BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Deep inside the bowels of The Ballpark at Harbor Yard, there is a crowded corkboard that greets all members of the Bridgeport Bluefish, a collection of floundering talent in the independent Atlantic League. It is a last resort for most journeymen, and papers detailing punishable offenses are posted on site. If a player is late for stretching, the first infraction will cost him $50 and a second will run him $100. If one is late for team dress, he will be docked $100 the first time and $200 for the second. The golden rule of the clubhouse is posted opposite the Wi-Fi password and the clubbie’s cell phone number. Three pushpins hold it up. It reads:
PLEASE DO NOT URINATE IN
THE TUNNEL IS USED BY WOMEN
AND CHILDREN AS WELL
ANY PLAYER CAUGHT PEEING
IN THE TUNNEL WILL BE FINED
Endy Chávez, the former Met who made arguably the greatest catch in team history, walks past the warning signs, his metal cleats click-clacking along a concrete path. To prepare for a morning-night doubleheader, he clocks in for his day’s work shortly after 8 a.m. First pitch is scheduled for 10:35 a.m., and he performs the pregame rituals that became routine during a 13-year stretch in the major leagues. At 38, he is a decade removed from his career’s peak: the snow-cone grab he made while crashing into Shea Stadium’s eight-foot wall in left field during Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. There are memories of two curtain calls from that rainy night following Chávez’s home run robbery and a relay throw through José Valentín to double off Jim Edmonds at first base. There is also a haunting image of Carlos Beltran, the former Met, watching an Adam Wainwright curveball bend before his eyes with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Beltran blinked; a third strike was called. Standing five steps off of second base, Chávez had watched the ball arc downward from behind the mound. As the potential tying run, Chávez, ready to move on contact, was stranded. St. Louis advanced. Chávez was chagrined.
“Right…down…the…middle,” he says. “Big pitch, but if that was me, I’d have struck out swinging. Don’t let umpire take my bat away. Right…down…the…middle.”
Goosebumps come and go, but Chávez’s career spins on as he plies his trade 51 miles north of Flushing this season, making $2,400 per month while playing for manager Luis (The Machete) Rodriguez, from April past Labor Day. He bats second, patrols center field and partakes in clubhouse shenanigans, ranging from planting rubber snakes in teammates’ gloves to giving the manager a Miller Lite shower after his first career victory. It all plays out in a downtrodden industrial city with smoke billowing from the striped brick stack at the PSE&G harbor generating station that stands beyond the right-field fence. Chávez is on site for a lack of better options as he engages in a custody battle involving his seven-year-old daughter, Joendys, and The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. A civil case resulted in a U.S. District Court judge ruling that Chávez “unlawfully removed” her from Venezuela, his home country, and ordered him to pay for her flight back in January. Chávez, a father of three, maintains that the legal battle cost him a year of his career, and commutes in a black Cadillac Escalade to and from his cul-de-sac in Emerson, N.J. He leads the league in batting average, and holes up in a Holiday Inn a half mile from the ballpark, down by the P.T. Barnum Museum, twice a week. He is fit at 5-foot-10. Grays fleck his goatee; he hopes a recovery from an April hamstring injury will lead to his surpassing records within reach in Venezuela’s winter league.
“We get this a lot: ‘Is that THE Endy Chavez?’” Bluefish general manager Jamie Toole says. “As opposed to the other one? Is there another one?”
Game 1 of the cloudless day’s doubleheader commences on time. There is a sparse crowd, mainly composed of elementary school kids brought by teachers, in the stands. Chávez, his eyes covered with wraparound shades that hold reflective lenses, makes the sign of the cross, and the public address announcer cues up salsa each time that Chávez approaches the plate with a wooden bat beneath his arm.
In the outfield, he plays deep, manning worn grass that lies in front of a billboard emblazoned with the face of former Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who now serves as the white-haired athletic director at nearby Sacred Heart University. Chávez shows flashes of his past form. In the top of the sixth, with the Bluefish up a run, a ball is hit hard to left center. It lands in the gap, and the tying run scores. Chávez retrieves the ball and relays it through the shortstop to cut down the go-ahead run at home. He bats in the bottom of the inning and knocks in the winning run. When the ball is thrown home, over his head, he takes second base.
Up the in the press box, Chávez’s latest statistics are updated.
