What connects a legendary Mexican baseball team to the Orioles? Love, loyalty and family

Señor Salme

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 18 World Football issue. Subscribe today!

We were as far from the Mexico City cultural elites as we were from Saturn. We were a provincial family with weird accents. We attended clandestine Catholic schools in a time when education, including a private one, was secular by law. We passed for learned thanks to a familial love for books and classical music. We were, for sure, the less trendy kids wherever we went, and we paid our quota of bullying because of that. We wore supermarket clothes. My dad's car was a disgrace, and the other children were dancing to Gloria Gaynor and Rigo Tovar while we were discovering the Beatles in a set of records that came for free with our yearly subscription to Selecciones del Reader's Digest. Most of all, we belonged to the peculiar tribe of the Cafeteros de Córdoba hard-core baseball fans.

The quiet but resilient will with which my siblings and I have lived our lives as we want them, our modest eccentricity, may come from our love affair with that team. For us, growing up in the 1970s in Mexico City, baseball was a sign of identity. We learned from the loyalty of our parents to the Córdoba Coffee Drinkers that peculiarity and lack of cool don't hurt, and that the price of the freedom to be whatever you are is endurance. This may have been the essential, involuntary gift they gave us for survival in a world that always felt, and still feels, designed for people more beautiful or solvent than we are.

The Cafeteros de Córdoba were a fearsome and lyrical mainly black team whose emblem was a letter C with a coffee cup in the center. In the top part of the letter, there was a little hole from which coffee flowed to the cup. Córdoba, a small, remote city in the state of Veracruz near the Afro-Mexican Gulf Coast, was, in the 1970s, as it is now, an abundant commercial hub in which the gap between rich and poor is one of the biggest in a country whose main problem is, precisely, inequality. Córdoba's numbers always come brutally high when speaking about illiteracy, government corruption, domestic violence or lack of access to public health. The fact that most of the rum and other sugarcane firewater produced in Mexico come from the region doesn't help.

The Coffee Drinkers' following had such a notorious reputation that the Mexico City radio announcers called Córdoba's Beisborama Park something else: Cannibal Park. Now I understand that was essentially a racist slur, but we were innocent then. We thought, against all evidence, that the Mexican Revolution had really made us all equal, and we took it as a badge of honor. The Coffee Drinkers' fans seemed proud and frightening to us from our distance: If you messed with them, they would eat you, on the field or outside. And the team was good. Between 1972, when the Coffee Drinkers finished as champions of the Mexican League, and 1979, when the franchise was moved to the border city of Reynosa, they made it to the playoffs seven times.

It was true that when the home team was losing, games often had to be suspended in Córdoba because the fans would try to hurt the opposing team by throwing debris onto the field -- famously, a urinal once fell onto the roof of the visitors dugout, occupied that day by the Mexico City Red Devils. But my parents loved the Coffee Drinkers madly, so we kept our faith in them even if they were suspended maybe too many times from their home stadium and had to play in the neighboring city of Veracruz.

Both of my parents went to high school in Córdoba, where, until recently, baseball and not soccer was the most popular sport. Neither one of them was born there, nor was meant, by birth, to be a baseball fan.

Jorge, my father, was born in a very small, white and conservative town in Jalisco -- a state on the Pacific coast of the country that has always seen the rest of Mexico as a mysterious mix of not really Catholic brown people. The professional and upper classes of Jalisco tend to think of themselves as some sort of European colony caught in a wild, wrong nation, so all they care about is soccer. My father's father was a doctor with too many children to sustain, so he left Jalisco with Jorge and the rest of the family and found a job directing the workers clinic of an American-owned sugar mill on the much cheaper Gulf Coast.

