THE VIDEO OF HIS BATTING-CAGE EXPLOITS HAS TURNED HIM INTO AN INTERNET CURIOSITY AND A MEDIA STAR. HOW CAN A KID SO SMALL AND SO YOUNG HANDLE 85-MPH HEAT? ARE HIS PARENTS UP TO SOMETHING? IS ARIEL ANTIGUA FOR REAL?
THE NEW YORK YANKEES' top prekindergarten prospect lives in Jersey City and plays baseball with his three brothers in the dusty courtyard behind their apartment. They made me umpire. You're the empire, they said. I was a bad empire, studying my notebook as plays unfolded, but I was watching when Ariel Antigua lined a home run onto the roof and stumbled on his way to third and lay in the dirt, crying, while his brothers retrieved the Wiffle ball by using a shovel to pull down the ladder of the fire escape. After the game, when Ariel had cheered up, he cracked open a can of Coors Light.
"Want some?" he asked me, smiling wide enough to reveal his sharp white baby teeth.
"Ariel!" his mother, Jessica, said, mortified to see her five-year-old son dispensing alcohol. That night she showed me his birth certificate, unsolicited, which saved me from having to ask. Yes, Ariel was five. He would not turn six until Oct. 25. On this point his father was telling the truth. Luis Antigua's other claim would be proved or disproved in 48 hours, with a measuring tape and a radar gun, in the same batting cage where Ariel became an Internet celebrity at some cost to his family's reputation.
This all started last October, when Ariel's father set out to show his friends he was not a liar. The evidence cost him $150, most of a day's wages from his job with the sheet-metal union, payable to a videographer. The videographer made a highlight reel that ran two minutes and 39 seconds over a sound track of heavy drums and rising strings that brought to mind an action-adventure film. It began with a name in white capital letters. ARIEL ANTIGUA, it said. THE ONLY FIVE YEARS [sic] OLD BOY TO HIT A BASEBALL AT 85 MPH. "How you doin', everybody," said a jolly man in a baseball cap. "My name's Edwin Ortiz, owner of The Hot Corner, batting cage and training facility for baseball and softball. Have my little man Ariel, he's about five years old, one of the most incredible sights you'll ever see. Sits on my top pitching machine, it's about 86 to 88 miles an hour, and the kid consistently hits it lefty and righty."
The kid stood before the machine and swung righthanded with such force that some of his follow-throughs twisted him slightly away from the plate, as if the adult-sized bat were swinging him. Nevertheless he made solid contact nine times with pitches that screamed in like tracer bullets. "It's gonna be a pleasure to have him in our facility for the next 14 to 20 years," Ortiz said, with plain sincerity.
On Nov. 2, 2009, the videographer uploaded the clip to YouTube. He wanted to promote his work, and Luis wanted to show his skeptical friends he was not overstating his son's talents. Only a few hundred people watched the clip in its first five months on YouTube. Then, in April, someone sent the link to Barstool Sports New York, a blog that amuses its readers with semiliterate vitriol and shortcuts to pornography. The editor, known only as kmarko, posted the video with 213 words of commentary, many of them obscenities. Oh look, kmarko wrote, he hit a meatball crossing the plate straight as an arrow. Sweet. Throw this idiot a curveball and watch his knees buckle. ... Yawn. Another day another child prodigy destroyed by the cold hard facts.
The Internet has a way of sharpening tongues. Cloaked in anonymity, people say things they would never say in person. yeah, said a commenter on Barstool Sports, but why is he so UGLY??
The video was viewed more than 16,000 times through the link on Barstool Sports, and it spread quickly from there. Much of the coverage had a wild and speculative tone: The Mets should sign him. The Yankees should sign him. By age 15 he'll be hitting 246-mph fastballs. A Dugout Doctors poll compared Ariel's imagined future career with that of Bryce Harper, the first pick in this year's major league draft, and 61% of respondents said Ariel would be better. It was not clear how many of those votes were ironic. Pat Tomasulo, a sports news anchor in Chicago, crafted an online video in response that was longer than the original. "Yeah, he's making contact," Tomasulo said over footage of Ariel in the batting cage, "but he wouldn't have reached first base on any of those. We've got a groundout, foul ball, fly-out, groundout, foul ball, groundout, pop fly. No base hits." If Tomasulo was scoffing, which he obviously was, but also kidding, as he later claimed, what was the net rhetorical effect? Praise? These things get harder and harder to tell.