“Too bad he’s too old to go anywhere,” the official scorer says.
* * *
Chávez is a common surname in Venezuela, but Endy, as a given name, is distinct. Endy De Jesus Chávez was born on February 7, 1978, in a Valencia hospital. He explains that his parents trace the nomenclature to a few family friends drinking and a birth certificate when Chávez emerged from his mother’s womb. A friend suggested that they name him Endy, and his parents complied. An Endy was born.
“That guy loved names with ‘E,’” Chávez says. “They named my brother Ender.”
Hand-eye coordination was an early strength for the bone-thin youth. Chávez sat on an overturned bucket, gauged the speed necessary to put the barrel of the stick on a pebble and swung away on his family’s patio each day. His father, Alirio, a handyman, complained about the ticking sound, but Chávez swung on. At 18, his skill set drew attention from Colorado Rockies scouts, and he was ready to report to the team’s baseball academy when two scouts from the Mets — Gregorio Machado of Venezuela and Junior Roman from Puerto Rico — contacted Chávez. They informed the prospect that the Mets wanted him. Unsure what to do, Chávez asserted that he had made plans with the Rockies. The Mets’ scouts insisted a contract was en route.
“There was a little doubt about signing me because of my body,” he says. “I was too skinny.”
Omar Minaya, then with the Mets’ front office, acknowledges that Chávez was “lean, weak, but those are my types of athletes.” Chávez displayed plus defense in the field, and showed authority in the left-handed batter’s box. Minaya calculated the “ability, speed and smile” that the sure-handed Chávez possessed, and watched him negotiate his way out of the weeds. Signed by the Mets in 1996, he was left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft of 2000. The Royals welcomed him to their farm system, and Chávez wrestled with his role, first with the Wichita Wranglers and then the Omaha Golden Spikes. His call up to the majors came when the Royals played Texas in July of 2001. Chávez showed up at the team’s hotel and checked in. He could not believe that he had his own room. Meal money came in an envelope.
“I see a lot of hundreds,” he says. “It was like $600. I was like ooooooo. That was my paycheck in double-A. Oooo. Have to make it to the majors to see money.’”
Chávez earned his keep in that opening series. During his second game in the majors, he stroked three hits, drove in two runs and scored another, but that initial stint was short lived. He played in 29 games with the Royals before being waived in the offseason. He caught on with the Montreal Expos next, serving as a solid center fielder and hitting .296 in his first campaign. Two years later, he transitioned to the Nationals as the leadoff batter when the franchise relocated. His progress had slowed by then, and manager Frank Robinson wanted Chávez to conform to the demands of the batting order. For a team that lost 95 games the previous season, Chávez walked 30 times in 547 at-bats, hit .277 and stole 32 bases. His on-base percentage was a dreadful .291 when batting first in the lineup. At bat, Chávez was considered incorrigible. Demoted to the minors, Chávez reportedly requested a trade. Washington acquiesced and the Phillies acquired Chávez. A free agent at season’s end, Minaya signed Chávez to be a Met once again on December 22, 2005.
“I remember when Minaya signed me, he said, ‘We just need you to get the fly balls because we got people who hit,’” Chávez says. “‘Don’t worry if you hit or not.’”
No matter the vacillations in his status stateside, Venezuela’s diamonds remained sacred sandlots for Chávez to showcase his skill set each winter. Once the MLB season ended, he shuttled between Venezuela’s pro venues with the Magallanes. He cultivated a reputation as a consummate professional, lunging to catch line drives, leaping into walls and celebrating by playing conga drums in the clubhouse. His popularity grew so much that fans chanted his name in unison. One night during a 2002 Caribbean Series game between Venezuela and Puerto Rico, President Hugo Chávez, a polarizing authoritarian, spoke to commemorate a decade since his failed military coup d’état. Radio and television stations carried the speech; a sound system in Estadio Universitario played it live. The president was booed, but the crowd, growing into a wild chorus, chanted, “Endy, sí! Chávez, no!”
Minaya later learned of the chant. When he saw Chávez by the Shea batting cage, Minaya chanted it softly.
“He’s more popular than the president,” Minaya says. “Endy, sí! Chávez, no!”
