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LOS ANGELES — Francisco Moronta stirred at four every morning without an alarm, sometimes not five or six hours after having nodded off to the New York Yankees on TV. He’d rise and go to the farm to milk the cows. Then he’d load a truck with gravel or sand or concrete and drive that truck, sometimes four hours or more, to some other town, some other place, and return with an empty truck. At night he’d sit with his boy and together they’d eat fried chicken and rice, Francisco on one side of the boy and his mother, Ivonne, on the other, and watch the Yankees again until he fell asleep.
He’d been a catcher once. He loved baseball. Like every boy, it seemed, in the Dominican Republic, he had impossible dreams. But the town, Quinigua, was so small, maybe 700 people, and almost 90 miles from Santiago, so those sorts of dreams more often ended up under a skittish cow at dawn or pulling a load filled with other people’s tomorrows. Sometimes both.
Nobody from their town had ever made the big leagues as far as anyone could remember, so even in a place where dreams came big and cheap — name the town in the Dominican Republic — there’d probably be nothing bigger than the weekend games that drew enough folks to make them seem special.
It is why, all these years later, when Ivonne says goodbye to her boy for every new spring, her words do not change.
“Do not forget where you come from,” she says, an order, a request, a plea.
Reyes Moronta is 26 years old. His father was a truck driver for the hardware store. His mother rolled cigars at the Tabadom factory. They raised four other children, all older than Reyes. He comes from Quinigua, from the little house that at times felt too small, whose front door opened and closed a little after four most mornings, and again after the sun had risen and set again, whose kitchen smelled mostly of the flavors that simmered on the stove — chicken and pork and rice and beans — and a little of tobacco leaves.
Reyes was a catcher, too. He could hit some. But, really, he could throw. He grew up and filled out and played ball and went home and watched the Yankees, especially when they played the Boston Red Sox, and especially when Pedro Martinez was pitching. Pedro was their hero, even when he pitched against the Yankees.
One day a scout for the Cleveland Indians, a man from Santiago they all knew as Zadan, watched the young men play baseball and afterward pulled the catcher aside.
“He told me I could make a good living being a pitcher,” Reyes recalled. “He said you could also be a good catcher. But if you become a pitcher you could make a good living with that arm.”
When there was a doubleheader soon after, Reyes was a catcher in the first game and a pitcher in the next. When another scout came around a year later, this time for the San Francisco Giants, he signed a contract for $15,000. Every new spring thereafter he said goodbye, promised that he would not forget, and went off to tame the fastball that bore all kinds of bad intentions and would not always behave. Nearly nine years later, he believes what he did the very first spring, that his work wasn’t enough, that there was more to do, that sons of truck drivers and cigar rollers must earn their places like the rest, maybe more.
Reyes Moronta became what everyone believes is Quinigua’s first big leaguer two Septembers ago, and last season pitched in 69 games for the Giants, with a 2.49 ERA. His fastball, sometimes pushing 100 mph, and his slider buried right-handers and left-handers alike, and scouts agreed that when his fastball was on target it was nearly unhittable. He is short, exceptionally so for someone who throws so hard, at an official 5-foot-11, which in person seems generous. He is round-ish. When he smiles his eyes go soft and young, still the boy who sometimes got up with his dad and rode shotgun into the darkness, the smile perhaps put there in case he ever was in danger of forgetting.
“I am to remember that I come from a very poor town with not many resources,” he said. “So that’s exactly what she meant to remember where I come from.
“My town has a lot of kids who played baseball that have had a lot of talent and never made it to the big leagues. So I am the example for them to follow. To make it.”
Even then, when he was one of those kids whose dream was entirely appropriate and probably impossible, whose dream was applauded by the grown-ups in town before they turned away, he said he knew of the many who reached for something more and failed, who found something else instead. He’d heard he had a cousin from a town far away who’d made it, a catcher like him named Miguel Olivo. But they’d not ever met.
“Of course I was aware of it,” he said. “My dad was one of them. My dad had great talent and he never made it.”
Francisco Moronta lives now in New York. He traveled last season to San Francisco to watch his boy play baseball, for the first time since Reyes became a professional. Ivonne lives still in the house in Quinigua, the house Reyes goes home to every fall. She has never been to America, never been on an airplane, and so with some luck watches him on television. One day, Reyes believes, he will convince her to come.
“I’m working on getting her here,” he said with a grin.
Until then, she stays, in the place she feels she belongs, where her boy’s dream began and grew and left behind. The place he comes from.
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