San Pedro Park
I parked my rental car across the street from the small park that was surrounded by a chain link fence. Inside the enclosure the trees moved softly in the breeze, and the air was full of the sweet smell of freshly cut grass and the wildflowers climbing on the buildings where food was cooked and served at picnics, receptions and fiestas.
I saw a man with a small power lawnmower near the wooden bandstand, and when he looked up I caught his eye, motioning I wanted to come in. He nodded and waved to come ahead. I stepped through the partially open gate and walked toward him across the grass.
“Hello I’m Scott Janssen. I was here several years ago and thought I’d stop back by and take another look. Is that okay?”
The older man, brown skinned and weathered, smiled. “Yes, it’s okay to look around. Many people have been here, and many stop back by. We used to rent the park out a lot, but these days not so much, you know, insurance is so high, but some can afford it and still rent it. That’s what I’m doing, cleaning it up for a wedding this Saturday. But walk around, look and remember. It’s a nice place. Is the kind of place where new beginnings happen. New lives, new friends, baby baptisms, weddings, family dances and fiestas and reunions. Many good things.”
“Thanks I had a good time when I was here before. What’s your name?”
“Manuel Silva. Manny” he answered, and held out his hand. “I’m the caretaker. I belong to the Portuguese Society that owns the park.”
We shook hands, then he asked, “What did you come here for before? A wedding?”
“No, a boxing show, the tribute to Joey Lopes.”
A wide smile crossed his face. “Ah, that was the only boxing ever here. I was here too; it was very good. Henry Rodriquez put that on for the boxing club. He is a good man. His three sons all boxed and he helped a lot of young boxers. A lot of them were here that day. And of course you saw Frankie then, no?”
“Yes, I did, and I met both Frankie and Henry.”
“Very good. Well, look around. The chapel is open, too. I must go and get this grass cut. I have a lot of work to do.”
“Thanks,` Mr. Silva.”
I walked away from the bandstand, crossing a narrow unmowed strip of grass to the entrance of the small chapel that had housed countless weddings and baptisms. The door was ajar and I stepped inside. It was cool and dusky, the only light was the sun coming through the stained glass windows. It was a peaceful place.
I sat down on a pew near the door. Silva was right. At some point in time, somewhere, there are places where people experience new beginnings in their lives, San Pedro Park had been that place for many.
a writer, a freelancer. I’d worked for various publications on
the West Coast before ending up in Seattle, where I now live. I do magazine
and newspaper work, both print and on the internet .
I had just covered two back-to-back nights of pro fights in Reno and Lake Tahoe and come down to West Sacramento, where I used to live, for a couple days of R&R hanging out by the swimming pool at the Best Western Harbor Inn, a hotel I stayed at whenever I was in the area.
the next morning I was settling into the coffee, newspaper, and pool
scenario, when Cecilia, the head housekeeper, saw me.
“Mr. Janssen, ola! You stay again?”
“Yes, I’m afraid you’ve got me for a couple days. How are you and the rest of the girls?”
“We are fine. The hotel just passed a big inspection; we did good. So it is good. Hey, Mr. Janssen, you write about boxing, no? We talked about it before, yes?”
“Well, you know Maria. Her brother is in a boxing show this day, this afternoon. It’s at this place called San Pedro Park. It’s over near Emma’s Taco House on Hobson Avenue.
You should go. They are amateurs, young guys, but some are older, in their twenties or so. They will be turning professional soon. You know West Sacramento. We have many good fighters. One of them fighting today, Frankie Velez, is very good.”
She continued,“ Do you know where Emma’s is?”
“Si, okay, then you turn left there on Solano and left on Hobson by the church and follow it down. It’s a nice park right in the middle of the neighborhood.”
She paused for a moment then with a mischievous smile continued, “You’ll like it. There will also be many pretty senoritas there. They dress up fancy and parade around.”
“Thanks for the tip, CeCe I might check it out, and hey, I’ll tell your boss you’re doing a good job.”
She laughed, “gracias, Mr. Janssen. Have fun.” She waved and walked away checking her clipboard with her list of rooms to take care of.
thought about it for a while. Professional boxing, which is my regular
work, is a world all of its own. There are rules, of course, and regulatory
commissions, but the bottom line is money. That changes everything.
The dollar can cover a lot of indiscretions.
I found San Pedro Park in the old neighborhood of West Sacramento known as Bryte.
Inside, a temporary boxing ring had been set up on a cement area in front of a old wooden bandstand, and men and women were cooking and serving food in several small buildings. There were plenty of restrooms, picnic tables and a play area for children. Lots of shade trees and lush lawns made it a very comfortable place to be on the hot summer day it was turning out to be.
The posters on the fence said the show was a fundraiser and tribute to the late boxer Joey Lopes, a West Sacramento resident and former world champion. Sponsored by the West Sacramento Youth Boxing Club, there were twelve bouts on the card featuring top amateur boxers from the area.
West Sacramento has a rich tradition of boxing and, in addition to Joey Lopes, has produced many fine fighters. There have been several families of fighters, including the Rodriguez, Savala, and Guevara brothers, and the current World Boxing Council super bantamweight champion Willie Jorrin, is also from West Sacramento. I could tell the crowd was quite knowledgeable.
