As many older observers tell it, softball in the Bronx was most popular in the mid-1980s, when games could attract crowds of hundreds of people and wagers on various teams ranged up to $10,000 on a single contest.
One softball team had a particular penchant for taking that cash in those years: an aptly-named crew known as The Bandits. As their veteran players tell it, their team was so unstoppable that it had to travel to Brooklyn, Connecticut, or New Jersey to find a game. They once changed their team name to be admitted to a league that wouldn’t have accepted them otherwise, for fear they would trounce the competition.
Today most of the original Bandits are in their 50s. One is 65. But the guys can’t stay away from the diamond. The team reunited last year and is now in the midst of its second season this century, playing games every Saturday in the Bronx Stars league at Pelham Bay Park. The Bandits today are a combination of veterans from the squads of the 1980s and a handful of 20-something sluggers. While the younger guys man the outfield to do most of the legwork, the older players yell the loudest and seem to collectively hang on every pitch. For them, donning the grey-and-black jerseys on Saturdays is about a break from wives and girlfriends in favor of time with sons and old friends. It’s about taking pleasure in those non-stop insults and chuckling over a beer after the game ends on a sunny afternoon. And if they finish ahead of the 23 other teams in the league, so be it. They were division winners last year and lost in the playoffs to the eventual champions.
Yankee Stadium may get the most attention, but for many Bronxites the real baseball happens on fields like the ones where The Bandits play. Here are the characters that bring those fields alive.
Cheo Romero woke up with a hole in his throat, unable to breathe or talk, with surgical wounds on his neck and leg, scared, depressed, suicidal, a feeding tube poking out of his abdomen and an IV needle in his arm. That was February 2009, days after doctors had discovered a bulging tumor in Romero’s jaw. That was the beginning of the battle.
Next came several months of an experimental treatment that combined radiation and chemotherapy. The former bodyguard and Bandits centerfielder spent drugged-up day after drugged-up day in the hospital, unable to go home because he couldn’t bear the pain.
Romero’s people were fixtures in the hospital room during those hard months: his ex-fiance and mother-in-law – both still close to him when the cancer was diagnosed – his son Rolando, and his softball teammates. Manager Edgar Aviles came to see him several times a week.
“Sometimes I’d go to sleep and I’d wake up and he’d be in the chair,” Romero remembered. “He used to tell guys, ‘I don’t think Cheo’s going to make it.’”
Making it wasn’t a sure thing. Doctors had warned Romero that the even if the emergency surgery needed to remove the tumor was effective, it could leave him eating out of a straw or through a feeding tube for the rest of his life. Few imagined he would play softball again.
But Romero had other ideas. He would surprise his nurses by disconnecting his own IV and feeding tube to walk around the hospital for exercise. He did pull-ups on the chain above his bed, startling other patients.
Romero, who is 51, hasn’t returned to work, but he lives for Saturdays. Now he not only chews some of his meals, but wraps up that feeding tube so it doesn’t impede his ability to pitch. He stays away from playing the outfield or running the bases, but he can still swing the bat. Best of all Romero’s cancer is in remission.
“I used to look out my window and cry,” Romero said. “Now I’m playing every game.”
When Edgar Aviles broke his ankle sliding into third base, his teammates thought of one thing: revenge.
The Bandits’ dugout was a dangerous place to be in the 1980s. The team, energized for softball games that, at that time, they played throughout the week, thrived on more than just verbal jibes. The guys were fans of the World Wrestling Federation and wouldn’t be shy to throw an elbow and catch a teammate off-guard.
As Bandits member Frankie Rodriguez remembers it, Edgar Aviles was among the most formidable wrestling opponents. But this time, as Aviles lay prone waiting for an ambulance, he couldn’t fight back. And with the rest of his body intact, it was open season for the rest of the Bandits.
“While he was laying on the floor, everybody was doing elbow drops on him, eye gouges, whatever it took just to get back at him,” Rodriguez recalled. As the ambulance pulled away, the team flagged it down. The paramedics stopped, “thinking they were going to give him something. The guy opens the door, and (a Bandits player) came and eye gouged him again. He left (for) the hospital in pain, but he was laughing, he was laughing the whole way.
“I mean it’s amazing, how you going to be there with a broken ankle and be able to laugh at things like that? That will tell you the kind of guy he is,” Rodriguez said.
It’s Aviles who keeps order amidst the trash-talking personalities in the dugout. After decades of strict managing (he once walked off with the player’s cash after it took a threat of forfeiting the game to get them to pay an umpire’s fee), he has earned their loyalty. The men on the team may call the shots at their day jobs, but everyone knows who sets the lineup on Saturday.
“Today I showed up late,” said Gilbert Rivera, 55, on a recent morning in Pelham Bay Park. “He’s not going to start me.”
Aviles, whose son Mike is an infielder for the Kansas City Royals, says he’s more relaxed than in the Bandits’ earlier days. At 50, he’s stopped working as a customer service representative at a bank due to a heart condition. He looks forward to the games at the park to keep him occupied.
Today, “we come out to enjoy ourselves, goof around, talk about the old times,” Aviles said. “It’s not big deal if we win or not.”
Yet when Aviles talks about how the Bandits finished second-place in their division last year against a field of younger teams, it’s hard to miss a sense of satisfaction.
During the week, Milton Pacheco is, in his own words, “The Broker” of real estate in the Bronx. On Saturdays, he’s something else.
“They call me ‘The Mummy’ because it takes me about 45 minutes to get wrapped up. I gotta wrap up my ankles, wrap up my knees, wrap up my back,” Pacheco said while preparing to pitch on a recent Sunday. “Bunch of assholes, anyways,” he added with a smile.
Pacheco, who is 65, is regarded as the senior member of the Bandits squad. He remembers how the team used to have to travel outside the Bronx to find opponents. Once, the Bandits changed their team name so that they could be admitted to a league that wouldn’t have accepted them for fear that they would trounce the competition.
“We had a reputation, nobody wanted to play us,” he said. “Now we’re old and everybody wants to play us, but we’re still pretty good.”
The team’s competitive fire hasn’t subsided with age. Pacheco was tossed from a game in April after arguing balls and strikes from the pitcher’s mound. His replacement, Joe Capello, got berated for giving up too many walks. Said teammate Gilbert Rivera after the game: “he led their team in RBIs.”
Indeed, after the game is when the real fun starts. The guys sit on benches in the shade, sipping beer and hurling insults. They dissect the most recent game, pointing out that as older guys, they can’t make unforced mistakes. They discuss a team trip to Florida. Everyone is home. What’s better than sitting in the park talking baseball?
“Sometimes we don’t see each other for six, seven months. You’ll meet up again in April, hang out, have a little brew after the game, you know what I mean?” Pacheco said. “We spend the whole day here. You look forward to it.”
Said Rodriguez: “I do anything I can to be part of the team. I keep score, I coach the bases, just to be here. And there’s a lot of guys like that … It’s in your blood.
“They’re gonna bury me in the mound when I die,” he added, laughing. “That’s the way it is.”