The quarterfinal game was over. Jesús Castillo had tossed his fourth perfect game in a row, earning the Little Leaguers of Miami a bid to the semifinals of the Little League World Series. His face was all over the newspapers. Headlines of Jesús becoming the next Koufax streaked across the tops of the pages. Even though it was in the Little Leagues, when was the last time any pitcher struck out every batter he faced in a game?
As Jesús was leaving the locker room, a man in a polo shirt he had seen on TV ran up to him and shook his hand.
"Congratulations, Jesús," he said. "I'm Harold Reynolds from ESPN, and I was wondering if I could do a quick interview with you."
Jesús timidly nodded his head.
"I got to ask you this, little man. What's it like being the most famous twelve-year-old kid in the country?"
Jesús felt his heart drift into his throat. Trying to find an answer, he found his mouth saying the words, "It's great."
"Tomorrow's the semifinal game. You must be nervous."
"Yes," Jesús agreed.
"Jesús, scouts from the Yankees, Mets, Athletics, and Rockies will be at tomorrow's game and the championship. Just about every scout from every team will be watching these Little League games. Do you have anything special up your sleeve?"
"No," Jesús replied. "I'm just going to pitch like I normally do."
Harold Reynolds laughed. "I know you're twelve years old, but there is talk around the league that you'll be the number one pick in the Major League Baseball draft someday. How does that make you feel?"
"Great," he answered.
"All right, Jesús, I got one last question. How did you get such an incredibly strong arm? I mean, it defies the laws of physics that a kid your age could have such a powerful arm."
Jesús could not answer that question. He simply looked into Harold Reynolds's eyes.
"It's all right," Reynolds said. "Your secret can stay a secret. Anyway, thanks a lot for giving us your time to do this interview. Good luck in tomorrow's game." With that, he left Jesús. For ten minutes, Jesús sat in his chair, looking at the ground, thinking.
* * *
Team Miami was up to bat first. Jesús anxiously sat in the dugout, waiting for his opportunity to go out and pitch. Yet the look in his eyes was not that of the predator, but that of the prey. He sat back and closed his eyes. As Jesús sat in the dugout with his eyes closed, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He glanced at the scoreboard and found out that Roberto had hit a home run.
Jesús was not the only superstar for team Miami. His best friend, Roberto, the catcher, basked in the glory that Jesús also shared. For a league of twelve-year-olds, Roberto displayed incredible power. In the previous three games that the Miami team had played, Roberto had hit five home runs. The team from Miami was truly blessed to have these two remarkable players on the same team.
Anyhow, it was time for Jesús to go to work. That inning was a breeze for Jesús. To the delight of the capacity crowd, he struck out all three batters he faced. Strangely, he did not feel any satisfaction with what he accomplished. After each batter that he struck out, he did not feel joy, but anger. His heart was heavy. He returned to the dugout, and sat in the same exact spot that he had left. He didn't like to be disturbed whenever he was pitching.
The next inning was essentially the same for Jesús as the first. Before he threw each pitch, the crowd would rise in eager anticipation to see what the result would be. Even though the stadium was packed with people, Jesús could not sense any of them sitting there. To him, the only people he could see were his teammates, the opposing team, and his father. After every pitch, he would take a look at the stands and see his father smiling with pride.
Five innings had passed. Jesús had been pitching like a man on fire. During those five innings, he had fifteen strikeouts. Thanks to two home runs by Jesús's friend Roberto, team Miami had a two-to-zero lead. As Jesús made the jog to the pitcher's mound, he looked into the stands and saw his father. Seeing that Jesús was staring at him, his father gave him a thumbs up.
Jesús handled the first batter of the final inning incredibly. Three pitches and he was out. The second batter was also remarkably easy and Jesús struck him out on three pitches. The third batter, however, presented more of a challenge. Refusing to go down, he constantly fought off the pitches by fouling them into the stands. Finally, Jesús threw a curve ball that seemed to fall from the heavens. The batter swung and missed.
Every player from team Miami ran toward Jesús. Roberto ran from home plate and embraced Jesús. He had pitched one of the most memorable games in Little League history.
Night had arrived, and Jesús knew that he would need his rest for tomorrow's big game. To his dismay, however, he tossed and turned in bed. He cupped his hands behind his head and lay there, thinking about times when he was little.
* * *
It wasn't too long ago. Jesús was I still living in Cuba at that time. He was thirteen years old, and all day long it had been stormy. He had been inside fiddling with his glove and baseball when he heard screaming come from outside. His father quickly snatched him off the ground and left the house in a full sprint. After hours of running, Jesús and his father finally approached the Caribbean Sea. At last, Jesús understood what they had been running to. He saw a rickety boat tied with some old rope to a harbor. He came to the conclusion that he and his father were leaving Cuba.
Jesús and his father entered the lower deck of the ship. It was, by far, the most horrendous place that Jesús had ever been. Rats infested the area and flies were buzzing around meat that was still lying on the floor. There were no windows, so the room was extremely dark and possessed a pungent smell. The voyage to America had been long. After what seemed like days of traveling, Jesús's father told him that the trek was over.
Jesús's father managed to find a job washing dishes in Juan's Gourmet Mexican Food Restaurant. The job was absolutely grueling. He worked eighty-hour weeks for seven days. The pay was low, but he found a shabby apartment in a section of Miami called Little Havana. The apartment was not only small, but also dirty. Jesús befriended Roberto, a boy who lived across the street from him. They had a lot in common. They attended Diablo Vista Middle School, were born two days apart, came from Cuba, and loved to play baseball. After going to school, the two would go to the Community Park and play baseball every day.
