AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico — They came to praise Jose Ramon Soto.
Soto, called Ata by one and all, was their former coach, or their father’s coach.
They came to the Callero cemetery to talk of the year just completed and what they hoped to accomplish in the new year.
As one man after another stepped to the microphone, you couldn’t help but watch the cement crypt and head stone.
After a spirited song and rhythmic clapping from the crowd of 100 or so, you expected a “well done boys” in a James Earl Jones voice of course.
You watch the crypt and listen. Nothing comes. No voices, at least.
The Ata followers come each year and every year on Jan. 6, the anniversary of his death.
Ata, a basketball coach, died 32 years ago at the age of 43.
“Your friend is still your friend, even if he is dead,” said Rafael Boglio in what seems like perfect logic 200 feet from his friend’s grave. “All good friends can still share good moments after death.”
Some of his former players went on were successful in hoops. Some were not. But all learned from the John Wooden of this village which had a population of 25,000 in the 1970s.
Ata taught poor children about the high post and how to shoot a jump shot long before the YMCA came to town. But besides yelling “get your hands up,” he taught life lessons, life’s intangibles and how to live.
And so they gather. They sing a version of the improv with accompanying guitars, tamborras, maracas and a 10-string quatro (guitar) a version of the improv.
“They’ve come every year since the day my brother died in 1979 rain or shine,” said his sister Lolita Soto Walton. “They’re consistent. Like me. I cry every year.
“If you drove by here and it was raining you’d see 100 grown men underneath umbrellas.”
* * *
This is not a basketball or baseball story. It’s about a town’s love of a deceased coach. It’s about tradition.
It’s about the coaches’ friends and disciples wanting to make their town better today than it was a year ago.
It’s about a man you have never heard of, but it’s also a way Ata’s friends deal with death.
It’s the type of story you don’t read very often in this era of lewd cell-phone photos, positive drug tests, blood doping and coaches being fired. Who can’t relate to that?
* * *
“Ata,” a former player says looking at the tomb. “Roberto Alomar of Salinas, from our island, was elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown this week.”
* * *
Ata was driving on Jan. 6, 1979 when he felt a pain, pulled over and asked someone else to drive. He died before they reached the hospital. He was buried that night with friends and former players in the crowd.
“So, we’re at my place, we’re drinking and telling Ata stories that night,” Boglio remembers. “We get to this point in the evening where Cai Quińones says: ‘When I die, I want a parranda, I want people to show up and sing.’”
Carlos Delgado, whose son you may have seen hit a home run or two for the Blue Jays, a former basketball centre for Ata, said: “Well, if we’re going to do one for you, we might as well start with Ata ... tonight!”
For some reason, the scene from S.O.B. comes to mind, where an inebriated William Holden and Robert Webber scoop deceased Richard Mulligan from a funeral home to take him for one last night on the town.
The Ata group returned to Callero only to find the gates locked. So, they scale the seven-foot high wall, find Ata’s grave and talk to him, saying goodbye a final time.
“That night, guys were crying. It was pretty emotional,” Boglio says. “Now, our sons and nephews here, people who have never even met Ata. They understand this is a day of friendship. It’s like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time and catching up with all the news.”
In 1979, Boglio, Delgado, Quińones and others decided to honour Ata’s memory every year. It is a tradition Boglio expects will spread across the island, now that radio WABA is broadcasting the event.
“One year, a guy told Ata that somebody’s wife was running around on him and that went out on the radio,” recalled one former Ata player.
* * *
“Ata, you have a bad third baseman coming your way, Freddy Duprey. You’ve probably run into him,” Delgado says into the microphone looking at the headstone.
“Now,” he says gazing around, surveying the rest of the crowd and scratching his chin, “let me tell you who you will be seeing next.”
* * *
Erwin Flores comes here from Tucson, Ariz., each year.
“I tell my friends in Tucson, I’m going home to a gravesite to pay tribute to my old coach,” Flores said. “Their reaction is: ‘You’re crazy!’ Then, I show them the pictures and they think that sounds like a pretty neat idea.”
Flores said Ata taught youngsters how to play and, when they needed it, he’d be the one to buy basketball shoes.
“Ata was the man who got the wheels going,” said Boglio, a retired engineer. “He taught us how we should go about business as professionals.”
