TIJUANA, Mexico -- Last week, on the morning he was supposed to graduate from high school in San Diego and accept a baseball scholarship to college, Octavio Arroyo awoke in Tijuana to the smell of burning trash. His new neighbors were always lighting trash fires, and the smoke caused his eyes to water and his lungs to burn. "Ugh, I can't breathe," he said in Spanish, so he grabbed his baseball gear and walked outside, searching for something familiar.
He wore his favorite outfit, a uniform for a baseball team that was no longer his, and carried a monogrammed backpack from the high school he was no longer allowed to attend. He walked past stray dogs, street vendors and cement walls tagged with Spanish graffiti until finally he waved down a city bus. The driver pointed him to a row in the back, and Arroyo took a seat and pulled out his cellphone. It is one of the few connections he has left between his former life as a U.S. baseball prospect and his new life as a Mexican deportee. He checked Facebook and saw photos from early that morning of his friends dressed in their caps and gowns. He noticed a new text message from a former teammate, a pitcher who was preparing to start the city championship game in Arroyo's place.
"It still seems wrong you can't be here for all of this," the teammate wrote.
"I know," Arroyo responded. "And the crazy thing is I'm only like a mile away."
Geography is a lottery, and the past two months have taught Arroyo, 18, just how much can be determined by one mile. For three years, he lived illegally just north of the border with an aunt in San Ysidro, California, but he was stopped at the United States border on March 29 for misusing his visa, and border patrol agents returned him to his native Mexico. Now Arroyo is back in Tijuana, where on a clear day at his grandparents' house he can look down a ridge, over the border and into the future that was nearly his: It's a little more than a mile to San Ysidro High School, where he says he was three credits short of graduating. One mile to the batting cages where he hit with his cousins most weekday afternoons. One mile from becoming one of Southern California's top prospects and possibly earning a six-figure signing bonus as a middle-rounds pick in this week's MLB draft. One mile from the dozens of college letters that still arrived at his aunt's house in San Ysidro each week from baseball coaches who didn't know about his deportation. "Once you enroll, your tuition and U.S. residency are guaranteed," the paperwork from one junior college promised.
But little is guaranteed for undocumented immigrants in the shifting border policies of 2015, even in the supposed meritocracy of professional sports. Now Arroyo's best chance to return to the United States is to get drafted this week -- the amateur draft ends Wednesday with Rounds 11 through 40 -- and hope an MLB team can provide him with a worker visa. To get drafted, he first had to retain the attention of American pro scouts on the dirt-and-rock fields of Tijuana during the most tumultuous weeks of his life. Friends worried he had fallen into a minor depression. Arroyo's 91 mph fastball had lost some of its speed. He had no coach, no teammates and only four weathered baseballs with which to practice.
"On one side of the border everyone is paying attention, and on the other side you can get forgotten," he said.
"My biggest fear is that I just disappear." In the days before the draft, his friends and cousins had come up with a plan to prevent that from happening. Scouts from the Marlins, Red Sox, Pirates and Rangers had continued to express interest in drafting him, and one, from the Atlanta Braves, had said he would come to Tijuana to watch Arroyo pitch one more time. His cousins had scheduled a game in a Mexican recreational league on the Saturday before the MLB draft. Some friends and cousins agreed to fill out their roster, as long as someone else provided uniforms and drinks. They found a dirt field with an opening for a 9 a.m. game, where a few dozen men planned to pour light beers in the dugout and one planned to earn his place in the MLB draft. "A make-or-break moment," Arroyo called it, and now he needed to practice.
He rode the city bus to a complex of 18 dirt baseball fields, where one of his older cousins, Ricardo Sanchez, 28, was waiting to lead Arroyo through his workout. Sanchez has become Arroyo's coach and adviser. He is a former baseball player and a U.S. citizen who lives a mile on the other side of the border; geography aligned in his favor. He has a house with a batting cage, a college degree, and an American passport that allows him to move between the U.S. and Mexico without fear of being stopped.
