He celebrated every little thing. Even the snared line drive in that moment before it is snared. Even the mishit that has a chance, a slim chance, but a chance. His good outcomes. Their good outcomes.
Even the little boy at the rope whose cap is too big and eyes too wide to remember the ball in his hand, the ball he is going to get a real ballplayer to sign, but in that moment is just something to hold onto when his dream shows up in front of him, for real, and his mind spins. Until a man such as Luis Valbuena holds out his own hand and reminds the little boy, oh yeah, I was going to bring home more than the dirt on my shoes and a tummy ache from the cotton candy.
He celebrated them all, and all that smiled bigger than his smile were his eyes and then the bat, flung not for show but out of pure joy.
Luis Valbuena died late Thursday night. The car that carried him and three others crashed on the way from Caracas to Barquisimeto in Venezuela. Former major leaguer José Castillo, 37, also died in the wreck. Valbuena turned 33 a week ago.
When you’re tasked to stand and watch, to reach conclusions that can’t be proved but to draw them anyway, to be curious, to wonder who they really are behind the routines and the failures and the uniforms, you begin to believe in Luis Valbuena. You begin to believe that a man who is this for three hours of baseball, so wholly this, could only be that man for the 21 hours around baseball. The people around him love him too much. The former teammates heckle him too hard. The children come so alive. The game itself slows to watch this man who maybe struck out too much lately and maybe didn’t get enough hits lately and had the time of his life trying, succeeding, missing, sitting down, hoisting himself back up, pulling back his shoulders to offset his jolly paunch, and trying again.
You can’t know a person, their flaws and hang-ups, the things that torture them or have them fall in love. Not from where one sits, at a distance, separated by the rest of your lives. But, damn, if Luis Valbuena didn’t seem easy to peg. Easy to know. Easy to imagine what the rest of his life might be like, how his wife would adore him, how his sons would honor him, how they would laugh, how if the game was a little happier for him then so his life would follow.
“What I saw was what he was,” said Tim Mead, Los Angeles Angels vice president of communications. “Every interaction with you was sincere.”
He called Steve Schneider “Pop,” as in dad. Schneider was Valbuena’s agent, had been for more than a decade, since Valbuena was a minor leaguer sorting through swing mechanics and learning English, studying until he’d laugh and push his chair away and say to Pop, “That’s enough!” Just nine months ago, in the spring training ahead of his 11th big league summer, Valbuena became a U.S. citizen. It made him proud. It made his wife, Mayela, a resident.
“What was unique about Luis, what separated him from all but the very few, is his ability to relate to and become good friends with teammates wherever he played,” Schneider said Friday morning. “And he played in a lot of places. He always fit in. He always played the game so hard, as well as he could and as hard as he could all the time. He found quickly the way to become part of a new group.
“They loved him. And he loved them.”
Valbuena hadn’t played baseball in Venezuela in two winters, but his swing had gone bad on him toward the end of last summer. The Angels released him in August. The way back was through more baseball, baseball when most of the others rested, baseball away from his wife and youngest son, Manuel, who live in Orlando. But, then, baseball nearer his mother, who raised him and ran the local youth baseball league, and nearer the men he grew up with, on a team – Cardenales de Lara – not all that far from there.
What remains is not so much what he did but how. Arriving to the ballpark 10 for his last 20 or two for his last 20, with a hug for Angels coach Dino Ebel, with a joke for his hermanos, with his head and heart and soul in for whatever was next. It would be good, he seemed to know. It had to be good, because there was still so much game to play, so much to celebrate.
“So terrible,” Ebel said Friday. “Such a good, good human being. So sad. He was the same guy every single day. He’d come in and go, ‘Hey, Dino, what are we doing today!’”, not even like a question, but an invitation.
Then, Ebel said, “He’d just smile and go do it.”
All of it. Every little thing.
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