Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Yunesky Maya, Me, and the Offending Ball

Yunesky Maya, Me, and the Offending Ball

(Sunday, August 22, 2010)

By Mike DeNero

There it was, resting in the weeds a foot behind the right field chain link fence, parked under the wooden billboards, which extended just above the top of the fence, the first game-used ball I would ever bring home from a baseball game. Moments before I found it, it had been launched there by one Seth Loman (no relation to Willy), a 24 year-old first baseman who plays for the Winston-Salem Dash, the Class A, Carolina League affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. The problem is that he hit it off my newest favorite baseball player, Yunesky Maya.

Maya was born and raised in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, which means that when he made it to the Cuban National Series (Cuba’s MLB equivalent) he played for his hometown team, the Pinar del Rio Vegueros (cigar makers). For being one of the league’s star pitchers, he was paid somewhere in the ballpark of $10-$15 per month (as is everyone else in the league), a salary which was drawn solely from the work he did at his day job. I am curious to know what his “day job” was, as while the island’s best ballplayers are celebrities, they generally live in poverty, as does most of the island’s population (for example, Orlando Hernandez, know affectionately as “El Duque,” perhaps the greatest Cuban pitcher ever, lived in a one room shabby pink “house” that was divided into two rooms by a makeshift wall of concrete blocks).

Maya ultimately became Cuba’s best starting pitcher, amassing a career 48-29 record and a 2.51 ERA, enough to earn him a spot on Cuba’s national team, appearing in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic – in the summer of 2009, he was expelled from the national team for “grave problems of indiscipline,” (i.e., attempting to defect) as reported in Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper.

Shortly thereafter, in September 2009, he fled Cuba and ended up in the Dominican Republic awaiting clearance to play baseball in the United States. While I do not know any details of how he defected, I know that his family remains in Cuba and, based upon several accounts I have read Cuban baseball players’ journeys to freedom, I imagine the story is not a pretty one.

A few weeks ago, my team, the Washington Nationals, signed Maya to a four-year contract worth a reported $6 million. He arrived in D.C. on July 31st, where he was introduced to the Nationals crowd during the middle of the 4th inning of the Nats/Phillies game. Although he reportedly speaks no English (but plans to learn quickly), he stated, through an interpreter, that he wanted to meet President Obama. Clearly, Maya thinks big – we like him!

Fast-forward to today, Sunday, August 22, 2010. Maya is making his debut for the Class A Potomac Nationals after pitching a handful of innings in the Gulf Coast League earlier in the week.

I arrive at G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium (capacity: seemingly about 2,000 people) in Woodbridge, Virginia at 12:50 p.m. for the 1:05 start (parking in the grass, $4 bucks). Maya is finishing his warm-ups (see photos above) and is on the “bullpen” mound about five feet from the first row of seats just past first base.

Although he has a blister on his pitching thumb the size of a quarter (see photo of Maya looking at his thumb during warm-ups at left), he’s ready to pitch and appears to have pumped himself up for the occasion.

I head to my seat three rows behind first base ($12 bucks). I estimate that the “crowd” totals 1,000, but if I count the puppies and dogs (it was Bring Your Dog Day) and the team mascot, Uncle Slam, there are probably 1,050. Maya makes his way to the mound, but on his way, he stops at the foul line, bends over, and grabs some dirt. He repeated this ritual each inning – it reminded me of when El Duque would do a hop-skip-and-jump over the foul line on his way back to the dugout after retiring the side.

After Maya mows down the first three Winston-Salem Dash hitters in about five minutes, I make my way to the Ben’s Chili Bowl hut and order a chilidog and Diet Coke ($9 bucks – pretty steep prices for the minor leagues). As I walk away from Ben’s, I feel a hard thump on my backside. As I quickly turn around, I notice that Uncle Slam has provided the “coaches slap,” but since his blue, four-fat-fingered hand is so immense, it felt more like a wallop than a smack! Incidentally, a few innings later, he performed WWF wrestling moves on some local teenagers who were mulling around. I guess he let me off easy.

After I down the chilidog, which I think was actually a half-smoke, I returned to my seat to watch Maya mow down the competition in the 2nd and 3rd innings. In the middle of the third, one of the kids in the stands won a Fruit Roll-Up for being able to simultaneously rub the top of his head and belly for 10 straight seconds! An amazing feat!

In the top of the 4th, the wheels started to fall off for Maya. After a series of hard-hit balls, bloops, and walks, the Dash put a crooked number on the scoreboard – 5 runs. Maya finally retires the side, and I make my way to the funnel cake stand and order a mini funnel cake ($3 bucks) (see picture at right above).

To start the 5th inning, Maya gives up a blast just over the right field fence to Seth Loman. “Maya’s out of here and so am I,” I say to myself. As I exit the park (by simply opening a chain link fence door), I think to myself, “why not go try to find the home run ball – it’s obviously the first HR surrendered by Maya on U.S. soil.”

So, I make my way to the fence and there it is, sitting in the weeds about one foot behind the right field chain-linked fence, a heavily game-used Rawlings Official Carolina League baseball (see picture at left). As I pick it up, I realize that it is the first time I am bringing a ball home from a baseball game – I have been to nearly 100 Major League games, and have gone home empty-handed each time, though I have been close on occasion).

As I make my way back toward my car, which is parked closer to third base than first, I re-enter the ballpark (by opening the fence door again) and peek onto the field to make sure Maya has been pulled for a relief pitcher. He has, so I start walking toward home plate to eventually exit closer to where my car is parked. As I pass the Nats’ clubhouse (essentially, an air-conditioned box of a “room” connected to the back of the dugout), I see Maya standing outside the door in his uniform (minus his jersey - see picture at right) trying to make a call on his mobile phone (I can just picture him saying to himself, “Six million bucks and I still can’t find a cell phone that gets reception inside the P-Nats’ dugout!”).

I quickly snap a photo on my i-Phone (see photo at left) and after determining that his call has not gone through, I approach him to get him to sign the offending ball. Just as I reach him, another fan shoves a ball in front of him to sign. Maya obliges and I can tell that he has a quality signature, as he took his time to sign his name nicely on the sweet spot. After the fan thanks him, he takes the offending ball and pen from my hands and signs it right on the sweet spot, just centimeters away from some dirt spots and the bat mark where Loman’s bat smacked it. I thank him, shake his hand, and make my way to my car.

After the game, I learn that the quarter-sized blister on his pitching thumb prevented him from throwing two of his five pitches (the change-up and splitter). I guess if you take 60% of your arsenal to the mound, even the Winston-Salem Dash can score some runs off you.

Regardless of his performance in Class A today, I know that Maya will be successful here. His next start will be in Class AAA Syracuse and he will probably be called up to the Big Leagues on September 1st. He will be successful because he has experience, guts and high expectations for himself and he’s certainly not going to be rattled if he goes out to the mound a couple times in September and gets shellacked! I wish we had 24 other Yunesky Mayas on the Nationals.

If you would like to see some more photos and film footage from the game, as well as a transcript of Maya’s post-game press conference, please click here to a fabulous blog called Nats320 – A Washington Nationals Blog.

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