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Free-Swinging Label Has No Substance; Latin Americans' On-Base Mark Par 'Key Is To Get Them At A Young Age'…Whitest Team In The Majors; Jays Have The Fewest Visible Minorities Economics Blamed For Lack Of Diversity

Free-Swinging Label Has No Substance; Latin Americans' On-Base Mark Par 'Key Is To Get Them At A Young Age'

Geoff Baker

June 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Toronto Star. All rights reserved. 

There is an old adage regarding Latin American baseball players that states, "You can't walk off the island."

It means players from Latin America looking to attract the attention of major-league scouts had better hit home runs rather than work pitch counts and draw bases on balls.

That description has been used to justify a decades-old stereotype of the typical Latin American being free-swinging and prone to strike out.

It's also dead wrong.

A look by the Star at the 216 Latin American players who swung a bat last season found them with a combined on-base percentage of .330, almost equalling the major-league average of .331.

The 120 Latin American position players from last year who made it on to opening-day rosters this season posted a .336 on-base percentage in 2002.

Racial statistics aren't kept in baseball, so the above numbers might be news to some teams. But they rule out one possible reason for why the on-base-obsessed Jays now have the fewest number of Latin American position players in the major leagues.

Latinos make up the second-biggest minority group in the United States and they have taken over that distinction in baseball. They have filled a void left by the well-documented baseball decline of black Americans, who have shunned the sport at grassroots levels in favour of basketball, football and other pastimes.

Figures from Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society show that the number of blacks in the majors dropped from 17 per cent to 13 per cent between 1990 and 2001, while whites declined to 59 per cent from 70 over the same period.

Latin Americans, on the other hand, grew from 13 to 26 per cent.

On opening day this year, whites represented 58.5 per cent of all players, Latin Americans 28 per cent and blacks 11.7 per cent.

Jays president and CEO Paul Godfrey and GM J.P. Ricciardi can't say for sure why the Jays have so few Latin Americans. But they noted the presence of several on the team's 40-man roster and added that Toronto recently extended its contract with a Dominican-based baseball academy run by former Jays slugger George Bell.

"We're active where the players are," Ricciardi said.

"The key is to be able to get them at a young age where you can teach them things."

Ricciardi said he is well aware of the on-base prowess of Latin Americans and that they constitute some of the game's best hitters.

Indeed, the Jays' lone Latin American slugger is Puerto Rico native Carlos Delgado, who is leading the majors with 26 home runs and 86 runs batted in.

Whitest Team In The Majors; Jays Have The Fewest Visible Minorities Economics Blamed For Lack Of Diversity

Geoff Baker

June 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Toronto Star. All rights reserved. 

Venturing into the Blue Jays clubhouse less than two years ago meant having your ears filled with the buzz of Spanish dialects from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and South America.

A glance around the room would take in not only the Latin American players chatting among themselves, but also a good number of blacks from the United States dressing alongside their white counterparts. Such a scene was nothing new. A Jays team once led by Joe Carter, Robbie Alomar, George Bell, Tony Fernandez and Devon White was for years known to be as diverse as the city it represents. That is no longer the case.

A study by the Star has found that this year's edition of the Blue Jays had the fewest number of visible minorities on the opening-day roster of any of the 30 major-league teams. A Toronto club that boasted of its diversity in recent radio ads actually had the visible-minority players on its 25-man roster drop from 11 on opening day a year ago to only six this season.

Fuelling that change has been a rapid decline in the number of Latin Americans suiting up for Toronto, a drop that comes even as their numbers expand throughout baseball. The Jays in their glory years were a haven for players of Latin American descent, but the three they had on opening day - and the four they now have - were the fewest of any team.

Opening-day rosters, not current ones, were used for the study for easier comparisons between teams and years.

Despite being the most homogeneous squad in baseball, the important fact remains that the Jays are winning and contending for a playoff spot. Toronto was only three games out of first place in the American League East yesterday as it entered a weekend series with the Montreal Expos, who, coincidentally, began the season with the most visible-minority players.

That raises the issue of whether the Jays truly need to be more representative of the city they play in at a time when they are satisfying fans by winning. A less obvious issue, one bound to generate heated debate, is whether Toronto has somehow gained an advantage by bucking baseball's diversity trend - and whether others will copy this model and change the demographics of the game.

"I believe the vast majority of people will come to see a winning ball club, whether it has nine Dominicans, nine Americans or nine people from Japan on the field," Jays president and CEO Paul Godfrey said. "I think the excitement generated by a winning team far outweighs any other consideration."

Godfrey also doesn't believe the victorious Jays are setting any kind of trend for teams to emulate. He believes that even to concede there is a trend here would suggest the Jays have targeted white players as a priority, an insinuation he rejects.

