Some Call It Ballin'

Issue 3: Fall 2014

"...but in joy create for others the house, the poem, the game of athletic beauty" — Dudley Randall

Cada Guaraguao Tiene Su Pitirre: Puerto Rico, The United States, and the World Baseball Classic

by Martín Espada

Illustration by Nicholas Rosal

There is an expression in Puerto Rican Spanish: Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre

According to ornithologist Virgilio Biaggi: “When, in Puerto Rico, we see a small bird pursuing and tormenting a large bird, especially a guaraguao, the odds are ten to one that the small bird is a pitirre.” The “guaraguao” is a hawk. The “pitirre” is a kingbird. When the predatory guaraguao invades the territory of the pitirre, this two-ounce bird defends her young in the nest with such ferocity that the startled hawk dives away in retreat.

What this expression literally means is that every hawk has his kingbird. Every Goliath has his David.

In 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico and harvested the island as a bounty of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico is still a colony of the United States. Like “baseball,” however, “colony” is a word from another age. Thus we have euphemisms—such as the oxymoronic “Free Associated State” and “Commonwealth”—to describe the political condition of Puerto Rico, but that condition has not fundamentally changed in one hundred and sixteen years.

In the early part of the 20th century, the poet José de Diego addressed the United States as a “guaraguao”:

Hawk long and dark with claws curved like daggers,
            with the hard blue beak of the mountains,
Hawk long and dark with imperial wings…

Keep your instinct for war hidden in your powerful chest;
            keep the rays of rage in your killer eyes! 

Of De Diego’s posthumous collection, Cantos de pitirre (Kingbird Songs), Roberto Márquez writes: “Embodied in the titular figure of a small island bird popularly known for the tenacious defense of its nesting place, the image of an intrepid David confronted by the menacing presence of a hawk-like Goliath, indeed, emerges as central metaphor in the landscape, parables and zoological symbolisms…”

José de Diego believed in independence for Puerto Rico. The partisans of independence identify with the pitirre, as well they should. Throughout the 20th century, their poets were jailed, their flag banned, their marches attacked, their politics outlawed, their names blacklisted. On occasion, as with the Ponce Massacre, when police turned sub-machineguns on a parade, they died. Yet they would not be silenced.

Clemente Soto Vélez was a poet and political leader jailed for “seditious conspiracy” in 1936, and released after four years in prison on the condition that he not make any more speeches in favor of independence. He returned to the island and made four speeches within a week, earning two more years of incarceration. This was his song of the pitirre.

No one on the island could have foreseen that the struggle between the guaraguao and the pitirre would someday act itself out on the baseball diamond. In fact, the game preceded the invaders by two years. Eduardo Valero relates: “The first game was played in San Juan in 1896, between the ‘Almendares’ and ‘Borinquén’ teams. Baseball was brought to Puerto Rico by the sons and nephews of a Spanish Army officer who had been detailed in Cuba prior to being assigned to Puerto Rico.”

The United States imposed citizenship on the island in 1917 for the purpose of drafting 20,000 Puerto Ricans and shipping them off to fight for the U.S. in World War I. The veterans who survived that war intact, Valero notes, brought baseball home with them.

Puerto Rico would come to embrace baseball the way people throughout the world have happily embraced the music, movies and other offerings of popular culture produced by this country. U.S domination in Puerto Rico accelerated the embrace of baseball, but does not explain it. Puerto Ricans turned out to be far more enthusiastic about learning the game than learning the English language, dumped like snow on their schools and courts.

Expressions of the desire for independence go beyond quixotic revolutionary uprisings and the ravings of visionary poets. The colony founded its own winter baseball league in 1938 and flung its doors open to the Negro Leaguers shunned by the segregationists who governed the major leagues in the United States.

Likewise, Puerto Rico’s insistence on fielding its own national teams in the Olympics and, now, the World Baseball Classic is a defiant gesture of national identity. Team United States and Team Puerto Rico met for the first time in the World Baseball Classic on March 14, 2009. The Associated Press reported mournfully:

The Mercy Rule is designed to spare Little Leaguers from humiliation, not a bunch of big league All-Stars.

