Braves end mate’s self-imposed exile
By MIKE MURPHEY
Roy Hobbs Baseball
A couple of centuries ago, they would have called it being “Shanghaied.” That’s when a ship captain in need of a crew would slip a “mickey” to some unsuspecting bar patron – or just bonk him on his head – and the victim would wake up on conscripted to labor on a boat bound for some distant port.
But when the Puerto Rico LBBA baseball team ‘Shanghaied’ Julio Colon from Ft. Myers back to Puerto Rico a decade ago, their motives were more altruistic.
Alfred Ayala, catcher and manager of the LBBA team, recalls the first time he met Julio Coon. He was trying to conduct an informational meeting 12 years ago soon after the team had arrived in Ft. Myers for the Roy Hobbs World Series.
“I was trying to speak, and there was this guy who was in the back being very loud, talking to some of the players,” Alfred said. “I had to ask him to be quiet so we could continue with our meeting.”
It turned out that Julio’s disruption was a sin of enthusiasm rather than rudeness.
A Puerto Rican native, Julio was a fanatical baseball fan, overwhelmed at seeing a baseball team comprised of his countrymen. When he went to the hotel where he learned the team was staying, he was even more excited to know that he knew one of the players – Julio Gonzales who played in the Major Leagues with the Astros and Cardinals.
“I used to live in Tucson, Arizona, where Julio Gonzales played minor league baseball,” Julio said, “and I got to know him there.”
Ayala said he quickly put aside his initial annoyance with Colon when he learned of his devotion to the game, and to the Puerto Rican players.
“And that started a friendship with the whole team that’s been going on ever since,” Ayala said. “He’s our biggest fan. He throws a party for the team every year when we arrive, and is at every game.”
Soon after that first meeting, Colon’s new friends learned that he had not been back to his native Puerto Rico for more than 25 years. The exile was self-imposed, an outgrowth of Colon’s two tours of duty, beginning when he was 18 years old, as an infantryman in Vietnam.
“He suffered from Delayed Stress Syndrome,” said Ayala, who is a doctor.
Colon said he couldn’t make himself go back for a variety of reasons.
“During my first tour in Viet Nam,” he said, “a close friend got killed. We went to High School together.”
When his friend’s body was shipped back home, Julio was granted leave to go back as well. But anticipating the scene at the cemetery, and all the questions he faced from his friend’s family was too much.
“I just couldn’t go back,” he said.
A near crash upon landing in an airliner a couple of years later complicated things by creating a fear of flying.
“I tried to go a couple of times,” he said. “People would talk me into it, and take me to the airport and drop me off. But I couldn’t do it. I’d get back home before they did.”
Julio told his Puerto Rican baseball buddies how much he wanted to see his homeland again, but he also told them why he couldn’t return.
So three years after their first meeting with Julio, they took matters into their own hands. With his wife’s knowledge but unknown to him, they slipped him a powerful sedative and managed to get him on an airplane bound for home.
When he got off the plane and realized where he was, Ayala said, “He fell down and kissed the land and thanked God for bringing him back.”
In the years since, he has overcome his fear of flying and now travels regularly back home. Part of the reason is a reunion with children he hadn’t seen in 24 years. And that reunion was also a result of his relationship to the Puerto Rico LBBA baseball team.
He and his first wife divorced when he lived in Tucson, and she took their children with her back to Puerto Rico and Julio had lost track of them.
At one of the parties he held for the team in Ft. Myers, he told the story to a team member, who, by pure coincidence, was a close friend of the man his first wife was married to then. So through him, Julio was able to reestablish contact with his children.
Julio says he has been a baseball fanatic since childhood. As a child, he watched “the great Clemente” play. As a teenager, he worked in the clubhouse in Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan – named for the first Puerto Rican to play in the Major Leagues. Today he is an umpire in the Ft. Myers area. He has been on the Roy Hobbs World Series umpire staff in the past.
The highlight of all his baseball experiences, though, came last year when his beloved Puerto Rico LBBA team won the Masters AAAA championship.
“The last time they won the championship was in 1999, so it was a long wait,” he said. “I’ve seen too many second places. Last year, wow, that was icing on the cake.”
In September, Colon said he’d already started preparations for the pre-tournament party for his Puerto Rican friends.
“They know that when they get here, the party will be ready,” he said.