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USA Today

Latino Players Can Revive Baseball In America

BY Tim Wendel

May 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
USA Today, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

In his last turn at bat during a much-anticipated home stand, Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers drove the ball into the right- field bleachers Sunday, becoming the 19th player in the game's history to reach 500 home runs.

The first baseman with the sweet, compact swing is symbolic of a major trend in baseball that has implications reaching far beyond home-run records: Players of Latino descent, like Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, who hit his own No. 500 earlier this season, have come to dominate America's national pastime.

The two sluggers are the first players born outside the USA to join the 500-home-run club. Palmeiro was born in Cuba, and Sosa in the Dominican Republic. But they're not the only Latino stars; pick up any sports section, and you'll find Latino ballplayers making headlines every day. Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro and Juan Gonzalez are among the hitting leaders. This generation's pitchers include potential Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera.

Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, baseball was strictly a white man's game. In the years after Robinson, such black superstars as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson took center stage. Now, with Alex Rodriguez the highest- paid player in the game and Vladimir Guerrero likely to be the most coveted free agent next off-season, baseball isn't just white or black anymore. To crib from commentator and writer Richard Rodriguez, the prominent color has become brown.

The impact of Latinos in baseball will be as important to the sport specifically, and our society in general, as the rise of the African-American athletes in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many consider baseball to be past its prime, better suited for nostalgic old-timers than the X Games crowd. For many kids in this country, baseball moves too slowly, and too little seems to be at stake.

But anyone who has seen baseball as it is played in the Dominican Republic or Cuba knows how exciting the game can be. Outside the borders of the USA, runners relish taking the extra base at every opportunity. Pitchers aren't reluctant to challenge hitters. This quicker, passionate, even more confrontational style of play is what's being brought to the United States.

"Of all the sports, we Latins believe that baseball requires the greatest amount of skill," Hall of Fame player Orlando Cepeda says. "That's why we take such pride in playing it well."

Off the field, Latinos are making inroads into baseball management. In recent weeks, Arturo Moreno, a Phoenix businessman, has stepped up to buy the world champion Anaheim Angels from Disney. Omar Minaya, who was born in the Dominican Republic and made history when he was named the first Latino general manager in the major leagues, has kept his Montreal Expos competitive even though the ball club has one of the lowest team payrolls in the game. Not bad for a guy who was passed over by other ball clubs because he didn't have enough "organizational experience."

Just as it took a while for Palmeiro to be recognized, the powers that be in baseball often underestimate the Latino impact. When Major League Baseball announced its All-Century Team in 1999, not a single Latino made the cut. The great Roberto Clemente finished 10th among outfielders, one spot removed from the roster.

For several years, a World Cup for baseball has been under discussion. Imagine a tournament -- perhaps during the Olympics -- in which Jason Giambi (New York Yankees) and Shawn Green (Los Angeles Dodgers) would suit up for Team USA; Sosa (Chicago) and Albert Pujols (St. Louis Cardinals) would play for the Dominican Republic and Bernie Williams (Yankees) and Carlos Delgado (Toronto Blue Jays) would be with Puerto Rico. Even though everyone loves the concept, including many involved with the Olympics, it won't happen until 2005 at the earliest.

Latinos have become the largest minority in America. Yet too often we overlook emerging segments of our population. Sports help us overcome that. The play of Aaron and Mays moved in tandem with civil rights marches and Martin Luther King Jr. in challenging Jim Crow laws and overt racism. Clemente once said that Latinos were a double minority -- disregarded because of the color of their skin and their mother tongue. One wonders what Clemente, who died young, would think of this sea change in baseball.

Since our nation's inception, we've prided ourselves on being a melting pot -- a place where talent, not connections or family linkage, is the bottom line. While that may be difficult to argue in some fields these days, it still rings true often enough in sports.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's fisherman asks which Cuban manager was the best of that time, Dolf Luque or Mike Gonzalez. From such beginnings, the Latino connection with baseball extends like a family tree to Orestes "Minnie" Minoso (the Latino Jackie Robinson), Clemente and Cepeda, all the way to modern-era Sosa and Palmeiro.

What many U.S. sports fans are just beginning to realize is that our national pastime also belongs to the rest of the world. Dreams about baseball extend beyond borders, even past the barriers of language. That can truly be a wonder in a world that's seemingly eager to break along class and racial lines at every turn.

So often baseball offers us the comfort of continuity, a link from one generation to another. What we're only beginning to realize is that the game also can connect Americans to worlds with which we thought we had little in common.


Tim Wendel is the author of The New Face of Baseball: The 100- Year-Rise and Triumph of Latinos in America's Favorite Sport and Castro's Curveball: A Novel.

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