Thursday, August 11, 2022

Ave Maria pelencho, que bien me siento!

Editor's note: This post is strictly for my own memory. If no one outside my family looks at this, I don't care. This is for me and a chance to jot down what I remember from one of the best interactions I've ever had with a public figure/baseball hero. If you click off here, absolutely no hard feelings.

There's something about Latino moms, no matter the region of origin. No matter how hard you work, no matter the heights you reach in your professional life, they can be hard to impress sometimes. 

To be fair, some of this is point of reference. You're sometimes the first in your family to earn a degree, advanced or otherwise. Or you're the first in your family to work in certain sectors. So certain accomplishments just aren't going to resonate.

I still remember a former colleague at The New York Times who's Puerto Rican tell me about the time his mom was finally proud of him: it was when he had lined up an interview with... former Sabado Gigante host Don Francisco. Even got him to sign a copy of his memoir for her.

Keep in mind, my former colleague had served as a foreign correspondent in Panama when Manuel Noriega was ousted, had served with distinction as a Metro columnist, and had been at the Times for a great many years. But it was meeting Don Francisco that did it for his mom.

I got a version of this moment last week during the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in Las Vegas.

As I've managed to work my way back into journalism after four years away, currently serving as the sports editor at Andscape, I've happily involved myself in volunteer work with organizations like NAHJ. One of the things we've been trying to get off the ground this year was a sports task force. We are nascent at the moment, but we still wanted to launch on some things at this year's convention, including a lifetime achievement award named for Pedro Gomez, the former ESPN baseball reporter who died suddenly at age 58 in early 2021.

With that award established, we wanted to find a first recipient worthy of the spirit and grace that Gomez embodied during his career.

Enter Jaime Jarrin, the Spanish-language play-by-play announcer for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He's been at the mic for the team since 1959 and has called countless World Series and All-Star Games and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. Fans of a certain age also remember him as being in the eye of the hurricane during Fernandomania in 1981, serving as Valenzuela's interpreter during postgame interviews.

For my family, and countless other Latino households across Southern California, Jaime Jarrin was almost like another family member. That tends to happen with baseball announcers, since the season is 162 games long, and when you include spring training and the playoffs, the season can go from March through the end of October. The team, and by extension the announcer, are a constant presence.

But Jaime also means something to us because he spoke our language. And considering he will have ended up doing the job for 64 seasons after he retires at the end of this year, it's hard not to leave an indelible impression on us all. In short, I cannot recall a single Dodger-related memory that didn't involve him in some way as I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household of crazed Dodger fans.

So needless to say, I was good with us awarding Jaime the Pedro Gomez Lifetime Achievement Award.

As we made arrangements for Jaime to receive the award at a designated luncheon, my fellow task force members let me know that I would be the one who would greet Jaime (and his personal assistant, Jesse Nuñez) when he arrived at the hotel and would then escort him to the luncheon. Once we wrapped up the event, I would escort him and his assistant out to the valet area, where a car would take him back to the airport.

In nearly 20 years of working in journalism, I've been fortunate enough to meet some prominent figures in and out of sports. They're all human like the rest of us, though certainly they've achieved their status in life by being more gifted/charismatic/driven than most. 

All that said, the idea that I was going to meet one of my baseball heroes was blowing my mind in the days leading up to it. In lighter moments, I would joke with my family that I would probably be like Chris Farley talking to Paul McCartney in that old "SNL" sketch ("Do you remember when Kirk Gibson hit that home run in the World Series? That was awesome."). 

The day of the luncheon, I made sure to text Jaime's assistant before they took off for their flight to let Jesse know that I would be greeting them and escorting them to the event. And I made sure to be extra early. I also made sure to pack a few things that I wanted to share with Jaime when it was appropriate. (More on that later.)

This interaction actually got off to a stressful start. Caesar's Palace, where we had our convention, is so vast and sprawling that there are many points that a town car could drop off a VIP. So imagine my surprise when I get a call from Jaime's assistant wondering where I was -- as I stood in an area labeled "town car drop-off area."

The mad scramble began, as did my endless apologies. 

After running around, and a few phone calls and text messages to get coordinated, I finally spot Jaime and Jesse at the bottom of some escalators that led to the convention space. 

I made eye contact with Jaime, and he nodded and motioned at Jesse. He looked regal in his blue suit, gray hair and dark rimmed glasses. It was a breathtaking moment, but I needed to pull it together -- and besides, I could probably chalk up the loss of breath to my running around trying to locate them.

I shook hands with Jesse, since we'd been in contact this entire time, and then I turned to Jaime and introduced myself in Spanish, and shook his hand with both of my hands. And after some small talk, Jesse pointed out to Jaime that I was from East L.A. and have been a long-time fan of his. Jesse then offered to take a picture of us together. As I joked later with many friends and family: other than my tie looking disheveled (I blame the running around), I could've died in peace after this picture was taken.

And with that, we were off to the event. As we rode the escalator up, I made sure to offer my condolences over the loss of Vin Scully, who had died only three days before at age 94. He was very gracious and mentioned how much Vin meant to him as a friend and mentor over the years. It's a theme I touched on in my own tribute to the man, such was the profound impact the Dodgers' English-language announcer had on us all.

