Hope on the Diamond

by longformphilly

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Mike Sielski | The Philadelphia Inquirer | November 2015

LAKEWOOD, N.J. — Children shuffled toward Jairo Muñoz. They knew nothing about him except what they saw: a 6-foot-5 pitcher, 24 years old, skinny as a snake and smiling at them shyly, his navy-blue-trimmed white uniform drooping off him like a limp flag from a pole. Each of them offered him a cap, or a baseball, or a sleeve of a shirt, and a pen. They said little. He said less.

They had watched Muñoz pitch for the Lakewood BlueClaws, the Phillies’ single-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, and he had pitched well, earning the win in a 12-3 victory over the Delmarva Shorebirds: five innings, six hits, two runs, four strikeouts, his fastball reaching 96 m.p.h., his curveball sharp. It was Labor Day. It was the last game of Lakewood’s season. Fans could wander on to the field at FirstEnergy Park afterward to talk with the players, to get their autographs. It was an event made for kids, and one by one kids approached him.

Hi. Could you. Sign. This. For me?

Si. Hello there.

The boys and girls, none older than 10, might not have been mature enough to comprehend or appreciate what it had taken for Muñoz to be there, to turn each item into a child’s talisman by scribbling his signature on it, to have the chance to pitch in the major leagues someday. The nights alone in that one-room apartment in West Philadelphia, nothing around him but a mattress, some prepaid phone cards, and a Bible. The days on which his only meal had been a bag of potato chips with a lapsed expiration date. The fear that it was only a matter of time before he would have no life in this country at all, that he would return to the Dominican Republic, to the wife and daughter waiting for him there, with nothing but a dream that had turned to dust here. These were grave matters, hard things for innocent minds and hearts to process.

Still, if you were the children’s parents, you would want them to hear Muñoz’s story, because there would be something valuable they might extract from it — a small lesson, perhaps, about the choices and risks and rules and consequences that structure a society and can define a single life, about straining to see light when everything appears dark, about being brave and generous and kind, about never giving up.

“This is the best day of my life,” Muñoz said. “Not everyone gets a second chance.”

It was fitting, then, that five of the people who had helped to give him that chance, who kept steering him along his twisting, oft-treacherous road when he might have careened into despair, were there on the field with him. They were standing in a semicircle around him in the late-afternoon sunshine, looking at him with pride and love as he signed his name again and again and gently shook each child’s hand.

Every pitch I see him throw, one of them had said during the game, is a miracle.

Yes, you’d want a child to hear a story like that.

Writer bio: Mike Sielski, a graduate of Upper Dublin High School and LaSalle University, is a sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote for The Allentown Morning Call, Bucks County Courier Times and The Wall Street Journal before joining the Inky in 2013.

Continue reading the “Hope on the Diamond” series: Parts 1, 2, 3

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