The men, young and old, mostly Latino, were sharply dressed and milling about talking about fighting: who was on the rise and who was falling. There were also several men I recognized from boxing, men with more than a passing interest in the amateur fighters. I guessed it was the fighter Cecilia had mentioned who was drawing some attention.
women and girls, also mostly Latino, were dressed to the hilt, their
beautiful black hair shining in the sun, and some were doing their best
to be the Senioritas everyone noticed. It was a festive and picturesque
crowd, and the sounds of laughter and Spanish filled the air.
I was early and the bouts hadn’t started yet, so I asked one of the girls taking tickets at the gate if the promoter was there.
“Si, he’s over there,” she answered, motioning to a man standing near an area behind a small chapel that had been blocked off as a makeshift dressing room and first aid station. “His name is Henry Rodriquez.”
called out to him, “ Henry, this man wants to see you.”
I approached him, introduced myself and gave him my card. “A woman at the hotel where I’m staying told me about this, so I decided to check it out. I haven’t been to an amateur show in some time.”
He looked at the card. “Great,” he said, “I think this will be a good show.”
“This is quite an event. Good turnout would you say?” I asked.
“Yes, there are some promoters here, and the people from West Sac and Sacramento are big boxing fans and throw a lot of support behind the local kids.” He paused. “But right now we need a shot in the arm to keep the club going. We need new life, I guess you could say, so I hope we get a full house. But the weather is good, the ring is right, and the boys are ready to put on a show. These are all good kids.“
before we get started and I have to go up front and announce, let me
introduce you to this kid I’ve been working with. His name is
Frankie Velez. There’s several guys here checking him out. This
could be his last amateur bout. He’s a tough little guy, about
5’5‘’, 128 pounds, kinda skinny, but he‘s still
Henry continued, “He’s a good kid. Don’t lie, steal, do dope, drink, all the crap his parents did. And he has skills. He’s young, but he’s been with me in the club for several years and he works hard. I’ve seen a lot of fighters who were damn good, but in a little time this kid could be better than all of them. He’s hungry, you know. He’s scared of failing and falling into the trap of ‘I could have been’ and you know what else, he’s a sweet, kind person, except when he’s fighting.”
Then he asked me, “What do you write? For magazines and books and stuff?”
“Magazines mostly, print and some on the internet. I’m a freelance writer so I write about a lot of things. Events, boxing, travel.”
“Oh, I see. Well, this kid is a good story. He’s the kind that makes it worthwhile. And the other kids look up to him. If he can do it, they think they can, too. Here, I’ll get him and you can talk to him. He fights later in the main event after Savala’s fight, but at least you can meet him.”
He called out to the dressing area, “ Frankie. Hey, son, come here. I want you to meet someone.”
A young Latino got off the table he was resting on, pulled his black silk boxing robe around him and walked our way. He was slim, almost skinny, with light brown skin, dark eyes, black hair, and a youthfully handsome face. He showed no signs of combat, yet merely by the way he walked, slowly and deliberately, with easy grace, I could see he was a fighter.
introduced us. “Son, this is Mr. Janssen. He’s a writer.”
Someone called for Henry and he got ready to go to the announcer’s table. “If you have any questions, just find me and ask. Thanks for coming.”
“ You are a writer?” the fighter asked.
“That’s right. Have been for a while.”
“Do your stories have happy endings? That’s the kind I like,” he asked me.
“Well, some are just pieces about events, and I report on boxing, but I do some stories about people who are doing the right things, or at least trying to.”
“Well, maybe I can be a good story for you. I’m going to do the right things.”
“I hope so, Henry says you’re on the right track.”
“Thanks. Could I read some of your stories? I’d like to.”
“Yeah, I’ll get some to Henry.”
that would be cool. Well, it was nice to meet you. I’ve got to
go get taped and warmed up. Are you staying for the show?”
I shook hands with him again and watched as he turned and walked back to the dressing area. He was young and still innocent as to what the professional boxing world was all about. Although he knew the physical side of fighting the preparation, the discipline he had very little idea of what lay ahead should he be talented enough to turn pro. When the money is on the table, the game gets rough. Not in the ring where it’s always rough, but outside in the promoter’s offices, the matchmaker’s desires, and the never-ending pursuit of national rankings and the road to title fights. I hopped that Frankie had good people behind him because he did seem like a good kid. A good kid in a cut-throat business.
The fighters were mainly from West Sacramento and Sacramento, but a couple were from Oakland, and a few from as far away as Southern Oregon. They fought by amateur rules, which include protective head gear, shorter fights, and larger gloves than in the pros.