"How was the trip from the other side?" Arroyo asked.
"Easy," Sanchez said. "It took me like four minutes."
They carried their workout equipment to one of the fields, but the front gate was locked. The complex is owned by the city and protected by a 10-foot fence, and they didn't have a key. Sanchez shook the fence, but it didn't budge. He kicked the gate, but it didn't open.
"Hello!" he called out, and nobody answered.
"What do you think?" Sanchez asked. "Should we just jump it?"
They stood together for a moment on the wrong side of the fence, measuring its height, considering which rules were worth breaking and what the consequences might be of getting caught on the other side.
"Probably not," Arroyo said, finally. "I don't think that would end very well."
HE SPENT HIS childhood navigating both sides of the border, never considering that one side might offer more than the other, never worried that a day would come when he might be stuck on the wrong side. He is the youngest of a half-dozen cousins who are all baseball players, some of whom live in Mexico and others who were born in the United States. He and his mother had B-2 visitor visas, which meant they could travel to the U.S. whenever they liked to see family or shop, as long as they didn't stay to work or attend school permanently. For the first decade of his life, Arroyo didn't understand that he was passing from one country into another every few weeks. What he knew was that the streets on one side became wider, the buildings fancier, the bathrooms cleaner, the Doritos more expensive. "New Tijuana," was how he first referred to the United States.
None of his friends or teammates cared where he lived as much as whether he could play, and he always could: speed in center field, consistent contact at the plate, a strong arm and the competitive drive to keep pace with his older cousins. They stuck Arroyo in right field, and he refused to play; they threw him high-arcing pitches, and he started aiming line drives back at them. "Stop taking it easy on me!" he screamed, again and again.
If anything, life as a Little Leaguer on the border provided a competitive advantage because Arroyo and his friends could always play on at least two teams. He traveled across California to hone his mechanics in summer camps and travel leagues. He pitched on back-to-back days against 40-year-old men in the mixed-age beer leagues of Tijuana. He played on both sides for nearly a decade with the same group of seven friends, some of whom are U.S. citizens but all of whom either live or have family in Tijuana. When they decided to play high school baseball together at San Ysidro High School, just north of the border, they assumed Arroyo would come, too.
"We told him that it wasn't going to be the same without him, but he was definitely nervous," said one of those friends, Andres Alvarez, a shortstop. "He had doubts about whether or not it was the right thing to do."
Didn't it show a lack of character, Arroyo wondered, to enroll in a high school he had no right to attend, built by taxpayers in a different country, by using an address that belonged to his aunt? How could he muster the temerity to lie to a uniformed border officer about his reasons for entering the United States?
But wasn't it also a testament of character, he thought, to pursue a better education and more opportunity, no matter the risks? In Mexico, the secondary school cost about $200 a semester, and even if he somehow came up with the money and managed to graduate, what good would that do? His mother was a college-educated engineer in Tijuana at Nissan, one of the city's best companies, and her full-time salary was barely equal to what his cousins were making working part time tending baseball fields for California Parks and Recreation. If he went to San Ysidro High, his classes would be free, his lunch would be free, his medical care would come free at the on-site health clinic.
"It seemed like a big risk to go, but it seemed even worse to pass it up," Arroyo said.
And soon, with practice, the lies at the border became easier. He crossed into the United States each Sunday to stay with his aunt during the school week. Then he crossed back to Tijuana on the weekends, living with his mother and visiting his father and grandparents.