Endy Chavez will forever be etched in Mets folklore after his majestic robbery of Scott Rolen home run in Game 7 of 2006 NLCS – which turned into double play in sixth inning of fateful game Amazin’s eventually lost.
(Sipkin, Corey, New York Daily News)
* * *
“Can you imagine if we won that game?” says Mets third baseman Jose Reyes, who is back with the team after four years away. At 33, he is now in the midst of a meandering race to claim a wild card playoff berth as the season nears its end. He reclines on a chair in front of his stall in the Citi Field clubhouse to recount the Chávez catch as rain falls on the field prior to a game. He retraces the ball’s flight off Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen’s bat and over Reyes’ head at shortstop in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. “Lives could be different for Endy, others; commercials and all.”
From pitch to completion, the play took 12 seconds. There was one out in the top of the sixth inning, and the game was tied, 1-1. The Mets, winners of 97 games and the National League East, were favored in the series, but Oliver Perez, a Mets’ left-handed starter, was on the mound. He was 3-13 with a 6.55 ERA in the regular season, but 1-0 in the series after winning Game 4 in St. Louis. Acquired via a trade with the Pirates on July 31, he was only in the rotation because Orlando Hernandez (torn right calf muscle) and Pedro Martinez (torn rotator cuff) were done for the season. Perez started his approach to Rolen in the stretch with Edmonds on first base after drawing a walk. Perez fired a 91 m.p.h. fastball toward the plate. Rolen, a righty, came around on it quickly. The ball met the bat and shot out to left field. Perez craned his neck. The sell-out crowd of 56,357 fans at Shea fell silent.
“I saw the ball fly and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s a homer,’” Perez says.
Chávez reacted instinctually, as he had throughout the series. Carried on the roster as a fourth outfielder in his first postseason, he entered Game 1 of the NLCS early because starter Cliff Floyd’s ailing Achilles tendon flared up in the bottom of the second. It did not take long for the ball to find Chávez, who had nine outfield assists in the regular season, which ranked eighth in the NL despite his part-time duty. Two innings after Chávez entered the game, Edmonds was on first when second baseman Ronnie Belliard roped a sinking drive to left. Chávez charged in, dove in belly-flop fashion to snare the ball in the top of his glove. Fans feted him with “En-dy! Chá-vez!” chants. He winked. The Mets won, 2-0. He was now a starter.
The cameo inspired a starring role, and his long black leather glove made frequent appearances in primetime. In Game 3, Chávez crashed into the chain-link fence in left at Busch Stadium as he chased after a ball hit by Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan. That was out of his reach, landing just over Chávez’s glove for a home run, but he played on in Game 4, showing his arm when St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina singled down the line to left field. Belliard attempted to advance to third from first. Perez was on the mound, and Chávez retrieved the ball before throwing out Belliard as the Cardinal slid into third base. David Wright, waiting, applied a tag for the out.
Catcher Yadier Molina of the Cardinals reacts after Carlos Beltran leaves his bat on his shoulder.
(Al Bello/Getty Images)
No play allowed Chávez to show the complete package better than the full-stride effort in Game 7. Upon hearing the crack of the bat, Chávez darted backward to the right on a slight angle. He estimated that he had a 10% chance of making a play, but reached the warning track in three seconds. He pivoted to face the plate, leapt and reached up with his right hand. He wore a batting glove beneath the fielding glove. The batted ball cleared the wall by the 358-feet sign, as did his right elbow. At his back, the wall was emblazoned in white with “THE STRENGTH TO BE THERE,” a well-placed advertisement for AIG, an insurance and financial services agency. Chávez crashed against the blue padding, and the ball fell into the webbing of his mitt. The ball spun and corkscrewed up. Chávez cinched it to ensure that the ball stayed in his grasp upon landing on the warning track. He took a quick glance at the ball, and then took two steps to throw it in to Valentín, the second baseman who was standing at shortstop as Reyes was in the outfield. Edmonds, already around second by the time the catch was made, retreated, touched second and sprinted to first. Valentín whipped the ball ahead of him. Edmonds was out.
On the radio, play-by-play broadcaster Gary Cohen said, “A miraculous play by Endy Chávez… the play of the year! The play, maybe, of the franchise history!”
Chávez failed to strike twice, though. In the top of the ninth, he watched a two-run home run fly above his head when Yadier Molina mashed one out of the park. St. Louis went up, 3-1. Beltran struck out looking in the bottom of the frame.