"Baseball teams don't sit down and say, 'I'll take so many of those and so many of those,'" he said, adding he wasn't aware of Toronto's low visible-minority ranking until now. "I don't believe in quotas on or off the field. I want the best person in the position, on or off the field."

Peter Donnelly, director of the Centre for Sports Policy Studies at the University of Toronto, was stunned to hear that the Jays, once hailed for diversity, now have so few minorities relative to the rest of baseball.

"You're talking about the most multicultural city in the world," Donnelly said. "In many ways, Toronto is more multicultural than New York. So, there's a responsibility there and it probably makes marketing sense to reflect your community.

"You go to a Jays game when Seattle's in town and look at the number of Japanese fans in the stands," he said in reference to the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki.

Complicating the entire issue of race is the fact the Jays aren't really seeking the best players available, many of whom happen to be non-white. Budget-conscious Toronto instead is looking for value.

And the facts show the Jays took a dramatic, economically beneficial turn toward a much whiter roster after J.P. Ricciardi was named general manager in November 2001. Of the 39 players Ricciardi has since acquired through trades, free agency or waiver claims, 36 of them - 92 per cent - are white.

Those moves have seriously altered the makeup of the Jays, who had 11 visible-minority players on the opening-day roster the past three seasons and at least 10 each year since 1994.

Ricciardi is at a loss to explain the numbers as anything beyond coincidence, although he does correctly point out that the number of black players in the game has steadily declined. The number of Latin Americans, on the other hand, has more than doubled since 1991 and they made up 28 per cent of the 750 players on opening-day rosters. Also, 54.4 per cent of the players were white and 45.6 per cent were either Latin American, black, Asian or Native American.

"We don't look at players as black and white," Ricciardi said, adding that his job was to put together the best possible team within the budget. "We do look at players for what they can do for us."

Ricciardi, who has a Cuban-born manager in Carlos Tosca, doubts fans care much about a team's racial makeup. He cited the Expos, who began the season tied with the Texas Rangers at 14 visible-minority players, including12 Latin Americans, one black and one Asian, as an example.

"Look at the Expos and all the players they have and they still get only 5,000 people coming to their games," Ricciardi said.

Of the 21 free agents signed by Ricciardi, the only non-whites have been since-departed outfielder Pedro Swann and recent bullpen pick-up Juan Acevedo. Toronto's only non-white of 13 players acquired in trades was relief pitcher Felix Heredia, no longer with the team. All five of Ricciardi's waiver claims were white players.

Two of the four players Ricciardi kept from the Rule 5 draft, in which teams choose unprotected minor-league prospects from other organizations, have been non-whites Aquilino Lopez and Corey Thurman. Even including their names among Ricciardi's acquisitions still means nine out of every 10 new players coming to Toronto are white. Despite that, no one is complaining too loudly about Ricciardi's moves.

That's because many of the white players Ricciardi imported, such as Eric Hinske, Frank Catalanotto, Greg Myers, Tom Wilson and Mike Bordick, are resounding successes. Their performances have complemented the play of Toronto's two biggest offensive stars, Puerto Rico native Carlos Delgado and black Texan Vernon Wells, who have helped the Jays soar into contention.

Ricciardi has purged the team of higher-priced talent and replaced it largely with imported players in their late 20s and early 30s who have yet to attain free-agent service time. That nearly all of those new players are white will be less interesting to some GMs than their average salary of only $642,000 (U.S.) compared to the $2.5 million being paid the average non-white who left the team.

Just as difficult to overlook will be the Toronto clubhouse, described by Jays players and management as the most harmonious and clique-free they've seen. It wouldn't be a stretch for some GMs to assume that a clubhouse with fewer language divisions and cultural differences makes for more harmony.

Ricciardi won't make that assumption, saying his players merely accept their differences.

"We have guys who all get along," Ricciardi said. "I think it's only an issue if you make it an issue. To go into a clubhouse and see Carlos Delgado, (Eric) Hinske and Frank Catalanotto talking baseball ... I don't think they care.

"I'd like to think we're beyond that at this stage in the world."

But Donnelly said having a team more in line with baseball norms regarding minorities should be important to a team struggling to sell tickets.

"I would say that it's crucial in Toronto," he said. "They can't be happy that they're only playing in front of crowds of 18,000 to 20,000. Winning is important, but there may be more than one way to skin a cat in the world's most multicultural city. And short of winning a World Series, they're not getting the attention other teams in the city get."

While players come and go throughout a season, the racial makeup of most teams remains surprisingly consistent. The Jays temporarily upped their visible-minority total to seven by adding Mexican-born Acevedo two weeks ago, but the number could go right back down again with possible upcoming trades involving black outfielder Shannon Stewart and Venezuelan pitcher Kelvim Escobar.

'They come from Florida or Texas, where they've played baseball since they were old enough to spit. Others hail from the Dominican or Puerto Rico, where baseball is a way of life.'

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