TOMASULO: Those are some pretty special talents for a kid his age, which was, uh, what again?
CLIP OF ORTIZ: Have my little man Ariel, he's about five years old.
TOMASULO: Could you repeat that again?
CLIP OF ORTIZ: He's about five years old.
TOMASULO: Ohhhh. Now he's about five years old. [Makes air quotes with fingers.] O.K., I've seen this movie before. Young Latin baseball player gets the scouts salivating, they come by, all of sudden no one has a birth certificate. One team still can't resist, gives him millions anyway, and then his real age comes out. It's the ollllld Otis Nixon trick. We think he's five, when in reality he's just a really short 32-year-old.
Luis's video did not serve its intended purpose. Even after watching it, Luis's skeptical friends were not persuaded that his son could hit an 85-mph pitch. They would not stop calling him a liar.
On the Internet the comments were worse. Several people noticed a sign in the batting cage that said ALL PATRONS MUST WEAR A HELMET. Ariel wore no helmet. His father would later go on the websites to apologize and to explain that Ariel usually wears one but had taken off the one he was given that day because it was too big. No matter. In composite, according to the commenters who swept in like a shiver of tiger sharks, Luis was stupid, pathetic, greedy, an ogre who had stolen his son's childhood, the male equivalent of a pageant mom, a loser living his failed dreams through his children. Many of these epithets were also directed at Jessica. The anonymous watchdogs presumed Ariel to be "another kid who can't just be a kid" who will "grow up hating his father." One poster wondered "if the kid even knows his alphabet."
I watched the video and did some wondering of my own. Who was Ariel Antigua? Was he a real boy? Was anyone watching over him? I called Luis to ask if I could spend several days with his family for a magazine article.
No one would have blamed them for shutting me out.
They let me in.
IN JERSEY CITY rust bloomed on the railroad bridges, a car wash promised to wash away acid rain, and street signs threatened prison for anyone seen playing a boom box. Near the center of town, by a closed corner grocery whose windows hid behind rolling sheets of metal, I came to a first-floor apartment with a sticker on the front door that said PROUD TO BE A UNION SHEET METAL WORKER. All six members of the family lived there, in two bedrooms: Luis, 29, Jessica, 29, and their four sons, Luis Jr., 11, Yamil, 10; Ariel, 5, and Yariel, 3, whose nickname is Gordo because he used to be fat. Jessica is expecting a baby boy in November.
"Ariel, you're gonna break a window," his father said a few minutes after I arrived, on a hot Friday night in April, as we chatted by my car. Ariel paid me no mind. He and a friend were hurling a ball against the armored windows of the grocery store and catching it with their gloves. To get any distance on their throws they had to stand in the street, which in this neighborhood seemed to pass for a front yard. There was very little traffic.
"Ariel, if you break a window, I'm gonna break your head," the father said, sounding neither stern nor threatening.
"It's a rubber ball," Ariel said without stopping. The ball met the wall with a hollow thud.
His friend chimed in, "Then you'll have to get him a new head and buy a new window."
Luis ignored this comment as he shared the latest details of Ariel's media adventure. Television stations 7, 9 and 47 had all come for interviews, in which he was painfully shy, and someone from TBS called this morning. Luis was in serious talks with producers from Jimmy Kimmel Live! (He would appear on the show on July 21.) Tomorrow night Ariel would throw out the first pitch for the Somerset (N.J.) Patriots of the independent Atlantic League. Clearly some people believed the video, while others wanted more evidence. On Monday we would meet a TV crew from Univision at The Hot Corner in Lyndhurst, N.J., where Ariel would return to the cage for a live demonstration.
"Dad," Ariel said, "can we go to the basketball court?" It was almost 10 p.m.
