We smile, Victor and me.
We met about an hour ago, brought together in Section 202 of Anaheim Stadium by the World Baseball Classic game between the United States and Mexico. It's an hour into the game, and my Team USA and his Team Mexico are tied at 1-1, and we are smiling.
The Mexican pitchers are really doing the job, I say, and I smile.
Yes, he says, but it's just a matter of time until superstars like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez figure things out and start launching the ball, and he smiles.
We are sitting out in left field, in a section decidedly Mexico-leaning. People wave the tricolor, though sprinkled throughout are Americans with their own flags. The Mexicans say "Viva Mexico!" and smile. The Americans chant "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and smile. Far be it from me to speak for more than 40,000 people, but it seems that everyone is trying very hard to make it clear they are cheering for their team, not against the other. To do so would recognize what suffuses the game: the history, geopolitics—American civilians are presently patrolling the border between the two countries—and Frito Bandito-ness of it all. That the game is taking place in Anaheim, a city with a huge Latino population where school board member Harald Martin, an Anaheim cop, once officially demanded the Mexican government pay the city for educating Mexican kids, only adds to the subtext.
And there is a game. Though the U.S. has already beaten the Mexicans once in the tournament, if they lose this game, they're out. And now, with two out in the fifth, the U.S. falls behind 2-1 on a fielder's choice ground ball to shortstop. That's the way this game goes: unspectacular, workmanlike. Still, despite the lack of action on the field, the cheers in the stands never end.
Victor tells me his last name is Soto. When I ask him where he's from, he answers, "Here," with a smile that says "Let's just leave it at that." He speaks halting English though rapid Spanish when trying to corral his two young sons, who are more interested in climbing over seats than watching the game. He's here with his friend Ralph and Ralph's three sons. Ralph, who sits behind us, is clearly of Mexican stock—olive skin, the exaggerated Cheech Marin intonation—and cheers throughout the game, though what he cheers is: "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
Allegiances are tricky things in a game where the American manager is named Martinez and Mexico's captain, Vinny Castilla, played for the major-league franchise in Washington, D.C. And so it is not at all surprising that when Jeter, the New York Yankee, comes up to bat most everyone in the stadium boos, including my son Jack, a Red Sox fan.
I look at Victor, who smiles, puts his hands up and says, "He's a Jankee."
An inning later, while the folks in our section are cheering "Viva Mexico!" someone chimes in with a "Viva Chivas!" and is immediately booed down, Chivas being a Guadalajara-based soccer power comparable to the Dallas Cowboys.
* * *
The game goes on, the Americans go down meekly inning after inning. And then people in the stadium's "Family Section" begin to stand up and whip around to look at the concourse behind them. It's the kind of reaction that means there's a fight. Two of Ralph's boys run off and soon return.
"It was a fight!" one of them says.
"I'm not into fighting," says Ralph.
"They were," says his son. "There was blood all over the place."
"What were they fighting about?" says Ralph, asking the question everyone wants to know: Was there subtext?
"I dunno. They looked drunk."
"Drunk, yeah, that does it every time," Ralph says, and we relax.
The game goes on; no one is hitting, and Jack is enjoying displaying his middle school Spanish for me by pronouncing uniform numbers in Spanish. Ralph's kids are looking for more fights—no luck—and alternate between cheering for Mexico and the U.S.
"To them, they're both their countries," Ralph says. "They don't see any difference."
As the Americans go down in the eighth, still trailing 2-1, the Team Mexico factions get louder and louder.
But within the cheers you hear someone screaming the word "Love!" The crowd gets progressively quieter, as if leaning in to hear what he's saying. Finally, from the concourse directly behind Section 202:
"Love the country that takes care of you."
He is a middle-aged man, casually dressed and standing with arms crossed, a young man by his side, perhaps his son.
"Love the country that takes care of you," he shouts down, then "U-S-A! U-S-A!" like a loyalty oath.
Section 202 is as quiet as it has been all game. Then a single male voice from somewhere answers in English: "We take care of you!"
The place erupts, people cheering and laughing. Mex-i-co! they shout. I look at Victor, Victor at me, we shake our heads; we smile.
But moments later, in the row behind us, a young man leaps toward the rail to go after the middle-aged guy, who, curiously, doesn't seem the least bit surprised or afraid; in fact, he's smiling as he watches the man's progress. The young man is set upon by friends. A woman with tricolor face paint grabs him around the head and holds on; others grab his arms and shirt. He relents, but he is seething. As the U.S. comes up for its final at bat, he screams, "You're all a bunch of faggots!"
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The cheering is as loud as it has ever been, but it's different. There aren't as many smiles, and the cheers are more likely to come from young men in their late teens and 20s who shout their cheers like accusations. At the same time, stadium police are sent running back to the area above the Family Section: another fight. Now they run to the area around the restrooms above us: another fight. People split time between watching the U.S. put two men on with one out and swiveling their heads to find the next outbreak. It comes to our right, in a stadium tunnel. We can't see the combatants, but soon the tunnel's perimeter is lined with young men hanging over the edge, egging on the participants. They shadowbox and mouth "Boom! Boom!"
Suddenly it seems anything could happen, especially if the U.S.' Vernon Wells gets a hit now to tie or even put his team ahead. But, just as quickly, it ends when Wells hits into a game-ending double play. The crowd roars. I take Jack and head toward the aisle, pausing a moment to shake Victor's hand in a rather formal, end-of-a-successful-summit manner. We walk briskly, eyes forward, most everyone else doing the same.
We arrive at our car quickly, only to sit in it for nearly an hour, not moving at all. To our left, some female Mexico fans dance, draping themselves in the tricolor. As they dance, a man wearing an American flag do-rag wanders by. He stops and stares at them, shakes his head a bit and then, quickly turning, catches my eye and heads toward our car. My window is down, and I figure rolling it up would be construed as insulting. So I brace for what he is about to say and how I am going to explain it to my son afterward.
"Hey," he says, smiling, "you got any spare beers in there?"