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Excerpt: Raceball

Daryl Paranada Mar 1, 2011

The following excerpt is from Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game. Listen to an interview with author Rob Ruck and learn more about the book.


Thousands of cameras flashed inside a packed Yankee Stadium as New York left-hander C. C. Sabathia rocked back and, with the relaxed delivery that had carried him to the Cy Young Award two years before, prepared to throw the first pitch of the 2009 World Series. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, leading off for the Philadelphia Phillies, stared back at the Yankees’ portly ace. The matchup between these two men marked only the second time that the World Series had begun with an African American on the mound and at the plate. There was just as remarkable a backstory to the moment. Born less than two years apart in racially diverse East Bay communities in California, Sabathia and Rollins had taken startlingly parallel paths to Yankee Stadium that October evening. Neither man would have been there if not for RBI–Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, a twenty-two-year-old program designed to stem the hemorrhaging of baseball in black America. Sabathia, who has called the dwindling number of African Americans in baseball a crisis, says that the game saved his life. “It took me off the streets . . . kept me focused.”

As cameras recorded that first pitch, Rollins, trying to bunt his way on, pushed the ball down the first baseline, right at the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira, who tagged him out before he reached the bag. Teixeira, the descendant of Portuguese and Italian immigrants, tossed the ball to second baseman Robinson Cano, who grew up in San Pedro de Macorís, the Caribbean town best known for churning out major league ballplayers. Cano rifled it to Derek Jeter, the son of a biracial couple from Michigan, who relayed it to Alex Rodriguez, a Dominican American who had been so torn between which country to play for in the inaugural 2006 World Baseball
Classic that he ended up not playing at all.

While the ball ricocheted around the infield, Johnny Damon, an army brat of Thai, Croatian, and Irish heritage; Dominican Melky Cabrera; and Nick Swisher, a second-generation major leaguer from West Virginia repositioned themselves in the outfield. Puerto Rico’s Jorge Posada, one of four Yankees seeking a fourth championship ring, settled back into his crouch behind home plate while Panamanian Mariano Rivera and Dominican Pedro Martínez watched from opposite dugouts. The two pitchers, both destined for the Hall of Fame, switched effortlessly from Spanish to English as they joked with teammates from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. Meanwhile, Yankees designated hitter Hideki Matsui, one of two Asians in the Series, worked on his Teddy Roosevelt imitation. Talking softly but carrying a big bat, the player whom Japanese fans call Godzilla would earn Most Valuable Player honors at the Series’ end.

Sabathia, the recipient of the largest contract ever paid to a pitcher in the history of baseball, and Rollins, the 2007 National League MVP, were not the only African Americans on the field. Slugger Ryan Howard had powered the defending champion Phillies into the postseason, and shortstop Jeter captained the Yankees as he burnished his own Hall of Fame credentials. The moment was one reminiscent of the United Colors of Benetton advertising campaign, with players of mixed-race and non-European ancestry accounting for almost two-thirds of the starting lineups.

But the array of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians on the field masked a profound irony–African Americans, who had once fought to integrate baseball, have largely left the game. The share of black ballplayers in the major leagues has plunged by two-thirds since its historic high in the late 1970s. And although Major League Baseball’s workforce has a new international
complexion, its globalization has come at the expense of baseball beyond U.S. borders, especially at the game’s withering grass roots. Power remains concentrated in the hands of white owners and front-office personnel. Few African Americans and Hispanic or Latino Americans can be found among the ranks of managers, general managers, and owners. More than half a century after baseball’s integration, these positions remain largely white preserves.

Nowhere is the demographic reversal of who plays baseball more evident than in the Caribbean. While African Americans are disappearing from baseball, Latin Americans have stormed major league diamonds in record numbers. African Americans now hold fewer than one-tenth of all
big-league roster spots, while Latinos fill more than a quarter of them and make up about half of those in the minor leagues. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Latinos dominated All-Star lineups, swept individual awards with stunning regularity, and even powered the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series titles since 1918.

David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were the toast of New England in 2004 as they led the Red Sox’s comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit to beat the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series and go on to win the World Series. Dominicans and Bostonians alike relished their victory over the Yankees. It had not been that way in 1918, the last time the Red Sox had captured the World Series, when the yanquis were occupying the Dominican Republic. U.S. Marines had invaded in 1916, a year after seizing Haiti. American troops stayed for eight years on the Dominican side of Hispaniola, longer in Haiti, and returned
again in 1965.

