastball and a nickel curve he could spot well, and he knew how to change speeds. He could pitch, if they'd let him do it half-naked. He was tired of wrestling in Mexico. That was a pretty audacious statement. You have to understand something about masked Mexican wrestlers, the luchadores: They live in their masks. It's like having superheroes walking around on the streets. They never take the mask off and they become mythic figures. There's something sacred about this tradition, something holy in these masked warriors. The most famous of them, El Santo, kept wearing his mask even after retirement. He was buried in it.
But El Gordo was tired. He was tired of the wear and tear on his body. He loved playing baseball. He wanted to try a new sport. But he didn't want to take off the mask. Fine. He found the perfect team and the perfect owner. The La Jolla Pastels, owned by art devotee Diane Van der Rensellar.
Since the white man lumbered onto its rocky coast, La Jolla, California, has been a playground of the rich. They come, they winter, they golf, they paint watercolors. Dozens of little art galleries line the main drag, featuring crappy pastel images of the La Jolla coast.
I know. I wandered into one of those galleries one day. I was on vacationwell, okay, I'd just been released by the San Luis Obispo Hermit Crabs (the owner, a bitter little man who named his team not after the sea creature, but after the annoying sexually transmitted disease that plagued him). I was taking a breather, looking at the sights of La Jolla. I was a little down, I suppose, which is the only rational explanation for wandering into an art gallery. If you're depressed, then looking at some really bad art can take your mind off your troubles. You start wondering who buys this stuff and you slowly realize that there are people stupid enough to buy bad art, and they somehow have managed to make enough money to afford bad art, so maybe there's hope yet for an idiot like you.
That's where I first saw Diane. Sitting by an easel set up in one corner. She was looking out the window, gray clouds scudding over the Pacific, the sea lions barking in the distance. She studied the view, then delicately dabbed some viridian on her canvas. I looked at her painting. It was a watercolor of a sad clown. He had big long Eurasian eyes and fluffy red hair and a crystalline tear dropped from one eye. She looked out at the ocean and then added some more red to his nose.
I looked where she had looked. I saw a jagged coastline, some tide pools, a little beach. Was I missing something?
"Nice painting," I ventured.
She looked up, a smile breaking over her tan. "You like sea lions?"
"They're okay with a bottle of red wine."
My lame joke was lost on her. She stared back at the rolling waves. Then she said, "It's the soul of Myron. He's the one on the southern rock."
I looked back at the shoreline. There was a big sea lion basking in the sun. He lifted his head lazily, then flopped down again.
"Oh, yeah. He looks . . . a little sad."
She looked up at methe artist, not the sea lionand I suddenly noticed her eyes were ceramic blue. And one of them was wandering. It was drifting away from home plate over toward the third base dugout side of life. She said, "You see things the rest of the world doesn't. You must be an artist, too."
"I've been known to paint a few corners."
"Brilliant. Painting a corner instead of a flat surface. You're a conceptual artist, then."
I was already in over my head, but I tried to keep the ball up in the air. "Yeah, you need a concept of what you're doing. It's really about disrupting timing."
She stared at me. "That's brilliant. Disrupting the timing of cognition. Yes, that's it!" She suddenly got very somber. "I love a man who speaks in metaphors. I live too much of my life in reality." Now, she was talking to a guy who spent his entire life knee-deep in reality. I could use some escape from reality, and when a single tear slipped from her eye and hung to her cheek like a little jewel, I sensed I might have come to the right place for a break from that which exists independently of ideas about it and independently of all other things, but from which all else derivesi.e., reality. The dog house of life. The cup that holds the jewels of perception. I took her into my arms. She held her paintbrush up to my chin and tickled. Then a voice called from below:
"Am I done now?"
I looked out the window. There, sitting on a rock next to the sidewalk, was a Eurasian man in a clown costume. The painter's wandering blue ceramic eye drifted in that direction.
"Yes, Myron, you can go."
Damn, she really had been dealing with reality too long. I looked down at her. She looked up at me. First one eye, then the other. I looked away. I was spooked. I'm not used to women looking at me. Unless they're booing. I took a breath and looked back down at her. She was still looking at me. With both of those baby blues. I moved in closer and, well, when we were done, both eyes were wandering.