The port of entry at San Ysidro is the busiest in the world, more than 100,000 crossings each day by car and by foot, and, after a year of traveling back and forth, the main thing that troubled him were the two-hour lines. About 100 San Ysidro students crossed the border to attend school, some of them lying like Arroyo to get across. Even as America's border security increased during the height of Mexico's drug war -- even as President Barack Obama deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, including 30,000 some years through the port at San Ysidro -- Arroyo continued to show his tourist visa and sail through. He got advice from previous San Ysidro players about how to cross unnoticed: Wear nice clothes; look the officer in the eye; make your answers polite and specific. "Yes, sir," he told border patrol officers, again and again, "I am only visiting." He said he was going to buy groceries for his mom at Wal-Mart. He said he wanted jeans from the outlet mall, or to practice baseball with his cousins, or to watch a movie that hadn't yet been released in Mexico.
If Arroyo felt any guilt, any lingering doubt about whether he had made the right choice, he erased it this year, in his senior season. He had 25 strikeouts in 15 innings, with a 0.42 ERA. He was batting .542 through eight games. He stole 18 bases on 18 attempts. His grade point average was above 2.0, and he felt comfortable at San Ysidro, where 80 percent of students speak English as their second language and the baseball coach has a cellphone plan that allows him to make cheap international calls to players who travel regularly to the other side of the border. Best of all, Arroyo thought, the president had created a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which meant that, if Arroyo could just finish his last three credits of high school and enroll in college, he had a chance to become a permanent resident.
His first college scholarship offer came in March from New Mexico Junior College, and Arroyo returned to Tijuana for a weekend to celebrate. He went with high school teammates to a birthday party. He showed his mother a copy of the scholarship paperwork. "It's all coming together," she told him, and then, one Sunday, he got into a 2003 Ford Expedition with friends and began his usual trip back into the United States. They waited in the line at the border until they finally reached the front. The border patrol officer took Arroyo's Mexican passport and his tourist visa, then began with the customary first question:
"What brings you into the United States?"
HE LOOKED THE officer directly in the eye. He remembered to be polite and use specifics. "I'm going to watch my friends play a high school baseball game, sir," he remembers saying.
"So, you're not playing with them?" the border agent asked.
"No," Arroyo said, even though he was scheduled to start in center field.
The agent looked at his computer, where he could see that Arroyo had been crossing with his visitors visa nearly every week for three years, more than 100 crossings in total, usually on Fridays and Sundays. The agent asked whether Arroyo was going to school in the United States, and Arroyo said he wasn't. The agent asked to see his cellphone, and Arroyo handed it to him. There were photos of Arroyo wearing San Ysidro High sweatshirts, and the agent began typing a report into his computer. "Possibility of Arroyo Sanchez Octavio living in the United States illegally," he wrote, then he sent Arroyo to a nearby room for secondary screening.
Two border agents sat across a table from him, and now he felt intimidated. One agent asked, "Why are you entering into the United States?" This time Arroyo gave a dozen reasons, a story closer to the truth. He was going to see his family, he said. He was going because he had gone since he was a child, and because San Diego and Tijuana were in effect one city separated by a fence that so often defined the line between failure and success. People in San Diego earned four times more money and suffered one-tenth the violent crime. The baseball fields were flat, manicured and deep green, even during a drought. His cousins in the United States lived at the end of a cul-de-sac with an American flag. One of them played baseball for Texas A&M-Kingsville, and another had just come back from Disney World.
"It's nice over here," Arroyo said, simply.
"Are you going to school in the United States?" one of the border agents asked again. "Sometimes," Arroyo remembers saying, because it seemed clear to him that they already knew.
One of the agents left the room to call the San Ysidro School District, where an administrator confirmed that Arroyo was enrolled. The agents revoked Arroyo's visitor visa and barred him from entering the United States. They walked him out of the room, through a gate and across the border. He took a bus to his mother's office. "What happened?" she asked, and for a few moments he couldn't find the words to answer. At last, he told his mother, in a flat voice, "It's over."
She called Arroyo's teammates at San Ysidro, and those teammates called their coach, Ken Canche. He had lost players to Mexico before, including two from this year's team, but never had he lost a senior so close to graduation. He tried involving the principal. He tried calling the U.S. consulate and speaking to a lawyer.