It was baseball’s Yankees who came to the DR in 2009, when a dozen of the team’s Latin players and coaches, including senior vice president Felipe Lopez, visited the presidential palace in Santo Domingo to meet with President Leonel Fernández. The celebration continued that evening: Mariano Rivera, who was on the mound when the Series ended, threw out
the ceremonial first pitch to open a Dominican League playoff game at the 16,500-seat Estadio Quisqueya. It was an appropriate salute to the Caribbean nation in the forefront of the Pan-American pastime. It also reflected how much the New York Yankees, a team slow to cross the color line, had adopted Latin players. Their playoff roster included ten Latinos–40 percent of the team–but only three African Americans. Dominicans alone outnumbered their black teammates.

The visit to Santo Domingo was part of a months-long, multinational victory lap that began with the traditional ticker-tape parade up Broadway through the Canyon of Heroes to City Hall. And though they brought their World Series trophy to a few local venues as well as Santo Domingo
and then across the Pacific to Japan and China, there was no comparable display in black America. The club did not have a black cohort of players to match its Latin contingent. Nor could its three African American players carry the World Series trophy back to some representative black community in the United States where baseball still resonated. Baseball
has become unhinged from daily life in black America, and what few black ballplayers remain are no longer as deeply rooted in black neighborhoods as Latino players are in theirs. Despite what baseball once meant to black America, African Americans currently matter less in baseball than at any time in the last fifty years.

The Latin wave, on the other hand, has yet to crest. The Dominican Republic alone contributed as many players to baseball’s final four playoff teams in 2009 as the entire African American community, even though the United States’ 38 million African Americans outnumber Dominicans four to one. Overall, playoff rosters had twice as many Latinos and Hispanic Americans as African Americans. The disparities are even greater across the major and minor leagues. Although an increasing number of players, like U.S. citizens overall, have multiracial identities, these trends are stark and undeniable. African Americans, of course, have not abandoned sport. The starting lineups in the 2010 National Football League and National Basketball Association championships were at least 70 percent African American. By contrast with the paltry number of black baseball players, African Americans constitute two-thirds of all players in the NFL and three-quarters of the NBA.

Meanwhile, the spectacular trajectory of Latinos in baseball has been marred by controversy. Salsa and merengue may reverberate in locker rooms and in the stands from San Diego to the Bronx, and the impact of Latin players might be at an historic high, but so are the problems and tensions they face. The Latin brand in baseball has been badly buffeted in recent years.

Notable Latin stars have plummeted from grace. The 2009 season began with Alex Rodriguez, the most highly paid player in baseball history, confessing that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs earlier in his career. Later that season, similar admissions ensnared both David Ortiz, the exuberant home-run-hitting icon embraced throughout Red Sox Nation as “Big Papi,” and his former teammate, Manny Ramirez, perhaps the game’s most feared hitter. Sammy Sosa, whose 1998 home-run-hitting duel with Mark McGwire revived baseball after the 1994 lockout resulted in cancellation of that year’s World Series, has been tainted, too. A decade ago, Sosa and McGwire seemed certain to be inducted into the Hall of Fame; now, neither will likely reach Cooperstown.

Signs of discord between Latino and black players have also surfaced. In 2007, Gary Sheffield, a veteran African American player with over five hundred home runs, brought simmering black-Latin tensions in baseball to a boil when he accused teams of favoring Latinos because they were easier to control than black players. “You’re going to see more black faces, but
there ain’t no English going to be coming out,” he told GQ magazine. Latinos, he implied, did not stand up for themselves and had unfairly usurped the place of African Americans of equal playing ability. “[It’s about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do–being able to control them,” the former New York Yankee claimed. African Americans, he argued, demanded more respect. “Where I’m from, you can’t control us . . . So if you’re equally good as this Latin player, guess who’s going to get sent home?”

Latin ballplayers protested the charge. Atlanta Braves coach Eddie Pérez, a native of Venezuela, said: “I don’t think we’re taking anybody’s food off the table. We’re just putting food on the table for us.” Latin players made lots of money, he contended, because they were good and played hard. And, in a backhand slap at Sheffield, he added: “You don’t hear too
many Latin players talk a lot of trash.”

