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Crosscurrents

Jonrón! Los Gigantes on the air

One of the joys of baseball is listening to games on the radio. There’s the sound of the crowd, the crack of the bat, the seventh inning stretch … all woven together by the announcers’ excitement and disappointment as they do the live play-by-play.

If you’re a Giants fan, you’ve probably heard Jon Miller on 680 AM. But let’s move up the dial a little bit … to 860 AM.

That’s where the Giants’ games are broadcast in Spanish.

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, un domingo lindísimo, and for today’s game, I’ve got one of the best seats in the house — on the third level, just behind home plate. Los Gigantes are trying to win their third straight game against the Anaheim Angels.

“Welcome to the Spanish broadcast booth, which is situated right behind section 217,” says Erwin Higueros, one of the Giants’ Spanish-language broadcasters.

We’re sitting high above the field with the windows flung open, watching the players warming up. Below us, you can hear vendors selling ice cream and churros, while the fans – los fanáticos –settle in.

“I have a perfect view of home plate,” Higueros tells me. “I have a perfect view of the whole field. And I have a great view of the Bay. I mean, this is great. I look out there, I go, wow. And they pay me for this. I mean, I must be in heaven.”

Higueros has been enjoying this little slice of heaven since he started doing Giants’ play-by-play in Spanish 18 years ago. He’s called games for the 49ers, the Raiders, the Sharks and, for 10 years, the Oakland A’s.

“My first baseball game that I attended was in the Oakland Coliseum,” he says. “I think it was the Oakland A's against the Angels, actually.”

Higueros is originally from Guatemala. He moved to the Bay Area when he was 12 years old. Back then, he didn’t know a thing about baseball.

“I sat in the bleachers, and I saw the game,” he recalls. “Didn't understand it that much.”

I can relate. I don’t understand it that much, either. But the guy sitting next to us does — he’s been playing the game since he was five years old.

Tito Fuentes, number 23, started playing shortstop and second base for the Giants in 1965.  He was 21 at the time — one of the last players signed out of Cuba before the US embargo started. After he stopped playing, he started broadcasting.

“Believe it or not, I was the original,” says Fuentes. “We started this in 1980. We were with the A's. And then the next year, the Giants found out that the A's were doing games in Spanish. So they came in ‘81 and they asked if I wanted to do the game over here. Of course, I came to San Francisco.”

Fuentes does the color commentary; Higueros does the play-by-play. Both of them are wearing championship rings — broadcasters get them when the team wins. The rings are gigantic. I know, because they both let me try theirs on. It’s part of my education today, along with some vocabulary words.

"A homerun is a jonrón, not with an h, but with a j,” says Higueros. “Strike is a strike. A ball is a bola. A walk, you know, base por bolas.

"Segunda base. Primera base. Tercera base. A double – doble.”

My favorite? Ponchado. Literally, it means punctured, deflated, like a flat tire. In baseball, it means "to strike out." Se ponchó.

I ask if they have a signature call. But they tell me it’s too hard to do on demand – I’ll just have to hope someone hits a homerun during today’s game … which is just about to start.

They’re up near the front of the booth. Behind them sits Luis Landero – the weekend producer and engineer. His job is to mix Fuentes' and Higueros’ voices with the sounds of the game – the crowd, the bat hitting the ball, the umpire’s calls.

“We have microphones all over the stadium that allow us to catch the sounds and put it in our systems to provide to the people the real atmosphere of the stadium,” says Landero. “So it's kind of fun because we don't have any images to show the people, so we need to catch the people through the ear.”

Landero also talks to the announcers through their headsets — feeding them stats and other information they need for their broadcast.

Back to the action. It’s the bottom of the first inning. La primera entrada. Left fielder Nori Aoki steps up to bat. There’s the pitch, he hits, and, then, it happens!

“La pelota se fue del cuadrángular!” Erwin Higueros yells this into his microphone at the top of his lungs.

And that, my friends, is Erwin Higueros’ signature home run call.

La pelota se fue del cuadrángular. The ball left the park! Jonrón! Erwin and Tito say it happened because I asked to hear the call. They say this on the air.

And then it’s second baseman Joe Panik’s turn at bat.

And, again, Higueros yells into the mic, “La pelota se fue del cuadrángular!”

Another jonrón. Giants are up two to zero. Tito and Erwin laugh, amazed at what just happened. Tito says it’s got to be a record.

Now, even if you aren’t a fanático, you’ve probably heard of Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey. Erwin Higueros and Tito Fuentes have their own set of fans — people who’ve been listening to them for years.

“We have a listener, Irma, and her husband is ill,” says Higueros. “She usually sends us messages, calls me on the phone, and says that although things are going very hard, that she looks forward to listening to the games because it kind of makes her forget what her husband is going through.”

Sometimes Irma brings them treats from a Mexican bakery in the Mission. And every game, on the air, they dedicate the seventh inning to her and her husband. It’s part of the relationship they have with their listeners.

“There's always something that's going to happen on the field that will dictate what you talk about,” says Higueros. “I work with Tito Fuentes, he played the game, he has a lot of stories from the '60s, some stories are good, some are really good, but then some are really sad.”

Some of those stories are about the discrimination Tito experienced as a black player. He came to the U.S. right at the peak of the Civil Rights era.

“You cannot force the people to like you,” says Fuentes. “But there is a law now, they have to respect me. You don’t have to love me, or like me, but you have to respect me. Because the law is for everyone.”

Baseball, too, has evolved over the decades. It’s become a truly international game. Giants players come from all over the world: The U.S. and Japan, as well as Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. All on the same playing field.

It’s the top of the ninth. Giants are ahead, 3-0. Two outs. Angels’ third baseman David Freese is at the plate.

And then it’s over, the final out. Giants win 5-0.

“Lo barrieron,” says Fuentes on the air.

Lo barrieron. My last vocabulary lesson for the day. They swept it.

To hear Erwin Higueros and Tito Fuentes on the air, tune in to 860AM.

To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above. This piece originally aired in May 2015.