Chávez never used the glove again, retiring it to his home in Venezuela, but the moment has legs. The team memorializes the all-out effort with a plaque on the Fan Walk by the entrance to Citi Field, and a silhouette of Chávez, limbs splayed during his jump, hangs over fans who enter through a left field gate. A YouTube video of the play shows the catch from the upper deck; more than 330,000 devotees have viewed it. Chávez is remembered in song, and in an oil-on-linen painting that measures 50 x 25 inches and sold to a Mets fan for $7,000 in 2007. For comic relief, actor Hank Azaria has called the play as if Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the character he performs the voice for on “The Simpsons,” was a broadcaster on live television.
“You know, I batted .300 for the first time in the majors that season,” Chávez says. “But all anyone wanted to talk about was the catch, the catch, the catch.”
There is a place where the catch plays on endless loop. It is at the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum. Chávez stopped by with family and took a picture of himself on the Fan Walk last year. Greeter Scott Kelly watched Chávez as he watched the catch.
“I didn’t even recognize him at first,” Kelly says. “I told him, ‘Valentín made a heckuva relay throw.’ He kinda looked at me strange. I was just joking, just joking. It’s like so many of the highlights here. It goes really well, but… we lost the game.”
* * *
Louis J. Lamatina, the mayor of Emerson, rides around Bergen County in a navy blue Mercedes SL500 convertible with tan interior. The license plates read, “1 Mayor,” and he heads a law practice in Paramus. He moonlights as a Mets fanatic, keeping a bobblehead of Chávez at home. In a small container, Lamatina stores dirt from Shea Stadium’s bullpen, warning track and second base area. He picks it up and shakes the container before removing the white cap slowly. Dirt rises up like smoke.
“Magic,” he says.
There are more acts that Lamatina is licensed to perform, and his catalogue includes wedding ceremonies. On September 15, 2015, Chávez and his fiancée, Patrice, showed up for one such service at borough hall. Chávez wore an open-collar blue dress shirt and she wore a white lace dress. The docket was full, but Lamatina, a Mets fan who attended Game 7 in an upper deck box, made time for the couple. Afterward, Lamatina joined them at Bibi’z, a local eatery. The mayor celebrated with Chávez and his family before having Chávez pose with a ball of dough that was rolled into the shape of a baseball. Chávez stretched as if making the famous catch.
“I think the mayor was more excited than us!” Chávez says.
Life after the catch has not been all clinking glasses, though. In December of 2008, the Mets shipped Chávez to the Mariners as part of a 3-team, 12-player deal. In the lineup that season, Chávez shared the outfield with his favorite player, Ken Griffey Jr. Nine games into the season, Griffey Jr. and Chávez smashed back-to-back home runs against the Angels, but those were halcyon days compared with what was to come. That June, Chávez charged full speed to make a play on a fly ball as shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt retreated into the outfield. The two collided as Chávez shouted, “I got it!” Betancourt made the catch with his back to the infield; Chávez flipped over him. The ACL in his right knee was torn. His season was done.
Rehabilitation and a birth followed. At 8:41 a.m. on August 5, 2009, Chávez and Joelis Molina welcomed a newborn. Her name was a combination of her parents’ names: Joendys. She was born a U.S. citizen, in Seattle, and moved back to Carabobo, Venezuela, with Molina after six weeks, according to court documents. A custody agreement was reached in April of 2013, when Chávez was back in the majors, and nearly a year later, Chávez and Molina made an arrangement to allow their daughter to return to Emerson, N.J., where her father was living with Patrice, for an extended time. In court papers, Molina contended that the time allotment was outlined in an oral agreement so that Joendys could practice English and avoid supply shortages that were being experienced in Venezuela. Additionally, she was to have her U.S. passport renewed, as it was set to expire in September. Chávez’s attorney, Douglas Kinz, countered that Molina signed documents then that stated, “The environment in Carabobo is no longer healthy for raising a child,” because of turmoil after President Chávez’s death. Molina’s attorney, Kathleen Garvey, disputed the validity of the documents.
