LAREDO — It’s quite a lot like being in the military, pro baseball is, with endless travel between wars. The unavoidable mantra is: Hurry up and wait!
On the road in Laredo, and Felix Molina claps along in chonclas, bare-chested for a reason. It’s Sunday, maybe 1 p.m. and 100 degrees outside, a scorcher. The Roadrunner infielder makes his way down the walkway to Room 214, where all goods things will soon be had.
The door is open, with teammates Julio Castro and Melvin Perez inside. They intently chop, slice, dice, and arrange, plastic grocery bags at their feet and repast coming clear in their makeshift laboratory. Though they’ve been at it for awhile, finishing the tardy washing of wayward dishes from yesterday’s masterpiece and getting spices and seasonings mixed and organized, Molina is told that the cooks still need more time.
“We’re not done yet,” they say in Spanish. “Come back in a little while.”
Horita…mas tiempo por favor…hurry up and wait.
Molina, who admits to being very hungry (and impatient) will wait, however. La Cocina Dominicana is worth it.
There are a million ways to waste hours on a road trip. Thanks to the New Holy Trinity of cell phone, computer and iPod, the Roadrunners are constantly plugged in to the outside world. They also do a ton of sleeping. With games at night and no transportation besides the languid team bus that never rolls except to and from the park, the players are in essence stranded at the hotel. Depending on the city, there may be a mall close to the resting place, maybe not.
The ‘Runners lounge around, watching television or doing a little nothing. But for a handful of the lucky ones, right around the corner is a break in the monotony, a trip for the taste buds which has become a team tradition.
Castro, 29, the top closer in the league once again, says that he grew up in the kitchen with his mother helping him learn his way around. Same for Perez, a muscular infielder who now lives in New York City when Valley summers are done. Both are originally from the Dominican Republic, and they have become the resident chefs, whipping up succulent dishes of pork, beef ribs, or chicken, helped along by heaping mounds of steaming rice.
Today is Rib Day, and the invited guests, usually fellow countrymen or initiated Mexicanos like catcher Osiel Flores, have started to cruise by, restless for the grub. Wiping sleep out of their eyes, they wander in and out of Room 214, just to see what’s what.
“Man, I gotta get me some of this,” says Molina, stretching his arms behind his head and rubbing his bare belly. “This is some good stuff they make here.”
A pretty Latin ballad plays softly on a portable stereo, a stark contrast to an ultra-violent movie, “American Gangster,” clattering away in the background, on TV. Perez wields the long knife, carving the ribs into separate pieces; then he hacks his way through green peppers, pausing intermittently to walk back into the room from the kitchen area (on the bathroom sink, with a pair of crock pots set up on top of a cooler on the floor) to putter with his laptop. A towel is taped over the smoke detector but these vets never miss with timing. They move like tap dancers or sappers within the tiny space.
“We used to cook for everyone but it got too much,” he says, glancing up from the screen, upon which he checks out some photographs on the Edinburg Review website. “Vince [‘Runner manager Vince Moore] he comes in here sometimes, that guy can eat a lot. Now we have to just tell some people, we can’t feed everybody.”
The lunchtime session usually extends for three and four hours, just like a Latino meal, with lots of stories, jokes, arguments, and again, sitting around. Today there is some discussion about the addition of cilantro to the mix, and Castro, as he often does, wins the argument. He fired cilantro in, and it will be good, very good.
Like Perez, he’s now a resident of the States, a citizen in fact after navigating the process back in 2007. In his fifth year with the club, Castro is married to a girl he met at the ballpark in Edinburg, with a 2-year-old daughter and twins on the way.
“We also play a lot of cards on the road, especially on the bus,” he says. “The game is Plox, and it is with two partners.”
Originally a shortstop in the White Sox organization, Castro notes that when the team is traveling through Texas, it gives the players a chance to talk baseball, and recall their careers. And their lives, their plans.
“Now that I am older, I can see all the things I didn’t see when I started out,” he laughs. “I have gotten smarter about baseball through the years. Now I know a lot of things but I want a championship; I been here five years and we always make the playoffs. This year we need to win it all.”
Perez is 25, and he is one of the guys who is learning the game as he goes, like Castro has done. For an imposing man, he is surprisingly gentle, speaking in low tones and rarely raising his voice. Maybe he doesn’t have to.
“I am not sure what I will do, I might go into business, my family owns some businesses in New York,” he says, describing with relish the vast array of ethnicities and styles one can see on an average day in the Big Apple.
Has he ever considered opening up a restaurant? Of course. The Roadrunners have gotten used to his expertise in the kitchen, and all feedback has been positive. The smell of meat cooking wafts its way through the room. Wilson Batista, another Dominican infielder, strides past the door and pokes his head in, digging the aroma.
“We’re almost ready,” Castro mumbles without looking up. He is teasing the rice in the cooker, to make sure it’s set to go. “Too hard, two more minutes.”
Perez, meanwhile, admits that in the bustling melting pot he now calls home, everyone thinks they can cook.
“Dominican restaurants? They got a bunch of them already,” he smiles.
Now Molina is back, and the moment is at hand. The door closes to La Cocina Dominicana, somehow it is almost 4 p.m. the players will leave for Veterans Field at 6, plenty of time to chow down.
Sitting on a hotel bed with an overflowing paper plate of happiness, Molina wolfs down the latest course with a vengeance. Castro and Perez savor theirs, and we are remindful of the Cook’s Lament: so long to prepare, so quick to disappear. The waiting is over, and the hurry up can be seen from Molina, who eats so fast he seems to be disappearing with glee. Another successful foray into the joys of the culinary world.