Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Fernando Encounter that Never Happened


During the first two years of my employment with the federal government, I was stationed in a dusty border border town, two hours east of San Diego, in Calexico, California.  The summer heat was almost unbearable, with morning temps often hitting triple digits.  It was a time when I learned that civilization in places we Angelinos considered as remote locations, weren’t so remote after all.  Mexicali, the city to the south, was a bustling population center of over a million people.  

El Centro, CA - where I was residing, was growing and vibrant.  The winter home of the practicing Blue Angels had their jets buzzing overhead, rattling the roof of my apartment building on a daily basis.  I’d run into the pilots at the local 7 Eleven convenience store as they would stop in for coffee prior to their daily practice runs.  I would stop in each morning and purchase my L.A. Times, happy to be able to connect with home in that geographically close, but so distant place to me.

The Chicago White Sox used El Centro as  a Spring Training site in 1952 and 1953. (Stark Field).  I find no information on those two years except for scant mentions of the fact that the Sox played there.  By the time I lived in El Centro, the memory of the event had long since faded from the residents minds.  I never knew about it while I lived there. 

Hall of Famer Nellie Fox (pictured in this '53 Bowman card) played on the El Centro, CA diamonds during the 1952-53 Spring Training seasons.

Holtville, a town of a few hundred, located about 12 miles to the east, was the Spring training home of the Angels for the first few weeks Spring training each year from 1966 to 1978.  This couldn’t have been a very popular location as there is absolutely nothing to do in Holtville.   (When Angels management decided to have the players bike one mile to the practice field, the idea was quickly abandoned as Angel players used the hotel pool as their bicycle parking lot depository).

But getting back to the topic I wanted to address here.  Work was hard for me at this border outpost.  I was a rookie on the job.  I was lowest in seniority which meant I’d be assigned the worst of the worst jobs.  As an outsider, there weren’t a lot of friends and the few I made at work meant a lot because locals never really trusted those that entered the Imperial Valley as outsiders.  Most of us just passed on through on a way to a transfer to a more comfortable place to work.  The locals resented that.  To them, this agricultural valley was home.  They loved the heat, the canal that they fished at, the local high school sports, the uniqueness of the region and the small town nature that still existed.  Big town boys who were passing though were resented.  I fell into that category.  

My manager passed his resentment on to me.  My appraisals were mediocre at best and it was to strictly hold me back from advancement.  Co-workers from the valley had meteoric rises and great assignments.  It was unfair and unjust, but their way of keeping a lot of us at bay.  “College Boy” they called me, as I had taken the job after completing grad school.  It wasn’t what I pictured in any sense of the world.  I was, after all, just putting in my time before I could move on to a more desirable place of employment within the federal service.  

I was born and raised in Los Angeles and my coworkers knew it.  Me and my big mouth didn’t shy away from my sports allegiances.  I was a Dodger, Laker and Ram fan through and through.  Working the border, from time to time I’d run across ball players that were playing winter ball for the Mexicali ball club.  They’d cross the border in full uniform, “Aguilas” across their chest, on their way back to their hotels on the U.S. side following games late at night.  

On one such occasion, I was called into the office because one of the ball players was being patted down in the security office.  It was a recognizable player who was meandering through the major leagues and a fringe player trying to work his way back, and I knew exactly who it was.  He had nothing on him, was cooperative and quickly released and on his way.  He eventually ended up on the ’88 Dodger championship team as a key contributor.  This was a time when ball players were extremely suspect because a prominent All Star pitcher on the Padres by the name of Lamar Hoyt had been caught smuggling drugs at the San Ysidro crossing in San Diego.  For a while there, ball players were highly suspect.

Baseball was the game in town.  Of all sports allegiances - Baseball was a constant thought on many people’s minds as team allegiances were split  about 70-30 between the Dodgers and Padres who played 110 miles west during the season, and  60 miles east in Yuma during Spring Training.

And then there was Fernando.

Fernandomania was in its waning years, but  not in this region.  He was still pitching.  He was still a Dodger.    He was revered as the most important baseball player on the planet.  Baseball fans in the Imperial Valley considered Fernando Valenzuela as a true hero to an often ignored region of the world.  I recall hearing Jaime Jarrin on car radios of virtually every car crossing the border on nights when Fernando was on the mound.  His popularity couldn’t have been higher.

Fernando Valenzuela pitched for Mexicali up until his mid 40's in the Mexican Winter Leagues. (photo by Mexsport)

Sports memorabilia?  There were Dodger hats and Fernando t-shirts and jerseys all over the place.  A booth at the local Las Palmas swap meet was a shrine to Fernando and carried every knock-off and counterfeit Fernando piece of apparel that you could imagine. Sporting goods stores had posters of Fernando plastered all over the place.  He was the King of that Valley and beyond, and then there was the day he arrived.

We at Customs would clear all private aircraft that entered the U.S. at the small International airport, (Calexico International - CXL) as they arrived.  It was a duty that was covered on an “on-call” basis.  A flight would come in and radio to the vehicle port of entry, and our office would dispatch two inspectors to come out.  We’d search the plane, complete the requisite paper work, collect fees and duties and send the pilots and passengers on their way.  Unless a flight had an “overflight exemption,” all general aviation were required to report at the nearest international airport closest to their crossing point.

With that background in place, I was called to the office on one particular day and told to gather the cash box and my receipt book to go clear a private aircraft arrival from Sonora, Mexico.  Just as my partner and I had got in the vehicle and started up the car to head on out to the airport, a supervisor appeared out of nowhere and told me that he and another manager would be going to the airport instead.  These two, (both local Calexico residents with over 20 years federal employment experience), essentially told us to get lost, took our places in the car and sped off to the airport.  

I found the whole episode to be rather bizarre, as they left the vehicle port manager-less to clear a small plane.  That was until I returned to the office and another inspector said, “You just got screwed College Boy.  They found out that Fernando Valenzuela was a passenger on that flight, so they dropped everything and bumped you guys off the assignment.”

I was crushed.  It would have been better had I never been told.  The two managers returned with signed baseballs and big smiles on their faces.  One of them sought me out later and apologized, but he said this was a once in a lifetime experience and he couldn’t pass it up, which was probably true.

So, anyway, that’s my story about the Imperial Valley and baseball.  That and the moment I spent watching Kirk Gibson’s game one blast from my El Centro, CA apartment when I tossed my two year old daughter in the air in celebratory excitement, (yes, I caught her).  As ugly an experience it was to start my career in such a place, where work was drudgery and my experience with local management was about as bad as it got, I experienced that high of highs in that region.  Celebrating the last Dodgers championship in 1988, from that small apartment, so close, but so distant from my Los Angeles roots.  When I think of El Centro, memories of Hershiser, Gibson and the ’88 Dodgers comes back.

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