Maisa, my mother, is a Spanish Civil War refugee from Barcelona. The first time her parents saw a baseball glove they were already married, had children, had lost a war and had relocated to a different continent. My mother's father belonged to that generation of Europeans who didn't finish college because they enlisted and fought the fascists. When he was able to escape from the concentration camp in southern France in which he was a prisoner, Mexico was sending boats for all the Spanish refugees who could make it to the port of Le Havre, and he knew that the cousin of a cousin had a business in Córdoba. He didn't like baseball -- he was a very European, very dry hard-core communist who didn't lose time in frivolous things -- but my grandmother, a beautiful 22-year-old woman from Murcia, fell in love instantly with the game.

So my parents both grew up in an unexpected, Caribbean-flavored way: dancing rumba, eating fried corn cakes, drinking sugarcane juice and loving baseball.

After meeting in high school, they went to college, got married and moved for some years from city to city chasing jobs until they found stable ones in Mexico City. They arrived in the capital with four kids -- myself the youngest -- and there raised a family with a taste for baseball, which by the 1970s was already being pushed out of the national culture. It was a mantra for Televisa -- the only private TV network of those years-that soccer, ballads and soap operas were all that was needed to make Mexicans happy. If you liked baseball, or basketball or any other sport, you had to resign yourself to following your team through the radio.

Luckily for us, we were able to attend the Coffee Drinkers' games when they visited the capital to play the Mexico City Red Devils in (another weird name) Parque Deportivo Seguro Social, or Social Security Park. The family ritual was always the same: Once we had the tickets, we would wait for the game by studying the numbers and possible lineups of the Cafeteros and the hated Diablos Rojos with the focus of a group of ER doctors in the operating room. Baseball was for us a serious thing: We had learned from our Spanish grandmother that true fans had a notebook to write down each pitch and at-bat of the season, and we had one, of which the custodians were, of course, my older brothers. I could consult it but never inscribe a single K on it.

When game night came, we would be dressed as if we were about to conquer the North Pole. Mexico City is always a bit cold by night, and we were recent arrivals from warmer parts of the country. We would go to the stadium with our heads covered by the brown and yellow cap of our team. My father, who still has a childish side that makes him impossibly popular with his young grandchildren, would take out his public servant blazer and tie and put on a shiny Cafeteros jacket that would mark him as the unquestionable leader of the expedition. My mother would bring a big handbag stuffed with sandwiches and sodas that she sneaked into the stadium because there was never enough money to get the legendary tacos de cochinita of Social Security Park.

"If I had stayed in Mexico, I probably would have drowned in journalism, bureaucracy or alcohol." Octavio Paz, Mexican poet and Nobel laureate

I suppose we were never so provincial, weird and out of sync as on those nights, moving through Mexico City disguised as a baseball team of dwarf polar bears, but I can state, with my fist on my heart, that we were never as happy. I never again saw a grass so green as the one of Social Security Park -- so green that it was almost blue when the ballpark lights reached their maximum power and the players jumped onto a field still wet from the metronomic afternoon rains of Mexico City.

When we visited our grandparents in Córdoba, Jorge, Maisa and my two older brothers would attend the games at Beisborama Park. My sister and I, the young ones, had to stay and listen to the game on the radio with our grandma, because going to Cannibal Park was simply dangerous for small children. When we demanded an explanation as to why we had to stay behind, my father would answer, suddenly self-conscious about his shiny Cafeteros jacket and cap: "Because they shout bad words."

Then, in 1979, after seven trips to the playoffs in eight years and an annual audience of 600,000 strong -- enormous for a small city like Córdoba -- the Modelo brewing company bought the franchise and took the team way up north, to Reynosa, where baseball was still not menaced by the growing business of soccer. I was 10 by then, and I never had the chance to see the Coffee Drinkers play live in Córdoba.

IN 1983, THERE was a revolution in our lives: After 14 years in Mexico City renting our apartment in the Colonia Nápoles, my parents were able to buy a house in the neighborhood of El Carmen, which was considered upper-middle class. In the Barrio del Carmen there were bookstores, coffee shops and movie theaters within walking distance. The trees were ancient, and there were parks where you could play catch on a grass field and not on the concrete patios where we had played until then. Everything was better in that neighborhood, but the amenity that really changed our way of perceiving the world was inside the house: In El Carmen, there was access to cable TV. That enormous, by turns seductive and menacing country up north named the United States came stumbling down into our dining room through the window of the screen.