"I love to kiss this one," Luis said, scooping up Gordo. "You love your daddy? You love your daddy?" A siren howled.
"To survive around here, you gotta kinda blend in," Luis said. "I gotta be cool with the drug dealers and the guys doing robberies." But one time a dealer put heroin in the Antiguas' mailbox, he said, and that was too much. "I kinda told him, 'Listen, I will f---ing kill you if you sell drugs around my kids. ... I was gonna hit him with the bat."
Ariel ran to Jessica. She picked him up, and he wrapped his arms and legs around her. We went inside, through an apartment whose mustard-colored walls bore the scars of innumerable ball games and wrestle-fights, and out the back door to a rectangular patch of brown earth about the size of a racquetball court, surrounded by high walls and chain-link fences.
"This is a real big backyard for Jersey City," Luis said. They used to have a much larger apartment, with four bedrooms, for $100 less per month, but they moved so the boys could have their own place to play outside.
"Daddyyyyyyyyy!" Ariel said. "Pitch!"
"We gotta field first," Luis said.
"No," Ariel said, "we gotta hit first."
A thick hardwood tree stood in a corner of the yard. Using a fender washer and a four-inch screw, Luis had attached a tire to the tree to make a tool for hitting practice like the ones he used growing up in the Dominican Republic. The tire had a way of separating good swings from bad ones. Luis showed me a good one, striking the tread hard and straight on with an aluminum bat, and the tire recoiled with a loud pop.
Ariel disappeared inside for a bowl of Cheerios and then came out for some hitting. Luis picked up a bucket of 80 balls and began throwing them toward Ariel, who was thicker than his brothers in the arms and torso but was otherwise average for his age. He swung very hard, and the bat made a violent metallic sound as it sprayed baseballs around the floodlit yard.
"Ariel," his father said, "stop moving your feet all over the place. You're trying to show off."
"Lemme hit lefty," Ariel said.
"I'm a smack you with a lefty if you don't start hitting right," Luis said, as if he were a character in a sitcom. Ariel giggled.
During a break in the action Luis explained the gravity of his mission. He wanted his sons to play baseball well enough to get athletic scholarships at a good private high school. This way they could avoid the local public school, James J. Ferris High, one of the lowest-rated in New Jersey, where students were occasionally beaten and robbed in the halls.
It was after 11 when the boys finished playing. They gathered the 80 balls from around the yard and plunked them in a tall white bucket. Ariel wanted to keep going. "Come on, Yamil," he told his older brother. "Come on. Field grounders." A few minutes later I walked inside to find the boys and their mother watching television in the living room. Ariel was curled up in an armchair, drinking from a Sesame Street sippy cup.
ON SATURDAY MORNING, while Luis decorated New Meadowlands Stadium with sheet-metal signs, the rest of us piled into an old white Honda Odyssey for a ride to Yamil's baseball game. First we had to stop at Lube Land for an oil change and a car wash. The boys behaved more or less at age level: Yamil moonwalking in cleats, Ariel and Gordo taking a mysteriously long time in the bathroom, Yamil suggesting that a ghost was driving their minivan as it rolled along the track of the automatic car wash, Ariel and Yamil arguing about whether one could grow up to be both a baseball player and a ninja, Ariel sprinting down the hallway after estimating its length at 30 miles.
This all took longer than expected, which meant Jessica had to gun the motor on the way to the field. Yamil arrived just in time to take his position at shortstop. His father and older brother were shortstops, and Ariel probably would be a shortstop too. But Ariel was not playing organized baseball. Nor would he anytime soon.
"We've had district-wide meetings on Ariel," said Danny Rivera, president of the Roberto Clemente Little League, as we watched the game through the fence behind the plate. Last year, at age four, Ariel played T-ball with five-year-olds in a Cal Ripken league and hit the ball so hard that he put them in danger. No one wanted him in that league again, least of all his father, who saw it as unchallenging. This year Ariel was probably good enough to play in Yamil's division, Minor League, but no one under seven is allowed, and Roberto Clemente officials were reluctant to make an exception. "I've been involved with the league 15 years," Rivera said, "and I've never come across a situation like this."
Ariel stood on a short concrete ledge, grabbed a loose strip of the nylon mesh covering the fence, leaned out over the sidewalk so the nylon was supporting his weight and spoke to me for the first time. "You think I'm gonna fall down?" he said, mischief in his eyes.
"Yes," I said.
"And bust my head?"
"Yes," I said, considering an intervention.
He leaned farther out, singing softly to himself, "Un-de-feated. Un-de-feated. Un-de-feated." He stepped down from the ledge and walked to the concessions stand to accept a hug from his mother. Along the way he acquired two Twix bars, one of which he gave to his little brother. He ate the Twix bar until the chocolate browned his fingers. He sucked his fingers and wiped the remainder on his shorts. Then he sat down by me and took my pen and notebook.
"I can spell my name," he said. "It's so easy."
He wrote his name and the names of his relatives and drew three pictures of Gordo.
"And I know how to make another picture," he said. "A bathtub." He grinned a wicked grin.
"He's not feeling so well," he said.
"Who's this?" I asked.
"My brother. The one who's playing."
"Oh, this is Yamil right here? He's not feeling so well, so he has to go to the bathtub?"
"Too much soap on him," he said, giggling. "Then it explodes."
ON THE RIDE HOME Ariel tapped my shoulder and asked me to empire the backyard game. Yamil said they always play baseball after getting home from baseball, and whenever else they can, not including winter, when they play tackle football in the snow. Their father prefers it this way, which is why video games are forbidden in their house.
Ariel struck out. "Ariel!" Yamil said. "Eye on the ball, O.K.?"
"I wasn't ready!" Ariel said, hurling his bat.
"Why are you hitting lefty?" said Luis Jr. the next time Ariel was up.
"It doesn't matter!" Ariel said, and bunted for a hit.
Athletic precocity is a complicated blessing. Ariel competed with boys twice his age, but emotionally he was still a five-year-old. Would baseball shorten his childhood? I couldn't tell. But I did notice that his older brothers treated him with remarkable patience. They showed no sign of resentment for the attention he was getting. They seemed to understand he was not quite their peer, even if he sometimes played like it. They rode out his psychic storms and got on with the game.
Yamil walloped the ball into the leftfield bleachers, otherwise known as the roof. By rule it was a home run.
"That's not a home run!" Ariel said, voice high and sharp like a siren, but he ceased protesting to join in the crucial quest of ball retrieval.
"Home run!" Yamil said, over and over.
"Nooooooo," said Ariel.
"Just do the home run sign," Luis Jr. said, looking in my direction, and I obeyed.
Ariel struck out again. I took this as no indicator of his skill, since they were using a Wiffle ball. "He's throwing curbs," Ariel said. "No curbs. He's throwing curbs. No! I quit!"
"Then quit," Luis said. "I don't care. I'll get anybody better than you."
But Ariel came up again and crushed the ball, almost exactly where Yamil's blast had landed. Rounding second he stumbled and fell, which caused a more serious meltdown. Through tears he accused some unnamed person of tripping him three times, and then, improbably, tried to persuade us that his own home run was a foul ball because it hit a leaf on the way up. Across the low backyard fence several Honduran men were drinking Coronas and watching f√∫tbol on an outdoor television. One of them tried to reason with Ariel in Spanish, to no avail. "That's because he throws too much curbs," Ariel said, looking in Yamil's direction. A few minutes later, after they switched to a tennis ball, Yamil belted it completely over the house. Even this did not meet Ariel's bizarre definition of a home run. He mounted another tear-soaked protest.
"That's why I don't like you on my team," Luis said, but it was a fleeting sentiment. In the next half inning Luis cranked his own over-the-house homer, and Ariel hit another one, never once crying foul. He smiled. Back in the field Luis barehanded a hot grounder going to his right and leaped in the air with his momentum carrying him toward third, but he still got enough juice on the throw to put it in Ariel's glove just in time to catch Yamil hustling down the line. Too bad no one was videotaping. Luis could've made SportsCenter, or at least YouTube, and from there, who knows? He seemed wistfully aware of this bygone opportunity. He made sure I wrote it all down.
THAT AFTERNOON we piled into the old white minivan to watch Ariel throw out the first pitch for the Somerset Patriots. The boys interviewed me as we chugged through Jersey City. I told them I was also one of four brothers. They asked if we had played baseball together, and I said yes.
"Who hit the home run?" Ariel said.
"One time I did," I said. "We used to play in the backyard. And because it was in Georgia, we had a bigger space. We actually had a swimming pool back there. And one day I got the perfect hit. I think I was 11 at the time."
"And it went in the pool?" Luis Jr. said.
"Pssssshhhhhhh," I said, describing the splash.
The boys knew a little about Georgia. Their father had taken them to visit his cousin in Powder Springs, northwest of Atlanta. They saw it as a wild and magical land. "Go to Georgia where you used to play when you hit the home run," Ariel said. "Look for the ball and jump in the pool and then get the ball and swim back up." I said I would.
The van roared toward the setting sun. The boys talked among themselves. "That's what they said on the TV show," Luis said. "That he's a short 32-year-old."
"Who said that?" I asked.
"I don't know," Yamil said. "This man was like, 'He's a short 32-year-old.'"
"On the computer," Ariel said. I realized they were talking about Pat Tomasulo's snarky video. They had all watched it several times. I asked how it made them feel.
"It was funny," Luis said.
"I felt like killing him," Ariel said. "Or I felt like, I felt like hitting the computer with a hammer."
Their father chuckled from the driver's seat.
"You touch the computer, I'll break your head," he said.
At the ballpark Ariel showed no sign of nervousness, except when he wanted a player's autograph. He asked me to get it for him. I handed the player Ariel's ball and my pen. "Sure," the player said, and signed the ball.
At least 10 people threw out "first" pitches. Ariel was last. "Five-year-old baseball phenom," the public-address announcer said. "Hit an 85-mile-per-hour fastball ... Ariel Antigua!" The crowd gave a hearty cheer. Ariel fired a high strike. Afterward, one of the grown-up first-pitch pitchers muttered, "The three-year-old threw better than I did."
The boys roamed the stadium during the game, even Gordo, the actual three-year-old. Ariel led them. They had a way of dispersing like shards of broken glass and reassembling 100 yards away. Sometimes their father watched them, and sometimes they watched themselves. Once I got worried and followed their trail through the tunnels only to find them back in the seats with Jessica, eating pellets of ice cream from tiny baseball helmets.
"You're just like Ariel," the younger Luis told me in the van on the way home. "He's a short 53-year-old."
"No," Ariel said. "Short 52-year-old."
"And all those hits?" Luis said, channeling Tomasulo again. "He makes contact, yeah, but he wouldn't reach first base on any of them. You got a ground ball, foul ball, fly-out, pop-out, ground ball. See?" Now Luis Jr. put on his Edwin Ortiz voice: "He's about five years old. Wait. Say that again? He's about five years old. Oh. Now he's about five years old. I believe this kid is just a short 32-year-old." We roared with laughter. The only one not laughing was Ariel himself.
"I want to smack him right in the face," he said.
Back at home we gathered around the computer to watch the Tomasulo video again. As the Ortiz clip played, Ariel's lips moved silently. He had memorized every word.
I asked Luis Sr. and Jessica if they ever expected the video to take off like this. "No," Luis said, "but she was about to throw the computer away, the first time she saw that blog."
"I wanna show you," Jessica said. She pulled up Barstool Sports New York. "Read all the comments," she said. Amid the obscene invective and half-dressed women, there it was:
yeah but why is he so UGLY??
The last comment came from a user known as Mommy201:
this boy is so cute is amaizing [sic]!!
Jessica was just sticking up for her son. "He's only five years old," she said. "He can't write back to the people and say, 'No, I'm not like that.' I get so mad when I see all that comment. And I told Luis, 'I wanna take the video off.' But he say no.
"In that comment, they say it's child abuse. It's not! We made a mistake, that we don't put the helmet on him. But it's not that big deal—but I get so mad, let me tell you. I get so mad."
Then she told a story that led me to this conclusion: Despite the searing heat of the spotlight, she had no intention of pulling her son away. On YouTube, one skeptical viewer said the loud music on the video made it impossible to hear the crack of the bat. "And I said, O.K., that's coming soon," Jessica said. "We're gonna make another video." (The family posted it the day after I left, showing Ariel's development as a hitter since he was six months old.)
Ariel had been quietly working on a project. He handed me an autographed baseball.
ON SUNDAY MORNING, not quite 36 hours before the moment of truth in the batting cage, Luis Sr. interrupted another baseball game I was empiring to tell me his two oldest sons would be punished for failure to do the laundry. "You guys are staying," he told them. "Ariel, let's go!"
We drove to a baseball field next to a railroad bridge under which people found shade while playing dominoes and drinking malt liquor. Luis wore a full uniform with belted white pants and a red jersey that said escogido, same as the winter-league baseball team in Santo Domingo. Escogido means chosen. To call this a rec-league softball game would be to severely understate its ceremonial importance. Luis said at least 10 of the men on the field had played in the minor leagues or higher. Manuel Ferreira, who produced Ariel's YouTube video, recorded the game with his camera on a tripod. A man with a microphone addressed the crowd in Spanish through massive speakers while the players posed along the foul lines, as they do in the World Series.
Ariel played football in the grass by the diamond with four older boys. They rarely gave him the ball. He seemed lost without his brothers, on the verge of exasperation. Finally Jessica reappeared in the white van, bringing Luis Jr. and Yamil, who had worked their way out of laundry purgatory. Luis cheerfully took control of the football skirmish and made it a real game. Ariel cheered up.
The Chosen and the Wild Dogs played a doubleheader that lasted nearly four hours in the hottest part of the day. The boys walked or ran many miles in those hours, and they threw a stunning variety of objects. Ariel hurled rocks at glass bottles under the bridge and hopped at least one fence and played a game of tag during which he convinced another boy that wearing a red shirt meant he was always on base. In his travels he encountered several people who knew him by reputation. "I saw you on TV," said the softball announcer, an elderly man who threw his arms around Ariel and kissed him on the head. "God bless you, brother." Ariel disliked the attention because it kept him from whatever game was happening next. When another old man reached out and asked for five, Ariel gave him two. Yet another man grabbed him around the shoulders and playfully tried to shadowbox. Ariel kept walking.
"I don't really know that guy," he said.
Back at home, guests arrived for a barbecue. The boys went inside to play with the visiting children, and they gathered around the computer in the living room. Luis Jr. went to YouTube and called up a video titled Stupid People. Luis, Ariel and Gordo sat together in the office chair and watched a series of horrible injuries: contortions, broken legs, people set on fire. The children were awestruck.
Technology makes everything easier, except the preservation of innocence. Luis Antigua threatened a drug dealer with a baseball bat and banned video games from his house and exchanged four bedrooms for two so his boys would have a safe backyard, and then one Sunday night after six hard days of work he stood in that backyard with smoke rising from the grill and a Corona in his hand and good friends all around while his five-year-old son fell under the spell of the same unstoppable force that helped accidentally make him famous.
Ariel stayed at the computer after the others left. He went to Bing.com and typed a123 into the search box. The first result was Y3.com, a website containing thousands of free computer games. Ariel selected a game called First Person Shooter In Real Life 4. He clicked on ACCEPT MISSION. Ominous music came from the speakers.
Grainy video footage simulated movement through a forest. A message appeared on-screen: USE YOUR MOUSE TO SHOOT ENEMIES. Ariel had two guns that fired when he clicked the mouse. His enemies were teenagers. He fired and they fell in clouds of red mist.
ABOUT SIX YEARS AGO, when Ariel was in the womb, a doctor told his parents that he would have paralysis or Down syndrome. The doctor said they should consider abortion. They did not.
Luis Antigua had grown up in Santo Domingo, the product of a broken home. Carrying a baseball glove he found on a bus, he walked alone for more than a mile to the nearest ball field. He developed into a talented infielder, but his parents seldom saw him play.
"I was like him," Luis said, pointing to Ariel in the warm smoky darkness of the backyard. "But the advantage he got, he's got me."
ON MY LAST MORNING in New Jersey, I visited Mary-Ann O'Rorke's prekindergarten class at Public School 17. The children sat around a tiny table, removing seeds from apples for scientific examination. "Then we can start eating them," Ariel said. "Right, Miss O'Rorke?"
"Where does an apple grow?" she said.
"Tree!" Ariel said.
"Would you like to taste your fruit now?" Miss O'Rorke said.
Ariel devoured his apple while Miss O'Rorke led the students through a list of things that could be made with apples: juice, pies—
"Apple pizza too," Ariel said.
"Yes," she said, "you could make apple pizza."
If Luis was worried about sending Ariel to Ferris High, he had no need to worry about P.S. 17. The classroom was an oasis of nourishment and affirmation, with two teachers for only 15 students and a laminated poster on the wall that promoted the use of such encouraging phrases as I TRUST IN YOUR DECISION and I LOVE YOU NO MATTER WHAT. Ariel behaved better in school—where there was no athletic competition—than he did anywhere else.
"All right," Miss O'Rorke said. "I'm going to put on the gentle music now."
Ariel took a blanket from a purple canvas bag printed with butterflies and lay down on his Angels Rest cot. He did a few push-ups, rested his head on the cot and closed his eyes.
LATER THAT AFTERNOON we took three cars to The Hot Corner. Luis met us there in the van. Jessica and Gordo got a lift from their friend Julio. The other boys insisted on riding with me.
"Turn up the music!" Ariel said. I cranked up Radio Disney. "All right," he said. "Let's have a party in here!"
We followed Julio down the highway through a hideous Jersey rush hour. Ariel wanted me to honk. "That's what my dad does when he sees people," he said. "Beep beep."
I tapped the horn. Gordo turned around and waved. "Goooorrrrdoooo!!!!!" the boys said, thrilled at the novelty of seeing their brother on the highway in another car.
"He's just a short 32-year-old," Luis said, and everyone laughed, even Ariel, unaware that he would hold his father's reputation in his hands tonight.
LET ME CLARIFY ONE THING: The Yankees have not publicly identified Ariel as their top prekindergarten prospect. But Luis recently told me he'd gotten a call from Cesar Presbott, the venerable Yankees scout. Luis said Presbott told him many good things about Ariel and said he planned to watch him develop.
I e-mailed the team's spokesman, Jason Zillo, and got this response: Thomas—Spoke to our head of scouting, Damon Oppenheimer. We do not "scout" children of that age. The Yankees will have plenty of time to scout him when he becomes a teenager. We hope he continues to love to play baseball during his youth years.
I pressed the issue: Are you telling me that Cesar Presbott did not call Luis Antigua to say he'd be keeping tabs on Ariel Antigua?
Zillo responded 22 minutes later, failing again to refute the story: I'm not doubting that but as far as officially scouting someone that's not the case.
YOU HAD TO BE THERE: Four brothers in a backyard, the three oldest playing baseball, or football, always losing and retrieving the ball, and instead of the roof it was the neighbors' property; instead of the ladder, a tall wooden fence; instead of gravity, an old grump named Mr. Cauthen and his grumpy bulldog, Major. No video games, no television, no rock 'n' roll. The mother watched through a window and interrupted many transgressions by clinking her wedding band on the glass, but there were lapses in surveillance, breaches of security, and the world came gushing in. Cassette tapes in coat pockets. Encyclopedias strip-mined for secret information. Even National Geographic was not entirely safe.
The boys played with fire and hammers and gunpowder and ran wild in a forest full of copperheads. They fell face-first in the street and bit through their tongues and smashed their teeth while running races with their eyes closed. The father meant well, but in some ways he was still a boy too, and so he took part in the conspiracy, trespassing on golf courses and in sewer pipes, standing by as they rode a red wagon down a hill toward an intersection. In the car behind the grocery store he punched the accelerator before a dip in the asphalt so they nearly went airborne, and the boys squealed with joy.
If YouTube had existed then, if one of these incidents had been pulled free from the surrounding framework of gentle cultivation and posted for the amusement of total strangers, someone might have called child-protection services. I was one of those boys. We made it through all right.
LUIS ANTIGUA GREETED the camera crew from Univision and pointed out his third son, who was playing basketball with a volleyball and a garbage can. "Ariel," the newsman said, but Ariel hid behind his father.
I asked Luis if Ariel would hit from the pitching machine tonight. "Maybe," he said. "If he feels like it."
Ariel grabbed his father's hand and took him to the snack machine. They had a private talk, mostly in Spanish, although I did hear Luis say, "Don't be shy." Ariel demanded and received a Crunch bar, along with a hug from his mother, after which he put on a helmet, grabbed a green Easton Cyclone aluminum bat and headed toward the pitching machines. He stepped into Cage 4. The cameraman followed, along with a crowd of nearly 30 people. Ariel faced the machine.
The first pitch came in fast enough to make me flinch. Ariel fouled it back. He whiffed on the next two. Then he started hitting. Line drive toward right. Grounder to first. Chopper up the middle. The sound was like a hammer crushing stone.
The sign by Cage 4 said BASEBALL 75 MPH, not 85, as the video claimed. Luis had an explanation: The plate where Ariel stood was closer to the machine than 60 feet, six inches—the distance of a major league pitch—so he had to react just as quickly as a big leaguer hitting 85.
This sounded plausible, but to prove it I needed to know the distance between the machine and the plate. Ortiz helped me with the measurement. It was 37 feet, six inches.
Now we had to verify the pitch speed. Ortiz said his radar gun wasn't working, but he knew another coach who could help. I'd just have to wait a few minutes for him to get the gun.
It was 7:30, time for dinner. The sun was setting when we walked outside. They were headed back to Jersey City, and I was driving south. "Call us when you get home," Jessica said.
"I'll miss you," said Yamil, who had also signed a baseball for me.
Ariel chased a balloon down an alley and had to be corralled by his mother. They all got in the white van, waved goodbye and drove away through the twilight.
I went back inside and introduced myself to Jim MacDonald, the softball pitching coach at St. Mary High in Rutherford. He pointed his radar gun at the machine in Cage 4. "Seventy-four," he said. "Seventy-four. Wow. Consistent. Seventy-five. Seventy-three. Seventy-five."
Now it came down to a simple calculation. Luis and Ortiz had misjudged the speed relative to the distance. They had underestimated it. A ball goes 37'6" at 74 mph in the same time it takes the same ball to go 60'6" at 119.4 mph.
That's right. At age five, Ariel could hit the equivalent of a 119-mph fastball. True, the release point of the pitching machine is always the same, and it never throws curbs. Still: 119 mph.
I called Luis the next day to tell him I'd gotten home safely. "Ariel cried when you left," he said.
THEY HAD A LARGER APARTMENT IN JERSEY CITY, BUT THEY MOVED SO THE BOYS COULD HAVE A PLACE TO PLAY OUTSIDE.
"HE'S ONLY FIVE YEARS OLD," SAID JESSICA. "HE CAN'T WRITE BACK TO PEOPLE AND SAY, 'NO, I'M NOT LIKE THAT.' I GET SO MAD."
EVERYONE LAUGHED, EVEN ARIEL, UNAWARE THAT HE WOULD HOLD LUIS'S REPUTATION IN HIS HANDS TONIGHT.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
GETTING THE SCOOP Endless practice has turned Ariel into a slick fielder as well as a precocious hitter.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
TIRE LEARNING With a drill he picked up in his native Dominican Republic, Luis can make sure Ariel squares up his swing.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
A CUT ABOVE Ariel assumes a familiar stance under the watchful eyes of his family (from left): Yamil, Luis Jr., Yariel, Luis Sr. and Jessica.
SHY THERE In his TV appearances—like this one with Jimmy Kimmel—Ariel tends to let his bat do the talking.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
FREEWHEELING Ariel doesn't go out much, and when he does, he has a brother or two in tow.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
SAFE AT HOME While Ariel gets an inordinate amount of attention, his siblings show no signs of resentment.