One day, they saw a flyer mounted in a store window advertising Little League baseball. It exclaimed how tryouts for Miami's Little League team would be held that weekend. At first, Jesús and Roberto were ecstatic. After all, this could be the time where they could both showcase their exceptional talents in baseball to the world. As they continued reading, it felt as if the world had collapsed on them. On the bottom of the flyer, it said that the tryout would be held for kids age twelve and under. Jesús and Roberto's birthdays had just passed, so they both had just missed the cutoff date. Jesús snatched the flyer from the window anyway and shoved it into his pocket.
When his father got back home at night, Jesús angrily showed the flyer to him. At first, his father was also disappointed that Jesús could not participate in the Little League World Series, but then he came up with an idea.
"Jesús," he said, "perhaps you and Roberto can still play." His father left the apartment.
The next day Jesús received a phone call from the manager of Juan's Restaurant. He angrily shouted at Jesús about how his and Roberto's fathers had not shown up to work and that they would be fired if it ever happened again. Jesús quizzically hung up the phone. Where could his father possibly be?
All day long, Jesús stayed home. He constantly looked out the window to see if his father was coming home, but he would always see nothing. It was midnight when his and Roberto's fathers walked through the door. They were both laughing happily.
"Jesús," he said, "get ready for your tryout tomorrow. Tell Roberto to do so, too."
* * *
The next day, Jesús and Roberto stepped onto the baseball field and saw that there were at least a hundred kids trying out. The manager of the team approached Jesús's father.
"Hello," he said. "Before I let your child and his friend try out, I'm going to have to see both of their birth certificates. Do you have them with you?"
"Sir," Jesús's father said in an ashamed tone, "I am terribly sorry but I left those at home. It will probably take me two hours to go back and get them. I will leave immediately but please let my son and his friend try out."
"I'll see about that," the manager said. The first half of the tryouts were for the pitchers.
"Number 56!" the manager shouted.
Jesús walked up to the pitcher's mound and was told by the manager to throw his best pitch, so Jesús decided to throw his fast ball. As he delivered the ball, it was thrown with such power that the cover of the baseball seemed to be torn right off. The baseball hit the catcher's mitt with a loud thud, and the manager looked at his radar gun in awe. The pitch had clocked ninety miles per hour.
Roberto's tryout was also as successful as Jesús's had been. During batting practice for all the position players, he would continually hit the balls over the fence for home runs. However, the baseballs that he hit did not merely scrape past the fence. He had even hit a few that went a monstrous 400 feet.
Just like he had said, Jesús's father came back to the baseball field two hours later.
"Sir," he said to the manager, "I am, once again, tremendously sorry I have misplaced both Roberto's and Jesús's birth certificates and I cannot find them. What should I do about it?"
The manager held up his hand as if to signal Jesús's father to cease talking. "Jesús and Roberto are phenomenal. There's simply no other way to put it. They are the greatest baseball players I have ever had the chance to work with. I am truly thankful that I have the chance of coaching both of these wonderful kids. They can be on my team any day."
"Thank you, sir," Jesús's father said. "We are truly grateful that you are so kind."
"No," the manager exclaimed. "Thank you."
* * *
Jesús woke up early in the morning. He sensed that his heart was beating wildly. Baseball was the love of Jesús's life. Every time he played the game, he felt happy. During the course of the Little League World Series, he had not even felt one minute of satisfaction. Despite playing as well as he ever had, he felt anger building up. He knew that it was time for him to confess.
The first thing he did was go over to Roberto's hotel room. Roberto had given him a key to his hotel room, so Jesús entered. Roberto was still sound asleep, but Jesús gave him a nudge, signaling him to wake up. Reluctantly, Roberto opened his eyes.
"What's wrong, Jesús?" he asked. "It's still early in the morning."
"Roberto, it's time," Jesús responded.
"Time for what?"
"It's time for us to tell the truth."
Roberto sat up. "Jesús, are you out of your mind? The championship game is today. If we told everyone, all of our hard work would be wasted. We can't do that."
"Roberto, you not only have to work hard for your dreams, but you also have to work honestly. Both of our morals are too high to be doing this. There is no way that we could live our lives with this constantly lingering in our minds."
"Listen to me, Jesús," Roberto remarked, "you are my best friend, and I care about you. But you're talking crazy."
"Roberto, I know you'll do the right thing." With that, Jesús left Roberto.
* * *
The hype surrounding the Little League World Series championship game was overwhelming. TV stations and reporters from all over the country had come to cover the game. However, there was an unexpected change of events. The team from Miami had called for an unanticipated press conference prior to the game. The reporters flocked to the room in which the press conference was being held and saw the entire team from Miami sitting on the stage. Jesús had a microphone in his hand. The reporters settled down.
Jesús glanced at Roberto, but he turned his head away.
"I have something to say to all of you," Jesús addressed the crowd. "I have always loved the game of baseball. I remember when I was younger and played catch with my father, I felt a joy that I cannot describe. Despite the success I've been having of late, I have never felt an ounce of joy. As a matter of fact, I've felt guilt. There is something riding on my back that I must tell all of you. I am not twelve years old. I am, in fact, thirteen."
The reporters gasped. Every member of the team from Miami glanced at Jesús with shock. Every single player except for Roberto, who still was looking the other way.
"I am sorry," Jesús apologized, "for any grief I've caused to my teammates. I take full responsibility for my actions. Once again, I am deeply sorry."
The next day, Jesús woke up early in the morning after a red-eye flight back to Miami. He went outside and saw that the newspaper had been delivered already. He opened it up to the sports page and saw a huge picture of Roberto. The words "Roberto Garcia Wins the Little League World Series with a Pair of Home Runs" streaked across the top of the page. Jesús continued to read and saw that "the commissioner of Little League baseball has banned Jesús Castillo from youth baseball forever."
Jesús sighed to himself and walked back into the dilapidated apartment.