"There's nothing anybody can do," Canche remembers telling Arroyo a few days later. "You're always going to be a part of this team, but you have your path and we have ours."
HIS TEAMMATES WENT on to win 21 consecutive games and cruise through the playoffs, earning a spot in the city championship game. Meanwhile, Arroyo quit baseball for those first few weeks, then resumed practicing alone in dirt stadiums where he was a trespasser.
He borrowed a weighted vest from another Mexican player, ran sprints and threw fastballs against a concrete wall when there was nobody to catch for him. He signed up for a few classes at a Mexican school because his mother wanted him to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma.
His mom suggested he reconfigure his goals and attend private college in Mexico, but his own aspirations revolved exclusively around the MLB draft, which seemed to him the only way forward. His college scholarship offers in the United States had become, at best, complicated and uncertain, since not even the most dogged college coaches seemed eager to argue over a recent deportee with an agency like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. He has the possibility of perhaps signing after the draft as an international free agent, but even if he does, scouts have told him that could mean a smaller signing bonus. "Am I still eligible to get drafted?" he wrote in a text message to Dan Cox, a well-respected scout for the Atlanta Braves who had been watching Arroyo play at San Ysidro. Cox wasn't sure, so he checked with Major League Baseball. The rules expert said Arroyo could be drafted -- assuming any team still wanted to select him.
So, Arroyo and his cousins scheduled a game for the same Saturday morning when his teammates were playing for a high school championship. His cousin Sanchez arranged to pick up Cox and drive with him to Tijuana. They scraped together a team, with two cousins in the outfield and another at shortstop. Everyone dressed in whatever they had -- some with belts and others without, some in cleats and others in sneakers, some wearing American high school uniforms and others in MLB replicas.
"What about decent baseballs?" Arroyo asked his cousins the night before the game when they realized the only ones they had were old and fraying. They called the scout, and he agreed to bring a box of balls across the border.
Arroyo arrived at the field first, in his old high school uniform. Next came a cousin who was still drunk from the night before. "Bat me last," he said. Then an opposing team appeared, made up of former Mexican pros, some of them in their early 40s. Twelve people came to watch, but one was the scout with a radar gun, who sat directly behind home plate.
"This is the day you can get it all back," Sanchez told his cousin a few minutes before Arroyo took the mound.
"I feel good," Arroyo said.
"Hit 90 and your future is bright," Sanchez said.
Arroyo hit 90 on his fourth pitch of the day, then 91 on his next fastball, and soon Cox put down his radar gun. Arroyo had a good fastball, a great changeup, an effective curveball -- but his overall performance was hard to evaluate. Baseball offers a thousand paths to the majors, but none looks quite like this. The pitching mound was low, with loose dirt that caused Arroyo to slip. His catcher gave up a dozen passed balls. The scoreboard stopped working, and nobody seemed to be keeping track of exactly what inning it was or who was up to bat next.
By the fifth inning, Arroyo's arm was starting to tire, and it was time for Cox to head back to the United States. He told Arroyo that he liked what he had seen but that he had another game to scout that started in a few hours. He wanted to watch San Ysidro play for the championship because Gilbert Suarez, the pitcher who was starting in Arroyo's place, the one who texted Arroyo on graduation day, had emerged as a top prospect valued above Arroyo. Suarez spent two seasons pitching in Arroyo's shadow, but in the past two months he's gotten more exposure and added another 3 mph on his fastball. He was expected to go in the top 20 rounds, where Arroyo had once been.
"Maybe I'll hear from you?" Arroyo said hopefully as Cox prepared to leave.
"Hope so. We'll see," Cox said. He shook Arroyo's hand. He got into a car. He wondered about the line waiting for him at the border. "How hard do you think it will be to get over there?" he asked.
"It's fast. Real simple," Arroyo said, because it was a trip he had made dozens of times before, and maybe one day would make again. It is a five-minute drive through Tijuana and over cracked desert to the border, just a mile away.