Nobody has accused Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, 2009 recipient of the Branch Rickey Award for community service, of talking trash. But he became embroiled in a similar squabble on the eve of the 2010 season when he made the following contention: “People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African-American. They’re not us. They’re impostors.” Like Sheffield, he said that financial disparities between African American and Latino players were driving blacks out of baseball. “As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us,” he said. “It’s like they had
to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It’s like, ‘Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have [agent] Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?’ . . . I’m telling you, it’s sad.”

Sadder still, baseball throughout the Caribbean has been wracked by political passions and global recession. In Venezuela, a few major league organizations have curtailed operations because they fear President Hugo Chávez’s militant populism and a deteriorating social climate in which players have been assaulted or kidnapped. Winter leagues elsewhere in the region have struggled at the gate, with the Puerto Rican league suspending play for a season. Nor have the region’s teams met expectations in the World Baseball Classic. The Dominican Republic has yet to advance past the semifinals. In the 2009 Classic, the Netherlands humbled the DR, not once but twice. The Netherlands! Japan won the inaugural games and triumphed
again in 2009. Meanwhile, growing numbers of the Caribbean’s best players leave their own leagues and head for the United States.

More serious issues than defeats in international competition plague baseball in the islands. The grass roots of the game have been scorched as major league organizations and “agents” known as buscones corral players at younger and younger ages. These kids are usually dirt-poor, enthralled by the game, and incredibly vulnerable. For every one of them who reaches the majors, hundreds fall by the wayside and have little to fall back upon. The emergence of the buscones, who number over one thousand in the Dominican Republic, has altered patterns of player procurement and encouraged widespread and unscrupulous manipulation of youth by those seeking to profit from their athletic talents. As Dominican scandals involving steroids
and age violations splashed across the U.S. sporting pages, fans questioned Caribbean baseball’s ethical moorings.

At times it seems as if everybody is trying to game the system, one that Major League Baseball has controlled and profited from since its belated and hesitant integration over sixty years ago. Though MLB is currently attempting to bring order and transparency to the player-procurement system, it has been complicit in that system’s worst abuses. It ignored these
problems as they festered and only adopted a reformer’s posture after its image and the lives of many young men were damaged.

The histories of African Americans and Latinos in baseball have been inextricably linked for over a century, first by their mutual exclusion from the major leagues, then by integration. For major league baseball, no moment was more transformative than Jackie Robinson’s arrival in 1947. African Americans and Latinos have since reshaped the game. Together, they have provided the sport with its most iconic figures, won far more than their share of individual honors, and been at the core of almost every championship team since 1947, with the exception of the New York Yankees of the 1950s and ’60s. Integration also gave license to Major League Baseball to proclaim that it had overcome the six-decade-long color line that had disfigured the “national pastime.” Robinson’s triumph was offered as proof of the United States’ capacity to resolve its historic racial contradictions.

But the symbolism of integrated and increasingly international play tells only part of the story. Major League Baseball’s drive for profit and control–not its desire to rectify historic wrongs–led it to accept integration. That same lust to maximize revenues and exert dominion over players and rivals has shaped its actions in regard to black America and the Caribbean
ever since.

The history of African Americans and Latinos in baseball has traditionally been portrayed as a tale of their shameful segregation and redemptive integration. Segregation was certainly shameful, especially for a sport so heavily invested in its own rhetoric of democracy and American exceptionalism. But for African Americans and Latinos, integration was also
painful. Although long overdue and a catalyst to social change, integration cost black and Caribbean societies control over their own sporting lives. It changed the meaning of sport, and not usually for the better. While channeling black and Latino athletes into major league baseball, integration did little for the communities they left behind. On the contrary, it
actively destroyed or weakened institutions in the black community and the Caribbean.

With the launching of the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and the appearance of an astonishing array of nationalities and races in the World Series, major league baseball seems to have become what it has long proclaimed it was: a global game played on a level playing field for men of all races and nations. But it’s not as democratic and progressive as it claims to be. Nor has it ever been. Today more than ever, Major League Baseball sets the parameters for African Americans and Latinos in baseball. The major leagues, not black America or the Caribbean, benefit the most from their participation. By imposing its imperial will on black America and the Caribbean, MLB has achieved unprecedented prosperity, but gutted the game at the grass roots along the way. Baseball has never been stronger as a business, never weaker as a game. It didn’t have to be that way.

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