keyboard_arrow_uptop


There 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.