But it was Jimmy Rollins, David Wright and their United States teammates who found themselves shuffling off the field in the seventh inning Saturday night. Puerto Rico scored four times in the seventh to complete an 11-1 victory that left Team USA on the ropes in round two of the World Baseball Classic.

"Everybody is embarrassed," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "But 2-1 or 11-1, we're still in the same position. You can't sit around and hang your head too long."

Carlos Beltrán and Felipe López homered, and Puerto Rico rocked Jake Peavy for six runs in the first two innings to send the U.S. team into the loser's bracket…

To cap a Classic blowout, Mike Avilés hit a two-out, two-run single in the seventh, triggering the tournament's 10-run rule and sending Puerto Rico players pouring out of the dugout in jubilation. Several players on both teams said they didn't realize the game was over, including Puerto Rico's hot-hitting Iván Rodríguez.

"I was putting on my catching equipment," he said. "When I walked out, I saw everyone on the field. I thought maybe somebody got hurt."

Somebody definitely got hurt. Jeter and his teammates swaggered into this game as the embodiment of oblivious power, like Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”: “Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has/ never lost a battle.” This wasn’t David and Goliath; this was more akin to Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard, the heavyweight championship bout on July 4, 1919 in Toledo, Ohio, wherein Dempsey, giving away almost sixty pounds, knocked Willard down seven times in the first round and stopped him at the end of the third, fracturing his jaw and ribs for good measure.

The team from Puerto Rico played with more passion, more bravado, more grit. For reasons unknown to most who watched that night, the Puerto Ricans played as if the game meant something beyond the box score, unleashing a torrent of tensions and demons.

The dazed All-Stars of Team USA weren’t merely outscored; they were surrounded. Like Custer at the Last Stand, they must have seen Puerto Ricans everywhere. The team from Puerto Rico played with more passion, more bravado, more grit. For reasons unknown to most who watched that night, the Puerto Ricans played as if the game meant something beyond the box score, unleashing a torrent of tensions and demons. Surely, more was at stake than ethnic pride or nationalism.

Carlos Beltrán, with over three hundred home runs and three hundred stolen bases in the major leagues, was a study in controlled fury. In the first inning, he singled and raced to third on a base hit by Carlos Delgado, then scored on a sacrifice fly by Alex Ríos. In the second, he beat out an infield single to second, driving in a run. In the fifth, he walked, took second on a fly ball by Delgado, and scored on a double by Iván Rodríguez. In the seventh, he cracked a home run to left, making the score 8 to 1.

Suddenly, a few batters later, the game was over. Shortstop Mike Avilés, a relentless pull hitter, stroked a single to the opposite field to score Felipe López and Geovany Soto, running the score to 11-1 and invoking the dubious mercy of the Mercy Rule.

It was fitting that Avilés struck the coup-de-grace. A Puerto Rican born in New York—a so-called “Nuyorican”—Avilés chose to play for Puerto Rico against Team USA. The identity of Puerto Ricans born in the United States—like Avilés—has sometimes been questioned by Puerto Ricans on the island who perceive them as too removed from the language and the culture, too aggressive, too hard-edged, too American. Imagine the elation that one of the island’s bastard stepchildren, Mike Avilés, must have experienced on March 14th, 2009, when he became a national hero in Puerto Rico, if only for one night, accepted at last.

Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre.

Certainly, on that night the guaraguao fled shrieking from the pitirre. On that night David slew Goliath. Or did he?

The folkore of the guaraguao and the pitirre, like the Biblical tale of David and Goliath, omits a looming, ominous truth: power usually prevails. The hawk usually makes the kill. “Sonnet for Ambiguous Captivity,” by Jack Agüeros, inverts the fable of the hawk and the kingbird to pose a pointed question about colonialism: “Are you/ the same as ‘occupied,’ like when a bigger bird takes/ over your nest, shits, and you still have to sweep?”

Goliath rose up, not slain but merely stunned, and his name was David. Three days later, in a WBC elimination game, Team USA rallied for a walk-off win by a score of 6-5 when third baseman David Wright dropped a two-run single down the right-field line in the bottom of the ninth, sending the Puerto Rican team home for four years.