That year the Baltimore Orioles were by far the most exciting team in major league baseball, with a young Cal Ripken beating all the odds and a more seasoned, wiser Eddie Murray producing runs as if they were for free. After a life watching the Cafeteros play in an improvisational and almost too imaginative way, I was deeply impressed with what by then was called the Oriole Way -- more dependent on method than inspiration -- which is now the way baseball is regularly played in the big leagues.

I did not love the Orioles at first sight. After the fateful year of 1979, I sincerely tried, for a season, to get engaged with the Veracruz Eagle -- the nearest franchise to the Coffee Drinkers and their local rivals. There was no way I could root for those clowns, so I tried to like the Aguascalientes Railroad Workers -- a team with the charm of true working-class origins. Finally, I did what a whole generation did in those years: I quit the peculiar sport I liked and began to watch soccer games instead. But I had never seen any of the American baseball teams, so I could watch them play and enjoy the games without feeling like I was betraying the core of my familial world.

I think it's impossible to change teams once one has made a decision: You can admire some generation of players or develop a deep respect or even some care for a franchise, but your team is your team because it becomes fixed in your brain at an age when small things are huge. Once, talking about soccer, the late Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia -- an unbiased, philosophical and quiet man -- told me in an unexpected rapture of passion: "Only perverts change teams."

That's why it took a long time for me to fully adopt the Orioles. It was only after they won the World Series in 1983, as the slow but steady decadence of a brilliant team began, that I found the Birds as charismatic and appealing as I found the Coffee Drinkers of my childhood. From 1984 on, they were -- and still are, like their extinct fellows from Córdoba -- the natural winners who could not achieve.

There is some sort of malediction in the Orioles' relationship with glory: They tend to come out unexpectedly strong from spring training, have a fantastic early season and then, as if they cannot tolerate the pressure of their good numbers, go deep into the division standings after the All-Star Game. It's in that part of summer, when the humidity is so high in Baltimore that the air is as dense as feta cheese, that true loyalty to the team has to be shown. Their desperate and almost always failed effort to reach the postseason is a school of pain, but what a teenager has to learn from sports, even unknowingly, is not the sweet taste of glory but the slow, hard-earned beauty of endurance.

AFTER DECADES OF almost perfect stability and slow but steady economic growth, the Institutional Revolutionary Party that governed Mexico for more than 70 years -- a very particular kind of socialist party regime, not democratic but neither particularly intolerant or cruel -- began falling apart due to a brutal economic crisis and the pressure of a better-educated and better-organized middle class that demanded true respect for voting and minority rights. As the crisis deepened, you could almost hear the businesses closing, including my frustrating job as a radio journalist. I finally dared (and had the time) to write my first novel.

Those were also the later years of Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and public intellectual. He said in a long interview during those days that the key point in his career was his decision to leave Mexico as a young poet. "If I had stayed in Mexico," he said, "I probably would have drowned in journalism, bureaucracy or alcohol." The sentence resonated in me like an admonition. I decided to leave for the United States.

I moved to College Park, Maryland, in May 1998. The Latin American literature program at the University of Maryland was among the best in the U.S. and had offered me a good fellowship, but secretly I was also thinking that it was the top-ranked program closest to Camden Yards: The Orioles of Surhoff, Mussina and Palmeiro were true contenders then.

"Only perverts change teams." Argentine author Ricardo Piglia on loyalty

The first thing I did when I arrived in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., was not to visit the campus and faculty at the university but to get tickets for the next Orioles game and buy a 1980 Honda Accord that, more than a car, was a calamity. My first weekend in the U.S., I took my son Miquel, a very serious and beautiful redheaded boy with a propensity for sleep-talking, to Baltimore to watch the Birds play. He was 2, I was 29, and we were able to watch together, for the first time in our lives, our team playing a local game.

