September 23, 1998
Home Run Race
Taking the wider viewThere is a wonderful scene in the movie Under Fire, written by Ron Shelton a few years before he became famous in baseball circles for Bull Durham. Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy are American journalists in Nicaragua during the last days of the Somoza regime. They meet up with some Sandinista revolutionaries, who immediately latch onto the common ground of both U.S. and Nicaraguan culture: baseball. One young rebel brags about what a good pitcher he is, just like his hero Dennis Martinez. "Dennis Martinez" ... the words are spoken with extreme reverence. In the midst of revolution in Nicaragua, there is still time for baseball.
Amidst the joy surrounding the homerun race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, there has arisen the possibility that racism underlies both the official reaction of Major League Baseball to the event as well as the mainstream media coverage of Mac and Sammy. The idea is that Sosa, because he comes from the Dominican Republic and because he speaks English with an accent, is not receiving the level of respect awarded to McGwire, who is presented as a living Paul Bunyan, a great "American" hero. Much of the reaction to these suggestions of racism has been defensive and dismissive, as if the idea that our National Pastime has a connection, even peripherally, to racism is absurd and insulting.
Reality, as usual, lies somewhere between these extremes of accusations of racism on the one hand, and outright dismissal of such accusations on the other.
There are many legitimate reasons why Mark McGwire has drawn more attention than Sammy Sosa. His reputation as a slugger with the potential to break Maris' record is well-known and well-deserved: he has, after all, now passed the 50-homer mark three seasons in succession, while Sosa's previous high was "only" 40. Most importantly, McGwire got there first, hitting the record-breaking 62nd homer before Sosa was able to do the same. Both men have been showered with attention and affection this season, but McGwire has received a little more than Sosa, understandably so.
However, it should be equally understandable to baseball fans why Sosa's achievement is particularly special to fans with roots in the Dominican Republic (and Central America in general). Pride in one's heritage can be an important part of the life of every American. No one thinks it odd that our media keeps an eye on Americans playing baseball in Japan. It shouldn't be odd that fans around the world pay special attention to players from their own countries. And fans from Central America are among the most fervent baseball fans of them all, as an anecdote from Under Fire can remind us.
Nonetheless, it's a big step from being proud of Sammy Sosa to making legitimate any assumptions about racism in the media's coverage. Furthermore, the Spanish-language media in the U.S. is just as guilty of "homerism" as their English-language counterparts. I have spent many years listening to Spanish-language broadcasts of the San Francisco Giants, and rarely does a game go by without one of the announcers making specific reference to the exploits of Latino ballplayers. A 3-2 Seattle victory over the A's was highlighted by a Miguel Tejada homer for the losing team. Pedro Martinez is pitching today, or just pitched yesterday, or will be pitching tomorrow. And Orlando Cepeda should be in the Hall of Fame. Discussions like these are a daily occurrence, with reason, considering the interests of their audience.
An even clearer example came up recently when I was watching Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language television network in the country. They broke in with a quick homerun update. Sammy Sosa was shown hitting his 58th homer of the season, after which a chart appeared listing Sosa and his current total, Maris' final total, and the previous single-season leaders in home runs hit by a Latino. Mark McGwire's name did not appear anywhere in this update.
My point is that we are all capable of taking a narrow view of a subject, but when we do, we're well advised to remind ourselves of what might lie outside that narrow view.
This includes those of us whose narrow vision obscures the particular experiences of Latino baseball fans. However far we have come over the years, there is still a long way to go. A radio commercial currently playing on Spanish-language stations serves as an example. This commercial is for the Hall of Fame, encouraging listeners (obviously Spanish-speaking) to take a trip to the Hall, where they will find a wealth of material on the great contributions of Latin ballplayers. The player used as an example of such greatness is Roberto Clemente, who is indeed one of the great players of all time, as well as one of the first Latino players to insist on his right to take pride in who he was and where he was from. When I was a kid, I had a glove with the name "Bob Clemente" on it, and it was always a bit embarrassing, because even then, I was aware that Clemente had resisted the desire of the American sports media to turn "Roberto" into "Bob," and had insisted that he be called by his rightful name, Roberto. It was one of many small points that people like Roberto Clemente are forced to make in their daily lives, and Clemente always fought those small fights, that he was Roberto, and he was a hero to all but he was particularly a hero to all those fans who fought similar fights in their own lives.
Which makes the radio commercial sadly ironic, for while the narrator explains to us the wonders to be found at Cooperstown, in the background we hear play-by-play highlights of Roberto's career. And the highlights are in English. And the announcer calls him "Bobby."
The saga of McGwire and Sosa clearly isn't about the kind of ugly, Cap Anson-brand of racism that everyone should find repugnant. But neither is it lacking the undertones of race. If we are to look at Mark McGwire and see Paul Bunyan standing proud, conquering America, then we should also be able to look at Sammy Sosa and see a great hero from the Dominican Republic, conquering the Americas in his own way. There is room for both visions.
There is a final irony to all of this. Most "experts" seem to agree that Sammy Sosa will win the National League's Most Valuable Player award this season. Mark McGwire has had the far better offensive season, because Mark McGwire is flirting with the all-time single-season record for walks while hitting his homeruns, while Sosa's OBP is almost 100 points lower than Mac's. But Sammy has the RBIs (ie, teammates), and if there is one bias that seems entrenched beyond rescue in baseball, it's that folks who vote for MVP awards find RBIs more impressive than the bases on balls. How ironic, indeed, that Sosa, the focus of many small slights that just might add up to something unfortunately greater, will likely end up with the one award he probably doesn't deserve.