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The Kansas City Star
Baseball Has Become Americas' Game
By DICK KAEGEL
March 30, 2003
Latin culture is in every corner of America's national pastime, from its stars to its stats to its spirit. It's in the way it's played, where it's scouted and why it's watched.
The numbers are concrete. On opening day a year ago, 23 percent of all players were from Latin American countries -- a number that almost doubled in the 1990s. Count players of Latin heritage and that figure climbs to 26 percent.
A "Saturday Night Live" skit no more, Latinos are the dominant trend of the last decade in Major League Baseball. But this goes beyond numbers. There's a rich beisbol history south of our borders, from the Latinos in the Negro Leagues to Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire's home run revival during the summer of '98. Latin players have spurred franchise growth and, in the case of Sosa, help reinvigorate the game.
The ascent of men like Alex Rodriguez, of men like Jose Contreras, Tony Pena and Carlos Beltran, mirrors the ascent of the Hispanic culture from coast to coast. These athletes are not only stars, but symbols.
Beloved artist and New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg once said, "Baseball is an allegorical play about America." It's true that baseball often mirrors both the ups and downs of our country. The stories about a changing face of a game are also stories about the changing face of a nation. In Kansas City, for instance, the rise of Latinos in the 1990s was nearly three times the national average and growing every day.
"If you see what's happening in Major League Baseball, it's probably a microcosm of what's going on in the world, anyway in the U.S., and I was pleased to see we became second right after white Americans," said Rodriguez, the Texas Rangers' shortstop with Cuban heritage who was born in New York, moved to the Dominican and finally settled in Miami.
"Hispanic population is growing at an incredible pace and, obviously, it's doing the same thing in Major League Baseball. Twenty-five percent? I didn't know it was quite that high but, someday, I can imagine it being 35 or 40 percent."
Before Latinos came north to forever change the American game, baseball had to find its way south. There are two dominant stories about how the game ended up in Latin American, both centering around Cuba.
One says crew members of an American naval ship were playing the game for a crowd of Cuban dock workers, who loved what they saw. The other, one favored by Latin American baseball guru and Yale professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, said Nemesio Guillot, who attended college in the United States, brought the game back with him in 1864 to Havana.
"That," Echevarria said, "was the very beginning of baseball in Latin America."
In 1871, Cuban Esteban Bell?n played for the Troy Haymakers -- the first Latin-born man to play for a U.S. major-league team. Thirty years later, two Cuban outfielders joined the Cincinnati Reds and became the first Latin players of the modern era.
As baseball strengthened the color line and made segregation a cornerstone of the game, Latin players were forced to play in the Negro Leagues. Many Negro Leaguers also went south to play.
Cuba became a global home to great baseball. Cuba would continue to be the largest supplier of major-league talent until Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution shut off the pipe line. Before the revolution, Americans could watch their stars play Cuban league games on television. Cuba even had its own minor-league team, the Havana Sugar Kings.
"In some ways, you can make an argument that some of the best ball that was being played was the stuff that was being played in Cuba every winter," said Rob Ruck, University of Pittsburgh professor of sport in American history. "You had white major leaguers, black Negro Leaguers and the best Latins playing. So there's cross-fertilization."
The game also grew in the Dominican Republic which, last season, contributed 74 players -- the most from any country outside the U.S. -- to opening-day rosters.
After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the number of African-American players grew until their influence and talents changed the game forever. At the same time, Latin-born players who were banned because they were black also found the door opening to them.
Some teams focused on mining Cuba. Teams like the San Francisco Giants took special interest in the Dominican. Scouts such as the Pittsburgh Pirates' Howie Haak roamed the Caribbean, focusing on gems such as Roberto Clemente.
Clemente was one of the first Latin players who was adored by all -- African-Americans, whites and Latinos. He proved that Latinos could be stars, and the hunt for talent, already on, intensified.
The numbers of African-American players crested in the mid-1970s and teams searched to fill the expanding league.
"After that initial explosion of black talent, Latins have been the best new source of talent in the game," Ruck said.
"And a lot of that is driven by the economics of major-league teams, being able to seek out and develop talent at a fraction of the cost that they can in the United States."
More and more Latin players came north and became stars. By the 1990s, stars like Sosa and Rodriguez brought fans to the ballpark and became endorsement darlings.
Major-league clubs used to pick up Latin players for a song. Now, that's no longer the case.
"It doesn't make any difference," said Royals general manager Allard Baird. "They all have agents. It doesn't matter who they are -- it's the marketplace (that dictates salaries)."
From 1990 to 2001, according to Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society director Peter Roby, Latinos went from 13 percent to 26 percent. In the same period, African-Americans declined from 17 percent to 13 percent. White players shrank from 70 percent to 59 percent. The Latinos were taking over.