Unwittingly, Wright re-established the social order, teaching Puerto Ricans the lessons of colonialism they had learned repeatedly for over a hundred years, reinforcing the national inferiority complex that comes with the colonized mind: we are small and they are big; we are weak and they are strong; we are bad and they are good. Puerto Ricans were put in their place, back at the end of the line. The axis of the world righted itself, on the baseball diamond and elsewhere, the American “embarrassment” avenged. “It was an especially sweet victory,” crowed the Associated Press report.

In a cruel coda, Avilés suffered an arm injury in the World Baseball Classic, requiring Tommy John surgery, and missed the rest of the 2009 season.

Flash forward to March 2013: Puerto Rico was in crisis. The previous administration of Governor Luis Fortuño eliminated public employee jobs by the tens of thousands, repressed strikes of students and teachers, and engaged in police brutality so impressive that both the Justice Department and the ACLU were called in to investigate. The island economy was in free-fall, with a per capita income less than half of Mississippi and a homicide rate higher than México.

The fortunes of baseball in Puerto Rico had also plummeted. In 2007, the once-beloved winter leagues had to cancel their season. The pitching staff of Team Puerto Rico in the 2013 WBC was a ragged crew of career minor leaguers, unwanted prospects and major league castoffs searching, like so many of their compatriots, for employment. There were only five major leaguers on the field for the island, including holdovers Beltrán and Avilés, as well as their brilliant catcher, Yadier Molina.

In the second round of the WBC, Team USA slapped down Puerto Rico by a score of 7-1. David Wright—now dubbed, “Captain America”—drove in five runs. This spanking served as the precursor for a showdown between the two teams in an elimination game on March 15, 2013. 

Wright was out with a muscle strain in his back. Still, led by manager Joe Torre, the Team USA lineup boasted National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun and fellow monsters Joe Mauer, Giancarlo Stanton, Adam Jones and Jimmy Rollins. Pitching for Puerto Rico was a thirty-eight year-old veteran from Coney Island with a career major league mark of 20-35 and a fastball that could break neither ninety miles an hour nor the proverbial neighbor’s windowpane. His name was Nelson Figueroa. Writing for “Sports on Earth,” Emma Span said: “Going in, this one figured to be a potential bloodbath.” I watched the game through my fingers. I had forgotten.

Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre.

Juan Rodríguez summed it up for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel: “Puerto Rico stunned Joe Torre's squad 4-3 in front of a bongo-banging, horn-blowing, tambourine-shaking crowd of 19,762. The victory earned Puerto Rico a trip to San Francisco for the championship round with the Dominican Republic, Japan and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.”

Tim Rohan of The New York Times called Figueroa, “magnificent. In the fourth when he allowed his first hit — a single to Brandon Phillips — the ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ chant started softly. Figueroa sat down Ryan Braun, Joe Mauer, and Giancarlo Stanton in order. The Puerto Rico fans roared.” When Team USA rallied to make it close in the eighth inning, an unemployed ex-major league pitcher, J.C. Romero, entered the game with the bases loaded and crafted a four-out save for Puerto Rico.

At the press conference after the game, Figueroa tried to explain the unfathomable: how he baffled and dazzled the muscle-bound US squad. "I go against the book sometimes," Figueroa said, according to "I don't throw very hard, but I'll pitch inside. A lot of times they'll sit outside, waiting for that breaking ball, and they won't get it.”

Figueroa also revealed his secret weapon: catcher Yadier Molina. “Yadier had a great plan,” the pitcher said. “I really didn’t have to shake him off, if at all.” The batters for Team USA never seemed to realize that someone behind them was quickly and quietly working to defuse every bomb they intended to launch. It was as if they were bopped from behind, one by one, as they came to the plate, dupes in a silent comedy. 

Tyler Kepner, in The Times, quoted former Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa: “(Molina) is as great a catcher as anybody that’s ever played the game… He thinks and manages a game and a pitching staff as well as anybody ever has.” La Russa continued: “It’s not just instinct. It’s a sense, based on how a hitter’s standing, how he responds to the pitch or two before, and he’s very creative in how he makes his adjustment based on what he sees with the hitter and knowing what his pitcher can do. That’s art.”

