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An Excerpt From 'Molina'

This article is more than 4 years old.

This excerpt appears in "Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty" by Bengie Molina with Joan Ryan, published by Simon & Schuster.

Check out Molina's conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.


Prologue:

The life we recognize as uniquely ours begins with our first memory. This memory surely isn’t random. There has to be a reason why our brains, so many years later, retrieve a particular moment and present it to us as the opening scene of our lives. It is the baseline by which we measure everything else.

This is my earliest memory.

I am four or five years old. My father is a second baseman on a semipro baseball team in the town of Utuado. I call him Pai, short for Papi. He is kind of a small guy compared to the other players, but he is like a giant to me. He wears superhero clothes like in my comic books: tight shirt and pants that show off his muscles. He has special shoes that make marks in the dirt when he walks. His arms and shoulders look like they could yank a palm tree straight out of its roots. His face is as hard as the bricks holding up our clapboard house.

I am in the dugout. I’m sure it is the first time Pai allows me to stay with him and the other men. I like how the men in the dugout smell. It’s different from Mai—my mother—who smells like soap and cooking oil. It’s different even from the tangy, metal smell of Pai when he comes home from the factory. The men in the dugout smell like grass and Winstons and sweat. I like, too, how they talk to each other, as if everything is a joke, and I like how their faces turn serious when they press a helmet onto their heads and pull a bat from the rack at the end of the bench.

I am gripping the chain-link fence that separates the players’ bench from the field and watching everything. The game is dragging on into the tenth inning. The men have stopped joking. Everybody seems worn-out and angry.

Pai picks up a bat. It is his turn.

“I’m going to hit a home run to left field,” he says. “We’re all going to go home. I’m tired of this game.”

I look out to left field. The fence seems a million miles away.

“No, no,” one of the men says. “Go to right! It’s shorter!”

The right-field fence is the close one. Even I can see that.

“He’s pitching me away,” my father says. “I’ve got to go to left.”

He walks to the plate and digs in to the batter’s box. I hear people clapping and shouting my father’s name that is also my name: “Bengie! Let’s go, Bengie!” The pitcher winds up and throws. Pai swings.

The ball sails into left field. It keeps rising. The left fielder races back. The ball begins to fall. The left fielder runs faster. He stretches out his arm and it looks as if he’s going to catch the ball. Then I see the ball hit the top of the fence and bounce over.

A home run.

I watch Pai round the bases, the biggest grin on his face. The men rush from the dugout toward home plate. They are yelling and jumping. I run with them. I am also yelling and jumping.

“Get him! Somebody get him!” I hear Mai scream from the stands, terrified that I will be trampled.

Pai crosses the plate and, in the midst of the celebration, shouts, “Where is he?” His eyes land on me, and his face lights up. He scoops me up in his arms and swings me onto his broad shoulders. I hear the people chanting, “Bengie! Bengie!” I think the cheers are for me. I can feel Pai’s shoulders under my legs. He grips both my ankles in one strong workman’s hand. The men are hugging him and me at once—his shoulders and my legs.

We are like one person.

One big baseball man.

I am so happy. I want to stay there forever.

That’s the opening scene of my life. A ballpark. A dugout. And my father.

I don’t know if a person can decide the course of his life at the age of four or five. But I believe I did. I wanted to wear those clothes. Play on a field like that. Know what those men knew. I wanted to hear Pai talk to me the way he talked to them.

I heard stories that Pai had dreamed of making it to the Major Leagues. He had been a great baseball player in his day. One of the best in Puerto Rico. Famous, even. People told stories about how he played second base like a scorpion, scuttling from side to side in the blink of an eye. They told how he gripped the bat so far up the handle you swore he would poke himself in the belly when he swung, and how even with this crazy grip he still hit home runs. Our house was filled with his trophies.

Everyone thought he’d make it to the Major Leagues like Roberto Clemente, Puerto Rico’s national hero. But he never did. He never even got to the minor leagues. Instead he spent almost forty years working at a factory. I don’t recall exactly when, but I decided I would make it to the Major Leagues. As his oldest son and namesake, I would make Pai’s dream come true through me. I would erase his failure with my success.