Later, as she was smoking a Gitanes and I was coughing, I asked her for her name. "It's Diane." "Diane," I said, "I have to tell you the truth. I'm an artist in just one way. On a pitching mound. I'm a hurler, an old portsider, a relief pitcher well past his prime." She gasped. "It's kismet." Turned out she owned the La Jolla Pastels. They played in the Southern California Art League. It was basically a league for wealthy owners who were too lazy to play baseball themselves, so they hired others to do it for them. They use the same approach when they have children. It's a lot of work being a parent, so they hire nannies and tutors and cooks and feel like parents, but from a safe distance. Diane was a little different from her fellow owners. For her, the Pastels were a promotion for selling art. Every day before the game, she'd set up easels in the parking lot and sell watercolors of dolphins and rainbows over La Jolla Cove. Our uniforms were, well, pastel. Out on the field, we looked like a tray of after-dinner mints.
That was okay. The weather was great and she didn't interfere in the baseball. She was just happy when a guy showed up and bought a watercolor of a gray whale spouting. She had one crown jewel in her art empire. She showed it to me one day. It hung in a locked side room of her gallery. A special security guard stood watch over it. Laser beams shot around it. Break them and an alarm sounded throughout La Jolla. It was a priceless piece: the original Dogs Playing Poker. Let me tell you, it's one thing to see a reproduction of a masterpiece; it's another to see it in the flesh. It gave me goosebumps. The brushwork, the shading, the expression on the hounds' faces just leapt to life. It took my breath away.
So I was in. I was the pitching coach and we added El Gordo to our squad and off we went. Our first road trip was just down the road, to the home of the Laguna Beach Masters. If you've never been to Laguna Beach for their Pageant of the Masters, well, you've missed one of life's bizarre experiences: they recreate famous paintings with live actors. So you have a guy and a woman dressed up as American Gothic and then the lights go down and when they come up, you're seeing Whistler's Mother. Their baseball team continues this theme, so you're out there pitching against Blue Boy one batter and then David comes up, wearing only a fig leaf. It would have seemed strange, but we had our own weirdness: El Gordo, on the mound, in his fire-engine red mask and his upper torso hand-painted with the image of a dolphin leaping in the waters of La Jolla Cove.
Diane did that work, and it looked great. When Gordo went into his windup, the dolphin submerged below his pectorals, and then as he delivered the ball, the pecs jumped up and the dolphin looked like it flipped right over the top of a wave. Very effective distraction. Gordo pitched great that game and he pitched great again when we played the Del Mar Trotters (try fielding a groundball with a bit in your mouth!), and we continued our roll against the San Clemente Nixons (heavy beards, black business suits for uniforms, played dirty as hell).
I was enjoying winning these games, but I noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere around Diane. She spent a lot of time painting. Not on her canvas, but on El Gordo's chest. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was going on. Especially when I overheard her telling another La Jolla gallery owner, "Believe me, there's a reason why he's called El Gordo."
Was it love between these two? I smelled a rat. While El Gordo's chest was visible to the world, a fiesta of Venetian red, ecru, calendula, and pistachio green, he never took off his mask. Yes, he was a luchadore, but was he something else as well?
The answer came one Saturday during BP. I looked up in the stands, and there were six menwearing masks and wrestling tights. That sort of got my curiosity going. So I stepped up to the fence and asked them if they were friends of El Gordo. Five of them sat in stony silence. I later learned they didn't speak English, so they had no idea what I'd just said. The sixth man gave me a cold stare. "We are not friends. We are from the Society of Luchadores. We have read about El Gordo and are here to insure he is upholding the standards of the luchadores."
I guessed that if they were there, it meant they suspected El Gordo wasn't holding up those standards the way they liked. Maybe El Gordo had the same hunch. Because he made his move that night. I was asleep in my little La Jolla apartment, the smell of the sea drifting through my window, when suddenly alarms went off. Bells rang all over La Jolla, sirens screamed, lights flashed. I knew in an instant: someone had pulled it off. They had lifted Dogs Playing Poker. Cop cars roared up the street, and even two blocks away I could hear the wail of Diane. It was an awful thing to hear, because she loved that painting more than anything in her life. The next thing I knew: gunshots.