No matter the terms, Joendys returned to Venezuela on December 23, 2014, and Molina asserted that she noticed a scar on her daughter’s face at the time. Molina alleged that Joendys informed her that Patrice had abused her. A complaint was filed, according to court documents. In the interim, Joendys commenced kindergarten in Carabobo. While still in Venezuela, Chávez requested more time with Joendys during his birthday weekend so he could bring her to the circus in nearby San Diego. Molina allowed him to pick up Joendys on February 6, 2015. He agreed to bring her back two days later, but then flew with Joendys to New Jersey.
“Very bad on your behalf to act this way, to vanished, disappeared with my child like this,” Molina wrote in a text on February 7 that was entered as evidence.
“Hi, I came to the US with Joendys she is fine, healthy and emotionally stable,” Chávez wrote back on Feb. 9.
Legal wrangling eventually reached the United States. On December 4, 2015, Chávez received a letter from the U.S. Department of State. It informed him that Venezuela had forwarded an application from Molina, who was seeking assistance under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in returning Joendys. An ongoing custody case in Superior Court of New Jersey was put on hold, and Garvey served a signed order to show cause to Chávez. When the case reached court for a hearing in January, Chávez did not show up, and neither did his attorney. Jose Linares, a U.S. District Court Judge, reviewed the evidence — text messages, passport and custody agreements — before ruling that Chávez “unlawfully removed” his child. Joendys was ordered back to South America.
In court filings, Kinz insisted that neither Chávez nor Kinz had ever been served with a signed order. Kinz said they only received blank orders, and requested that Linares vacate the ruling. Three individuals who handled the signed orders then testified to their delivery. Linares upheld the orders.
“This court declines the invitation that (CHÁVEZ) appears to extend to determine which country the Child is more likely to thrive in,” Linares wrote in his opinion.
In 10 years since Game 7 of NLCS when Endy Chavez became cult hero in Flushing, the Venezuelan got married by diehard Met fan Louis J. Lamatina (mayor of Emerson, N.J., where Chavez now lives) and ends up with independent Bridgeport Bluefish in hopes of adding to 13-year career.
Chávez notes that he only missed playing in the Venezuelan winter league three times since starting his pro career: twice for recovery from surgery and last year for the custody battle. He considers Emerson to be easygoing, and his children “play everything there.” He crosses paths with Minaya, a senior adviser to MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, at a local gym. Minaya adds that he recommended Chávez to a few Major League Baseball teams last winter. He remains an advocate.
“Mark my words,” Minaya says. “Endy Chávez will play in the majors again.”
* * *
It is halfway to St. Patrick’s Day. So says the sign above the urinals in the men’s bathroom on the ballpark’s concourse. Domestic beers are half off for the occasion, but the 124 fans in attendance are about to get the full Bridgeport Bluefish experience. Facing elimination, the team takes the field in a mild state of disarray. One of the catchers has left the team to deal with citizenship issues, so the manager, “The Machete,” is on the active roster as a reserve, ready to throw down to second.
“I tell Endy, ‘Hey, I played catcher until 41. You can play center until you’re 48,’” The Machete says. “So I tell Endy, ‘Keep going. Don’t stop.’”
Chávez is in the lineup once more, ready to claim the Atlantic League’s batting crown with a .345 average. He crashes into the wall when giving chase for one fly ball that lands just beyond his reach, and throws his glove in the air in between pitches at one point. He scores a run early, but loses the grip on his bat, watching as it flies to the home dugout. He applies more pine tar to the handle, and chops a grounder toward short. Chávez beats the throw on a bang-bang play, but nothing can save the Bluefish as two teammates are caught stealing and another is thrown out at the plate. Two more Bluefish are also ejected for arguing in the defeat.
Little goes well, but there is constant motion surrounding the field as fans depart. The ballpark by the harbor is set in a transportation hub with crossroads aplenty. Above the outfield fence, Amtrak and Metro North railroad cars motor by, as if the fence’s top is the rail line. A ferry to Port Jefferson, N.Y., is also available.
Winter is coming as Chávez showers afterward. He sees Paul Herrmann, the director of baseball operations who handles travel assignments for the players as the season nears its end. Three Bluefish are scheduled to fly back to Venezuela soon.
“What about me?” Chávez jokes, knowing his is an hour’s drive to home.
“Sure,” Herrmann says. “I’ll get a puddle jumper for you over the Hudson.”
Source: NY Daily News Headlines Sports News