Molina caught the eye of David Schoenfield at ESPN:

The symbolic moment of the United States-Puerto Rico game—a thrilling 4-3 win for Puerto Rico to eliminate the tournament favorites—came in the bottom of the sixth inning. The U.S., trailing 4-0 and struggling to generate any offense, was desperate enough to try to run on Yadier Molina. Not a good idea. Not down four runs. Not with Molina behind the plate. He gunned down Jimmy Rollins to end the inning and turned around to the throng of Puerto Rican fans behind home plate and raised his fist in a picture of triumph.

Not on me. Not on me.

Not everyone in the media was as thrilled with the outcome of this game as Schoenfield. The team of baseball analysts at the MLB Network reacted as if Puerto Rico had just invaded the United States. One such expert, Mitch Williams, was known in his playing days as the “Wild Thing,” famously quoted as saying: “I pitch like my hair’s on fire.”

When a team from Puerto Rico faces a team from the United States, the U.S. media misses the story. They know nothing of the guaraguao and the pitirre…

After Puerto Rico knocked Team USA out of the WBC tournament, the Wild Thing’s head burst into flames again. Over and over, Williams claimed that the Puerto Ricans had an unfair advantage: they played winter ball, and the Americans didn’t. This was the only way to explain the lack of timing—and timely hitting—by the All-Stars at Team USA. This was the only way to explain how Figueroa could beat them.

Unfortunately, the Wild Thing was wildly inaccurate. Bob Klapisch reported: “That theory sounded plausible — until it was blown up on Twitter, where it was noted that Carlos Beltrán, Angel Pagán and Alex Ríos all rested this winter. Yadier Molina appeared in only 14 games.”

In an unanticipated twist, the experts at MLB became part of the story they were covering: Nelson Figueroa called them out. Referring to himself and his teammates as “supreme underdogs,” Figueroa went on at his post-game press conference: "I sat up watching MLB Network and hearing all the things that I couldn't do and could do, so it was motivation to show them what kind of pitcher I was.”

This was a direct challenge, in the style of a brawler from Brooklyn poking a finger in the face of his antagonist. The Wild Thing sputtered, claiming that he only said Figueroa, “would need help from the umpires.” Realizing that he had compounded the problem, he then blurted out an apology. Even so, Williams could not accept defeat, whimpering repeatedly that Team USA would have prevailed with the injured Wright in the lineup, till the usually gregarious Harold Reynolds shouted: “Get over it!”

There were many rationalizations to explain the catastrophe. Grant Bisbee at Baseball Nation offered this theory: “Small-sample gremlins are at work, of course. The U.S. had a fantastic roster, but they couldn't hit Nelson Figueroa. And at some point this season, the Astros will beat the team that will eventually win the AL pennant. Baseball!” Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, it stands to reason that, on any given day, the 1962 New York Mets could have beaten the 1927 New York Yankees. However, could the Mets of Marvelous Marv Throneberry beat the Yankees of Babe Ruth in a sudden-death playoff game on a world stage?

There were other reactions, ranging from condescension to hyperventilation. Klapisch decided to wear a sneer as his umbrella: “There’s no acceptable explanation for the USA’s inability to solve journeyman Nelson Figueroa in Friday night’s 4-3 loss; the Americans were shockingly inept against his 86-87 mph fastball… Name your alibi, they clung to it tightly, including praising Figueroa’s artistry. Nonsense: The former Met got away with one meatball after another.”

Far from rooting for David, the media feared for the life of Goliath. Tom Verducci, covering the game for Sports Illustrated, wrote: “It was like watching a B-Grade horror flick, when the girl comes upon the door of a darkened room—with creaky latches, no less—and wonders if she should enter. You cringe. You just know what's going to happen next, and it's not going to be good.” Goliath was feminized, the lumberjack in lingerie immortalized by Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song.”