The simple elegance of the park and the size of the field -- I had never before been in an American baseball stadium -- were very impressive for me, as was the speed of the pitches. Until then, I had just seen major league players throwing the ball on the TV screen, so I didn't know that, in the park, all the information you get about the trajectory of the pitch is the sound it makes when it nests in the catcher's glove. I remembered baseball in a stadium as a fun, almost clumsy game to watch: It was not as fast as soccer or basketball. That day the Birds made a spectacle of precision and agility. The punctuality of the audience was amazing for me too: They all knew when to shout, when to sing, when to make a tremendous amount of noise. I have always had a mistrust of all nationalisms -- Mexican nationalism first and foremost -- so I found it simply adorable that the only part of the national anthem that the crowd sang was the "O" of "O say can you see."

That first game in Camden Yards was a good defensive one. Mike Mussina -- as precise as a clock -- gave a master class on pitching to the visiting Twins, who nevertheless did a good job resisting the very aggressive batting lineup of the Orioles. By the time the game finished, with the Birds winning 2-0, most of the kids in the park had lost their patience and had left, their parents surely frustrated about getting the final result in The Baltimore Sun the next day. Miquel stayed up, staring at the field as if he understood what was going on there. When the final play came, he cried because we had to leave. He did it so many times during that season and the next one that when we left Maryland seven years later, the old ushers of the section of super-cheap tickets where we always sat still recognized him as the redheaded boy who cried at the end of games.

TWO SUMMERS AGO, Miquel, then 19 and about to leave home for college, gave me a birthday present: tickets for a Red Sox-Orioles game, so he and I could go back to Camden Yards -- something we had not done since he was 9 and we moved out of Maryland.

It was August and warm as hell when we arrived at Camden Yards. We were entering the grounds of the stadium after giving our tickets to the ushers when Miquel grabbed my hand -- just like when he was a little boy in a No. 8 Ripken jersey. It made me a bit self-conscious: I still miss grabbing hands with him every time we cross a street together, of course, but we surely looked odd -- two obviously blood-related, hairy grown-ups holding hands. And we are both Mexico City people, which means we persist, we work hard; we don't show feelings or talk about them. I hung in there, though, even when I did not understand what was going on in his teenage brain. He may have felt my discomfort, because soon he dropped my hand to take the escalators of the stadium.

It was not until we began to go upward that a wave of memories hit me as they must have hit him when we entered the park. Walking to the high but good seats he had bought with the little money he had earned through his summer jobs, I put a hand on his back. He knew what was going on with me, because he slowed his pace so we could walk together, arms linked at the elbows, like two war veterans who had just found each other.

I understood that the present he was giving me was not tickets for some great Birds game but the chance to say goodbye to a whole, beautiful shared world: of his childhood in Maryland; of our long waits for an AAA tow truck while standing next to our always-breaking-down Honda Accord on the way to Baltimore; of our counting dimes and quarters to add french fries to our hot dogs. The years spent together with his mother when we were still a young unit, times that I remember as challenging but for him were perfect and round. A world that was familiar and full and that no one else knew about. A world at the same time enormous and tiny that would disappear after we drove from Baltimore to New York City to pick up boxes and go upstate to get his dorm-room key and let go of a whole way of being together that had always felt eternal.

That night, back in our hotel room, I cried as I listened to him speaking in his dreams the exact same way he had as a little boy.

Childhood is a planet with a population of one person, but on a very few lucky days, our memories and those of our children cross paths, like in an eclipse. That day I came out of Camden Yards understanding something that took me years to grasp: that loyalty to a team can be a two-direction road. We inherit objects of devotion from our parents, but sons and daughters leave a legacy for us too. The Coffee Drinkers stand untouched in the crystal box of my memory, but the Baltimore Orioles are my team. They are the unexpected bequest of my son.

Álvaro Enrigue has written five novels and two short story collections, including his latest book, "Sudden Death" (Riverhead), which imagines a tennis match between Italian painter Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo.