Iván López quietly shuffles into the noisy dressing room of the Jalisco Jaguares, a gold chain sways across his hollowed chest. The chatter dies as López takes a seat on an empty bench in front of the Central Mexican League's version of a locker, an open wooden partition with hooks on the wall. Someone mutters "pinche perdedor" -- fucking loser. López takes no notice. Players are crammed into a 20' x 20' room with a few benches and chairs. Some players are sitting on the floor dressing in preparation for tonight's game against the Durango Rojos. A player to López's left lights a cigarette and tosses the pack to a teammate.
This is López's fourth straight winter in the semi-professional Central Mexican League, a promise he made to his native country despite being a 2035 second-round draft pick for the Boise Spuds of the Brewster Baseball Association. However, if this winter feels different, it is. López won't be pitching. Not because he doesn't want to, he physically can't. You see, the lanky 21-year-old just finished a season pitching 285 innings. You read that right. TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY FIVE.
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The Mexican press calls López "El Guerrero," the warrior, a nickname shared by his father, Roberto, during his prizefighting days. Roberto had a twenty year career boxing in Mexico, often earning a handful of dollars to help provide younger and more talented fighters valuable experience and a likely win. Back in 2021, Roberto fought 14 fights in a calendar year, unheard of in the sport. The elder López retired in 2023 at the age of 36 with a record of 13-139-3. Despite all those fights and losses, El Guerrero was never knocked out, always going the distance despite being bloodied and bruised. López was as highly respected, if not more, as his fellow boxers with belts and winning records. When he hung up his gloves for good, Roberto moved his attention to that of his 6-year-old son, Iván, and his start in baseball. "He never wanted me to fight," López tells me as we sit in the corner of a dimly-lit cantina after the Jaguares' win over Durango. "It was baseball or soccer, never boxing. He didn't want me to suffer the same way he did." But suffer Iván has.
López set several minor-league records in 2038, all for futility,
but never once complained publicly or ask for a day off.
2038 was supposed to be a throw-away season. If he could pitch a handful of innings at the end of the year, Boise brass would call it a success before ramping up his workload in 2039. But López's recovery was quicker than any of the medical staff had expected. Taking a note from his father's work ethic, López rehabbed day and night, vowing to beat the timetable told to him. By spring, López was ready to pitch. What Boise decided to do was out of a Greek tragedy.
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After his first start of the year in late April, López was in the Tulsa Drillers' locker room changing into his street clothes when the pitching coach approached him. "Great start," he told López with a affirming tap on the back. "You're pitching next on Tuesday."
Tuesday, as in 'three days from tonight' Tuesday. "I thought he meant next Tuesday, like I was getting a week off to rest, limit my innings, you know?," López said. But no, the team wanted him and his right arm with fresh scar tissue to go back onto the mound in 72 hours. Tuesday came and went and López did his job, throwing seven innings and limiting the opponents to just three runs. This time, at the team dinner, the bench coach whispers in López's ear "How are you feeling?" López was sore but that was normal the night of a start. Fine, López shrugged. "Good, good. You're starting on Friday."
"I thought it was a joke, a cruel joke," López remembers. It's standard for starting pitchers to go four or five days between starts. For a prospect coming off a major injury like López, a week between starts wouldn't be out of the ordinary. But the Tulsa Drillers were making López pitch three times in a week. And every time he was asked to pitch, López answered the call.
Many in baseball circles questioned the Tulsa Drillers' decision, as well as that of the BBA parent club, the Boise Spuds. Boise's then-general manager Jeff Palin refused to comment on the workload of the young pitcher, a workload one could only call as inhumane.
López's season was like that of Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king who attempted to roll a giant rock up a hill only for it to roll back down everytime it neared the summit, a hellish condemnation for eternity. But López never complained, never wavered. Sure, he suffered, but his elbow miraculously held up at season's end for Tulsa. López thought the nightmare was over. But it wasn't...he was sent to winter league ball in Tampa for more, where López pitched another 32 innings for Ybor City.
When it was all said and done, the battered López finished 2038 with the following statistics:
73 G, 57 GS, 4-45, 285.0 IP, 462 H, 296 ER, 55 HR, 121 K, 104 BB, 9.35 ERA
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López, still in his Jaguares uniform, takes a swig from the glass Coca-Cola bottle. Being a local celebrity, the young pitcher made a promise to return to his hometown team and make an appearance or two to draw extra fans to the park, as well as host a two-day junior clinic. This year he won't be pitching, calling a cease-fire on his ragged elbow ligaments. López's stay in Jalisco will be shorter than normal, as the new management in Boise has asked López to stay in Boise for close medical attention and a lighter-than-normal off-season training program.
"The kid has heart, I gotta give it to him," new Boise GM Joe Lederer told me over the phone. López will start the 2039 season in Double A Buffalo, one level up from Tulsa. His yeo-man like effort and can-do attitude after the horrific workload was worth a promotion, but starting the season in a new level, away from the scene of the crime, should help repair the young pitcher's psyche, if not his arm. "While I don't want to discuss what the previous front office did to Iván," Lederer added, "I can tell you that we're going to take extra care of him...we owe him that."
After a father and son come to our table to get an autograph, López looks at his watch and notices it's getting late. "Early road game tomorrow, going to call it a night," López' tells me as he gets up. He pays the tab (only my drinks were charged) and exits the bar. He's done throwing the ball until next season and hopefully, the warrior is done pushing that boulder up the mountain without an end in sight.
Knocked down, but not out. His father would be proud.