The bouts were exciting and for the most part close, so by the time it got to Frankie’s bout the original crowd had grown to where the park was nearly overflowing and people were gathering outside the fence watching from the street. The air was full of excitement and the sounds and sights were captivating. The volume level had risen, but when Frankie climbed into the ring, a hush fell over the spectators. I was looking around the crowd and watching their faces, their eyes intent on what was going to be happening next, when out of the corner of my eye I saw three white men moving closer to the ring. Two of the men I didn’t recognize, but the third was Dick Barron of Barron’s Presents, one of the promoters of the fight card I’d just covered at Lake Tahoe. It was clear that the days of Frankie Velez as an innocent amateur were numbered. Barron wasn’t hanging around in West Sacramento to enjoy the area; he was on the trail of a potential money maker. That was his business.
Frankie bounced around the ring, fists held high, and the cheers began. When his opponent climbed through the ropes and they were introduced to the crowd. They both smiled and bowed to all four sides of the boxing ring and went to their respective corners.
That was the last time Frankie was anything but a flurry of fluid action. Boxing is like dancing, it’s timing, movement, and the correct execution of the right moves. Serious, dedicated, fighters train constantly to perfect their craft. The good ones have trained their bodies and minds so well that they make the moves automatically, like poetry in motion, and Frankie was a young poet.
Suddenly a couple of minutes into the second round his opponent hit the canvas. The shot that put him down was part of a smooth combination as quick as a lightning flash. I saw it, but the kid didn’t. He got off the canvas by the count of eight, but the referee stopped it right then, avoiding any further damage. The crowd cheered as one as Frankie’s hand was raised in victory and he graciously acknowledged their support.
It was obvious that Frankie was on the fast track just as Henry had told me. He had that “something” that special athletes have. His speed was blinding and he had room to grow and could move up in weight classes if he was successful, making him more valuable to promoters.
I stayed in the background until the excitement had cooled down and Frankie and Henry had finished talking to an animated Dick Barron, whom I didn’t want to get into a conversation with at the moment, then walked over to the dressing area where Frankie was calmly talking to a beautiful Latino girl.
With the exception of the robe and boxing shoes Frankie still wore, they could have passed for any other happy couple spending a wonderful Sunday afternoon at a fiesta. I stopped and took a picture.
“Sir,” Frankie called excitedly, “I want you to meet my friend Victoria.”
“Hello,” I said, extending my hand.
“Nice to meet you sir,” she replied shyly.
“Frankie, let me get a picture of the two of you. I got some good ring shots.”
“Of course,” the fighter answered and put his arm around the girl’s shoulders. They smiled beautiful smiles and I took several shots.
“Thanks, and congratulations, Frankie. That was some display.”
“Thank you very much I appreciate it. I just met Mr. Barron, the promoter. He said we’ll talk, me and him and Henry. That’s good, si?”
“Yes, it is, Frankie. I know Barron. He has a good company and seems to be an honest promoter. I’ve covered quite a few of his cards. Good luck with that, and listen to Henry, he’s looking out for you.
got to get going but it was a pleasure to meet both of you. Frankie,
here’s my number in Seattle. Call me if there are any developments
I should know about or if you have any questions about who is who and
that sort of thing. I’ll get hold of Henry and get some more information
on you and try to put together a piece.
They smiled and I left to find Henry.
The piece with a photo of Frankie and Victoria appeared two months later in Ring Side, a national boxing magazine, in a feature on-up-and coming amateur prospects. The timing had been good, as they were looking for stories, and Frankie and Victoria were very photogenic, plus West Sacramento had a reputation as a good boxing hot bed.
I sent several copies to Henry to pass along to Frankie and told him where they were on sale if he needed more.
A month or so after that a small package was waiting for me in my apartment manager’s office. It was postmarked West Sacramento and was from Henry. I took it up to my apartment and opened it.
Inside the box was a note and golden medallion on a red, white and blue ribbon.
“Dear Mr. Janssen, Thank you for writing the story. I have kept a copy and I gave one to Victoria too. The medal is from the show that day. It is for you. Our names are on the back. That way you will always remember us. That day at San Pedro was the beginning of a new life for me. I’m turning professional. Your friend, Frankie.”
faint sound of Manny’s lawnmower getting closer broke the silence
in the chapel. It was time to go. I stood up and smiled as I recalled
the pure joy and pride Frankie had shown outside in the park that day.
He had been the happiest young man at the show among the colorful throng
of fine, happy people. He was a ray of hope for the neighborhood and
literally lifted everyone’s spirits.
I said a silent thanks to the good spirits and walked out into the sunshine. Manny saw me and waved as he skillfully maneuvered the mower around the small building.
“Thank you, Manny,” I yelled over the sound of the mower.
“Peace to you, senior,” he called back.
I opened the door to the car which was hot from sitting in the sun and got in. I rolled down the window, started the engine, switched on the air conditioner and radio.
I slowly turned around in the street to take one last look at San Pedro
Park, I heard a voice on the radio, “Folks, it’s tomorrow
night, on the under card of the World Boxing Association Heavyweight
Championship fight at Madison Square Garden in New York West Sacramento’s
‘Flying Frankie Velez ’ is going against Aaron Wales. It’s
a great break for young Velez getting national exposure at this early
stage of his career. It’s on Pay Per View and the radio. Live
coverage begins here at five o’clock on your home of the Sacramento
Kings, Sports1140, KHTK.”