Most sensible people would have thrown themselves under the bed. But I love a show. I threw on my pants and ran out into the street. In the distance, rounding a corner, I saw a heavyset man, handsome, wearing black, racing with a briefcase under his arm. Cops called out, "Stop or we'll shoot!" Another cop yelled, "Forget it, I've already shot!" "What'd you do that for? Now we can't tell him to stop!" "It's not my fault!" "Yes, it is, dumbo!"
They started bickering and then their sergeant yelled, "I don't care whose fault it is, get after that man!"
They ran and I ran with them. This was a page-turner and I had a suspicion about how it was going to end. We ran up the rise of streets that lead to the ocean. As I turned a corner, I saw we'd been joined in our chase: The six luchadoresmasked, shirtless, in their tightswere gaining on the heavyset man with the briefcase. Then he turned some corners, sped up, and raced for the ballpark. Of course, the ballpark. When you're trapped, you run for home.
Now a couple of black-and-whites joined the pursuit, shining their little spotlights on the portly figure with the briefcase. He took a flying jump and vaulted over the outfield wall. The cop cars screeched to a halt. Policemen dashed up. But before they could vault the wall, the luchadores executed flying leaps over the barrier. I got there just as the cop car shined its searchlight around the stadium. Nothing in the stands, nothing on the field. Then somebody shouted, "There he is!" And pointed toward the sky.
A portly figure in black was scaling the right field light pole.
"Stop or I'll shoot!" "You already said that!" "I know, but he's not stopping!" "Then shoot!"
"No! He is ours!"
It was the English-speaking lucha-dore. They were circled under the light pole, masks gleaming in the moonlight. "Come down, El Gordo. You are no luchadore. We know you nowyou are an international art thief!"
"What?" I gasped. "How can that be? He's a pretty good pitcher!"
"He's a pretty good pitcher with good command of his curveball and a tailing fastball, but he's also an international art thief! El Gordo: you desecrate your mask. Now come and meet the wrath of the real luchadores!"
El Gordo knew he'd met his match. But he had guts. He leapt down from the light tower, attempting a flying leg kick. His business shoe connected with one chest, but the luchadore merely absorbed the blow and twisted, suddenly grasping El Gordo in a pile driver. Then, with a supple twist, he grappled him into a sleeper hold. El Gordo dropped the briefcase and fell to the ground, senseless. His black hair spilled around his face. A handsome face.
He was not wearing his mask. See, if you wear a mask all the time, then when you rob an art gallery, you don't have to wear it. At least that was his line of reasoning. The cops converged on his inert body and opened the briefcase. There inside was the grail: Dogs Playing Poker.
They read him his rights, even though he was unconscious, slapped the cuffs on him, and as they led him away, Diane showed up, distraught; then ecstatic to hear her painting was unharmed; then distraught again as she watched El Gordo being shoved into the back of a squad car. I went over to her. Put my arm around her shoulder. She looked at me, well, at least one eye did.
"Diane. Let him go. He's no longer a masked man. He's just a portly Mexican now."
I held her hand back to the gallery. She rehung Dogs Playing Poker. I suggested we look at the ocean and calm down. A trail of white foam arced toward the beach. The waves rumbled, reassuring, endless. Something floated on the shore, a tiny thing, but it caught Diane's eye. The other eye was looking at the moon, but the one focused down saw this little thing and Diane ran to the shore. There, washed up on the beach, was a fire-engine red mask. She held it tenderly. "He may not have been a real luchadore, but to me, I'll always remember him as El Gordo."
"He was using you, Diane. He just wanted that Dogs Playing Poker." She flared up, her eyes racing from first to third. "No. It was love."
A month later, her art gallery was hung with a new series. The sad-faced clowns were gone. The dolphins were gone. Instead, there was a series of portraitsall of a man in a red mask. And his eyes stared straight ahead, with a look that could only come from someone in love.
That's the best portrait I can paint after forty years in the upholstery business, a lifetime in baseballand a brief encounter with a masked man.
On those rare occasions when STAFF WRITER has roused himself from his room in the old firehouse in Minneapolis to watch a game at the Metrodome, he wishes that he had worn a mask. But when talk of contraction rears its ugly head this coming baseball season, he will be the one unmasking the nonstop lies and manufactured threats.© 2006 Elysian Fields Quarterly
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