I was a child, with a child’s magical thinking. I didn’t know that millions of boys dream of making it to the Major Leagues, and almost nobody does. Think about how many of your childhood friends ended up wearing a Major League uniform. Probably none. The odds are astronomical.

And my odds, as it turned out, were particularly bad. I wasn’t a natural athlete like my father. He was pure and fluid and self-assured. I had minimal natural talent; I was a box of parts requiring assembly. I wasn’t strong like Pai, either. I was short and skinny and, at least back then, had none of his grit. Every criticism scraped my thin skin.

Still, I kept imagining a day when Pai would rush onto the field in some Major League stadium after I had hit a game-winning home run. In my mind, it looked a lot like the moment at home plate when Pai scooped me onto his shoulders. One big baseball man. I spent my life trying to recapture that moment, that perfect connection with my father. It drove me.

Maybe every son is driven by his need to secure his father’s respect. For me, I think, it was more than that. My father was the best man I knew. Sometimes he seemed not like a real man to me. He was something else. Ask anyone in the barrio. They will tell you so many things about him on the baseball field.

They’ll tell you, too, that he had three sons. And that he taught these sons everything he knew about baseball. They will tell you that José, Yadier, and I all became catchers.

And that against all odds, all three of these boys made it to the Major Leagues. And that against greater odds—no three brothers in the history of baseball have ever done this—Benjamín’s sons earned two World Series rings each.

They will also tell you that our father was a better ballplayer than any of us.

Everyone in the barrio has a story about Benjamín Molina Santana.

Now I will tell you mine.

I will begin at the end.

My father died at the age of fifty-eight on the field by the tamarind trees across the street from our house. It was his field. He measured the base paths and lined them with handfuls of white chalk from a bag he kept in the carport. He raked the infield dirt. He poured sand into mud puddles after the rains.

My brothers and I grew up on that field. Our lives were framed by its baselines. Even years later I could have walked every inch of it in the dark and known exactly where I was. I’d know how many steps from the edge of the dirt to the light pole in the middle of left field, which, if you weren’t careful, could bring a sprint for a fly ball to a sudden and painful stop. I’d know how to slide into home plate to make sure I wouldn’t cut my legs on the exposed, spiky ends of the backstop fence. The story of my father is, in many ways, the story of Puerto Rican baseball. Our best players emerged from rutted fields that once grew sugarcane. They cut bats from tree branches and as children wore paper bags for fielding gloves. They sharpened their eyes by hitting dried seeds. They tuned in to radio broadcasts of Major League games, listening for mentions of Hiram Bithorn and El Divino Loco and Roberto Clemente.

My father’s love for baseball grew from these deep roots. Our love for the game grew from his. But baseball was so much more than a game for us, though I didn’t understand this until later. Baseball was the means by which my quiet, shy, and macho father could show the depth of his love for us.

If you had stumbled upon my father’s funeral in the tiny barrio of Kuilan, you would have thought a governor had died instead of a factory worker. Thousands turned out. Streets were closed. The outpouring of affection and grief and respect that day was the most amazing thing I have ever seen.

After the funeral, as Pai’s friends recalled his extraordinary talent, they told me about his Major League aspirations and the shocking decision he eventually made, something neither he nor Mai had ever told my brothers and me. I realized then that I didn’t know my father. At least, I didn’t know him beyond being my father. At the funeral and for months and years after, I talked with my aunts and uncles, with Pai’s old teammates, the boys he coached and his coworkers at the factory where he worked for more than thirty years. I learned what had happened that kept him from playing in the United States. I learned what he had really been teaching my brothers and me all those hours and years on the baseball field. And I came to understand that the least of my father’s legacy is that he put three sons in the Major Leagues.

During one of my visits to Puerto Rico after Pai died, his friend Vitin told me he had been given the task of collecting the belongings from my father’s body at the hospital. He found three things in his pockets.

A Little League rulebook.

A measuring tape.

And a lotto ticket.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they would be my guideposts in telling you about the poor factory worker in Puerto Rico who was behind the most unlikely dynasty in baseball.

This excerpt appears in "Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty" by Bengie Molina with Joan Ryan, published by Simon & Schuster.

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