Once we were at the luncheon space, we received the run of show so that Jaime and others knew where to go when it was time for him to receive his award. We then stood out in the hallway as former colleagues and other interested parties came up to him to wish him well, catch up, and take photos. Again, Jaime was just an extraordinarily gracious man throughout.

I was mostly off to the side, getting well-acquainted with Jesse, a gracious man in his own right. I talked to him about how much this meant to me, getting to spend time around someone like Jaime. I explained how this spans generations in my family, how my parents and my aunts became Dodger fans in the 1970s, and his voice was the soundtrack for a significant portion of that fandom. I told him that I'm sure I wasn't unique in telling him this, but all the same, perhaps it reinforced how much Jaime matters.

He told me that Jaime obviously is a unifying figure among the fan base, that he brought people together regardless of class, race or ethnicity. But what amazed Jesse was how much he resonated with older Latinas, particularly working-class Latinas. To which I immediately confirmed that as I thought about my mom and my two aunts with outsized personalities. They truly adored Jaime, unquestionably.

The event went off with nary a hitch, though I was stressed over the fact that if it took too long, would Jaime and Jesse miss their flight back to L.A.? There was a Dodger game that night, after all, the first game at Dodger Stadium since Vin died, so you knew it was going to be an event.

But we made it, and we spilled back out to the hallway for more pictures and well-wishes. At a certain point, we began to make our way down the escalator so we could begin to walk to where the town car would pick them up for the ride back to the airport.

It was a long escalator, and about a third of the way down, Jesse looks at Jaime and says, "Hey, Ed told me that his parents have been long-time listeners of your broadcasts!" Jaime turned to me and said in Spanish, "Oh, well, tell them thank you so much and please give them my best and a hug from me."

At this point, this incredible day went to the next level.

Jesse looks at me with a smile and says, "You think your mom's home right now?"

I said she probably was. And he says, "Why don't you put her on the phone, and Jaime can thank her personally?"

Jaime asked what my mom's name was (Aurora Guzman), and I began to dial.

If ever there was one solitary phone call in my life that I wanted her to pick up, it was this one.

It rang for what felt like 20 minutes (it was probably five rings), but she picked up. As calmly as I could, I said in Spanish, "Hi, mom. Hold on, because I want you to talk to a friend of mine."

Jaime took the phone, and in a sing-song voice said, "Aurorita, Aurorita, que gusto me de en saludarle, Aurorita!"

I heard later from my tia Teresa that my mother was on the other end in complete shock and crying.

As the phone call continued, we were standing back at the bottom of the escalator where we had met and taken a picture earlier in the day as Jaime effortlessly and graciously thanked my mother for the long-time support, and he mentioned that she has "an extraordinary son who had been a big help to me here in Las Vegas" and that it was such a pleasure to speak with her. He calmly handed the phone back to me, I told her I'd call her later and we continued to walk toward the exit.

As we made our way through the casino area to get back to where his town car was, Jaime and I ended up walking together and we made small talk. He asked where I lived, and he proceeded to tell me how much he loved Oregon and Portland, the rain and the green scenery in this state. I'm sure he says nice things like this to everyone regardless of where they're from, but again, because he's such a gracious gentleman, you really believed it in that moment.

We also talked baseball. He was talking about what a big series the Dodgers had that weekend against the Padres and how they likely won't catch them in the division, but they'll be a tough out in the playoffs. I agreed, and told him I often thought that the Padres were the future. He also told me about how he's called so many World Series in his career, both for the Dodgers and for national media outlets like ESPN. I told him how growing up, whenever he was on the World Series for a national station, it warmed my heart because if the Dodgers couldn't be in the World Series, at least Jaime Jarrin was in the World Series.

He chuckled at that, and said, "Well, the Dodgers won a World Series the very first year I was on the job (1959). Perhaps they'll bless me with another one in my last year here."

Your lips to God's ears, Jaime.

Somewhere during this conversation, I had him sign a couple of things, including this cap I bought in 1990 during what was the Dodgers' 100th anniversary season. My parents had saved it all these years before having me take it last year. I could think of no better personal memento for him to sign.

As we neared the exit, Jaime asked me about what I did at ESPN and the nature of the work that I edit. He patiently listened as I explained it in Spanish, and told me how he knew some of my colleagues and was proud of the progress they'd made in their careers. That was roughly where the picture at the top of this post was taken. You could see the genuine warmth and care he was taking in our conversation. And I am only the fortunate other player in this moment.

We got to the car, and said our goodbyes and thank-yous, with Jaime telling me to keep in touch. They got in the car and off they went to the airport.

I turned around to go back inside, and before I even got to the doors, I doubled over and started crying. It was tears of joy, to be sure, but the overwhelming nature of what had just happened finally got to me. I eventually got inside and called my mother back, and she was just over the moon. That will be a phone call she'll be talking about for, well, forever.

I have often said that my career in sports journalism has afforded me opportunities to do things and have experiences that are beyond this barrio kid's wildest dreams. It's been a good life with regards to work, even with the inevitable disappointments that have happened along the way. And it's moments like the one I had with Jaime Jarrin, the great broadcasting hero to my family and so many others, that really make it all seem worth it.

The next day, as I was going through the last full day at the convention, I got a text message from Jesse. It was him following up to thank me for all my help, and he added knowingly as a fellow Latino: "I hope your mom is proud of you now LOL."

I think it's safe to say that, yes. In the words of Jaime himself: Ave Maria pelencho, que bien me siento!