* * *
Aguadilla has many famous residents.
Such as the major-league slugger, Delgado.
Such as José de Diego, a poet, journalist, essayist, orator, politician and advocate for Puerto Rico’s independence. He founded the Autonomist Party in 1887 and, seven years later, co-founded, with Luis Muńoz Rivera, the Unionist Party.
Or Rafael Hernandez, whose Preciosa was regarded as the island’s second anthem and has composed more than 3,000 songs.
Yet, neither de Diego, who died in 1921, nor Hernandez who passed in 1965, have celebrations on the anniversary of their deaths.
* * *
Ernesto Gonzalez, 72, comes home to his village from Newton, Mass., each year to pay respect to his late mother and to Ata.
In discussing his former coach, he mentions how the coach helped the poor. Poor is relative term. But how poor was the Gonzalez family?
He tells of his grandmother, Rosalia, growing up living under a house. Without facilities. With cardboard on sides of the house.
Later, after his mother wed, his father died of tuberculosis when he was only five. Gonzalez and his brother, Alfredo, shared a bedroom. The grandmother slept in the kitchen and mother, Aurora, slept on a cot in the living room.
“People told her to move to New York in the 1960s, put her family on welfare,” Gonzalez said. “My mother never went past the second grade but she learned to read and write.”
Aurora’s children turned out just fine. Now, Ernesto is a doctor of dermatology at the famed Mass General in Boston. Alfredo grew up to be a professor of economics at the University of Puerto Rico.
Alfredo spoke to Ata of Andrew Keen’s book and his view of “digital narcissism,” in this era and another new vision on how a human “is his essence, his suffering, his sympathy ... and that’s you.”
* * *
Delgado Sr., is 6-foot-4, an inch taller than his son.
He speaks to Mayello, who earlier had sung for the first time.
“Mayello, thanks for singing. You have to see Chiquitin to sign the cheque in order to get paid,” Delgado says with a straight face.
Everyone laughs, for no one gets paid.
The only payoff is a post-cemetery visit to Boglio’s estate overlooking the Atlantic with beef and pork, drinks and music. And of course pictures.
“There,” says a man running up to me pointing to the man in street clothes in the back row of the team picture from the 1961 juveniles. “There is Ata. What a man!”
* * *
Over the years we’ve witnessed some memorable events: Canada beating Team USA at Phoenix in the first World Baseball Classic in 2006; Mookie Wilson’s ground ball going through Billy Buckner’s legs in 1986; an ailing Kirk Gibson going deep at Dodger Stadium in 1988, the New York Yankees’ first home game after Sept. 11, 2001; and Paul Molitor standing at home plate weeping after Joe Carter’s homer in 1993.
This event ranks somewhere amongst that group when it comes to range of emotion.
A better description may be that it was like watching the movie Pay it Forward for the first time and better than watching it a 25th time.
* * *
They talk to Ata, give him the latest gossip from their town and their island and they tell him what is going on in the world.
“Ata, your friend here should be arrested,” says one former player pointing at another. “Yes, he stole a three-legged pig. You don’t believe me? Oh, you say you don’t believe me because you know him and he would have stolen the whole pig.”
Another round of laughter.
* * *
Graves are something we’ve avoided since my pal Smitty — the pretend grandpa to our kids — died in Ottawa in 1987, or Aunt Loriane was buried in Hamilton 15 years later.
Yet, here we were, at 10 in the morning inside the walls of a cemetery in Aguadilla.
Dr. Gonzalez invited me to the event seven years ago when we wrote about Carlos Delgado helping fund a program where doctors in the local hospital could hook up with surgeons at Mass General when performing surgery on children.
Now, Dr. Gonzalez is at the microphone.
Now, I hear my name. Now, it is my turn to speak.
“You’ve heard a lot of speakers today, well, I’m going to be the worst,” I say as a few snap pictures and I look at the grave. “But what you have here is a wonderful, wonderful concept. Ata, you have some great friends.”
I walk away thinking that a few gravesite visits are in my future.
“Your friend is your friend, even if he is dead,” as Boglio said.
* * *
Luis Soto, Ata’s nephew, thanks everyone for attending and Quińones, who sang the opening song, now sings the final one.
The chorus is about Christmas, loving each other and friendship.