"It's been tremendous and making more of an impact every year," commissioner Bud Selig said. "Everything in life runs in cycles and so that's the cycle of the past 10 or 15 years, and I think it will become more pronounced."
This rapid growth of Latinos in Major League Baseball is merely mirroring the rest of the nation. In the United States the last 15 years, the Hispanic population has ballooned.
"The Latino GDP (in America) is now about $600 billion -- larger than Mexico's and Spain's," said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "That is an explosion."
It's everywhere. A week ago, during the Academy Awards, Salma Hayek became the first Mexican nominated for best actress, for her work in "Frida."
Several months ago, the newest census data was released and Hispanics were the largest minority group in the United States, surpassing African-Americans. The population is now at 37 million and has been growing at the incredible rate of a million people per year. Many of these have deep roots with the game of baseball and are avid consumers.
Luis Gonzalez, the Arizona Diamondbacks' left fielder, talked of passionate fans during a spring visit to Hermosillo, Mexico.
"Baseball is considered the premier Latin sport, for the people here," Gonzalez said. "And they live and breathe baseball."
Major League Baseball knows these also are potential customers. The league markets its game to Latin communities in Florida and Arizona, and has plans to do even more in the future.
This year, the Montreal Expos will play 22 regular-season games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Used to be, games in Latin America were reserved for exhibitions. But the league is dipping a toe in the warm Caribbean waters, testing the market for a possible franchise location.
"It's going to keep growing because I think, in America now, the kids play too much Nintendo and Sega and we don't, you know," said Magglio Ordonez, a Venezuelan and right fielder for the Chicago White Sox. "We just play baseball and that's it."
Shooting for stars
For years now, major-league teams have actively mined the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico and other locales south of the border for baseball gold. Cuban defectors also have been hot commodities.
Latin America has become baseball's lifeline.
"It's the opportunity," said Felipe Alou, the San Francisco Giants' manager. "There are more Latins playing now than ever. Obviously, it's the baseball academies they have in Venezuela and the Dominican that open more opportunities for Latin players."
Most major-league teams have an academy or academies in Latin America, some nicer than others. Scouts sign players, who then report to the teams for a roof over their heads, three squares and baseball instruction. The best end up in America.
"It's pure scouting," said Deric Ladnier, whom the Royals hired in August 2000 as their scouting director because of his extensive experience in the Caribbean while working for the Atlanta Braves.
"It's a case that you really don't know what is around the corner. If you keep driving, you may find a good player. There may be a Sammy Sosa around the corner. There may be a Miguel Tejada around the corner. You just don't know."
Impact on Latin America
Hispanic players love the game, but there's another driving force -- money. Most of them are from poor countries and baseball offers a better standard of living for them and their families.
Typically, Latin players who make the major leagues become providers for their relatives and others in their home countries. Alou remembered turning over the $200 signing bonus he received directly to his parents to pay for groceries and other necessities.
"We are the Social Security of our families," said Alou, one of the Dominican Republic's first big-league stars. "We carry a load when it comes to family and, in certain cases, friends too."
Giants first baseman Andres Galarraga, from Venezuela, found his mother dubious when he began his career in 1979.
"When I signed as a professional, every one dollar was worth four bolivars. Now it's 1,500 for every one dollar. So it makes a big difference," Galarraga said.
"When I signed, my mother said, `You have to go to school and then play baseball.' Now it's backward; they're pushing us to play baseball because of the money situation."
Impact on the majors
The achievements of home-run hero Sammy Sosa are very visible, and it's easy for the average fan to see the Latin influence on the game. One look at the statistics, and a fan gets the same impression. Take last year.
Manny Ramirez's .349 batting average and Alex Rodriguez's 57 homers led the American League. Pedro Martinez topped pitchers with a 2.26 ERA and went 20-4 for the best winning percentage.
Sosa's 49 homers led the National League. Vladimir Guerrero had the most hits, 206. The St. Louis middle-infield combo of Edgar Renteria and Fernando Vi?a won Gold Gloves.
And who could forget young Francisco Rodriguez's spectacular pitching and five postseason wins for the world champion Anaheim Angels?
The influence also extends into more subtle aspects of the game. The rapid expansion of the majors has been fueled by a consistent, and seemingly never-ending supply of talent.
"Without the influx of Latin players, we certainly wouldn't have 30 major-league teams," said Roland Hemond, executive adviser to the general manager for the White Sox. "So they've been a great boon for our game, its growth in franchises as well as in quality of play.
"It's a testimony to them that they play baseball morning, noon and night. I wish Americans would play as much as those in other countries -- like we used to."
But the greatest impact likely hasn't been felt yet. All signs point to even greater growth. Who knows? Maybe, someday, the World Series will be just that.
The wheels, already turning, are going faster and faster. America's game is morphing into the Americas' game.