Meanwhile, the monsters in Verducci’s horror movie were like zombies: they should have been easy to kill, but somehow kept coming. It was Night of the Living Dead Puerto Ricans. Verducci went on: “The next batter was Andy González. If you haven't heard of Andy González, you probably haven't been following the Southern League, Pacific Coast League and other minor leagues for the past decade. González had cups of coffee with the White Sox, Indians and Marlins—but no sips since 2009—while racking up 1,024 Minor League games…(Reliever Vinnie Pestano) threw another of those jittery breaking balls. It hung on the inside half of the plate, fat and delicious, like a ripe apple hanging from a tree, whereupon González, minor-league journeyman or not, walloped it off the left-field wall for a double. Four-nothing, Puerto Rico. Ballgame.”

When a team from Puerto Rico faces a team from the United States, the U.S. media misses the story. They know nothing of the guaraguao and the pitirre; they fail to see David slinging rocks at Goliath. They pity and cheer for the giant, their democratic sympathy for the underdog evaporated, blinded by their sense of entitlement and supremacy, the myth of American exceptionalism applied to the American game.

Only The Guardian—a newspaper from England—understood the ramifications of the game in political terms: Puerto Rico “took it to their colonial rulers,” and this is what “sent San Juan into hysteria.”

Nelson Figueroa, bravely attacking Team USA hitters inside without a fastball worthy of the name, personified the pitirre. Yadier Molina, outsmarting those same hitters, pitch after pitch, brandishing his fist after throwing out Jimmy Rollins, personified the pitirre. J.C. Romero, an unemployed pitcher, striking out two in the ninth and then coaxing a weak fly ball from Rollins to end the game, personified the pitirre. Andy González, the Puerto Rican Crash Davis, the epitome of frustration with over a thousand minor league games on his ledger, staying focused on a two-strike count and hammering the biggest hit of his life off the wall, personified the pitirre.

Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre.

Those “bongo-banging” Puerto Rican fans celebrated into the night, waving their ubiquitous flags, dancing and singing with the flag, now the wings of a bird, now the robe of a classical poet, now a matador’s cape, now a flying carpet. The flag, too, was born out of the desire for independence. Most people see the red, white and blue of the Puerto Rican flag and assume that this is a knockoff of the American flag.

Actually, the creation of the Puerto Rican flag, like the first baseball game, predates the U.S. invasion, invented in 1895 by the Puerto Rican section of the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York. Both Puerto Ricans and Cubans wanted independence from Spain; there was a revolution happening at the time in Cuba, and José Martí, the great Cuban poet, was its most lyrical spokesman.

The Puerto Rican flag inverted the colors of the Cuban flag. The white bars represented the desire for independence and peace. After the United States took power, the Puerto Rican flag was outlawed for half a century. When Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth in 1952, entitled, finally, to elect its own governor, the authorities legalized and adopted the Puerto Rican flag, though it could only be flown alongside the American flag.

There is a profound difference between the flag of the colonizer and the flag of the colonized; the nationalism of the colonizer and the nationalism of the colonized; the baseball of the colonizer and the baseball of the colonized; the guaraguao and the pitirre.

Nothing could better articulate the melancholy euphoria of this Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican poet after Puerto Rico drove Team USA from the World Baseball Classic than my own poem: 

Flowers and Bullets

Cuba and Puerto Rico
are two wings of the same bird:
they receive flowers and bullets
in the same heart.
 — Lola Rodríguez de Tío, 1889

Tattoo the Puerto Rican flag on my shoulder.
Stain the skin red, white and blue, not the colors
that snap over holiday parades or sag over the graves
of veterans in the States, but the colors of Cuba reversed:
a flag for the rebels in the hills of Puerto Rico, conjured up
by Puerto Rican exiles in the Cuban Revolutionary Party,
bearded and bespectacled in the sleet of New York,
Wise Men lost on their way to Bethlehem. That
was 1895, the same year José Martí would die,
the poet shot from a white horse in his first battle. 

Tattoo the Puerto Rican flag on my shoulder,
so if I close my eyes forever in the cold
and the doctors cannot tell the cause of death,
you will know that I died like Jose Martí,
with flowers and bullets in my heart.

MARTÍN ESPADA has published more than fifteen books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His forthcoming collection of poems is called The Leaves of El Moriviví (2016).  Other books of poems include The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006), and Alabanza (2003). His many honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The title poem of his collection Alabanza, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), has been banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. A former tenant lawyer, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.