Whatever was happening in America was happening on the baseball field. Whether it was more and more Negroes or long hair and long sideburns and moustaches, baseball was there, reflecting the changes in America. I distinctly remember the day I went to see the Dodgers play the Oakland A’s and everybody on the field was black. At first, I didn’t notice it. It was just the Dodgers vs. the A’s, until I heard a guy in back of me say, “Man, it’s the Blacks vs. the Blacks.” I looked out into the field and he was right – everybody from the pitcher to the catcher, from the infield to the outfield … everybody was black. They were no longer even Negroes; they were black or Afro-Americans, I guess, because most of them wore Afros, which stuck out in big clumps on either side of their head, under their caps. I still don’t know which looks funnier; ponytails or Afro clumps.
What a long way we had come. There were no longer “Negro Leagues” where only “Negroes” played to “Negro” crowds. There was parity on the field now. The best players played regardless of color. It reflected America where African Americans had worked their way upward into the middle and upper classes by their ability and they were entitled to be as good or bad or crazy or sane as anyone else … and most of them are.
So I guess what I was noticing as I sat in my massage chair, knocking back a cold one, watching the Dodgers and the Giants, was that, yes there were still plenty of Blacks playing Major League baseball, but now, most of them spoke Spanish. From what I understand, there are fewer and fewer African American players and more and more Latino players. The African American athletic pool does not seeme to solely depend on baseball as their professional sports conduit to a better life. There is a huge amount of black pro football players and the NBA is dominated by black players, but baseball, America’s national pastime now seems to be the proving ground for Latino players … and increasingly Asian players. Baseball is, and for a long time, has been global, but the “Big Show” is still in the U.S. Just as the demographics of America is shifting, so is the percentage of Latino ballplayers. There is one interesting question that hangs in the air, though. Are the new players going to be counted as Latino or Black? What box does Manny Ramirez check on his census form?
Just about every Latin American country has sent players to the big leagues: from the Dominican Republic to Costa Rica. They are among the biggest stars in the league … if not the biggest. It is triple hard for Cubans because they usually come here through political channels and have to renounce their country and leave their families behind (a $50 million contract seems to ease the pain a little, though, a far cry from earlier days when Latino players were segregated to separate hotels in each new city that they visited). Coaches expected them to automatically understand English as soon as they put on the uniform and were often treated like children no matter how much they were paid. The teams that developed a great relationship with Latino players are teams like the Dodgers with managers or coaches like Tommy Lasorda who actually spoke Spanish from having coached in the winter leagues in Mexico and Venezuela. One time, I was visiting the Dodger clubhouse before a game, and Lasorda had me take a picture with several Latino players and fans and gave directions to everybody in perfect Spanish. The Dodgers usually lead the league in attendance every year in a city whose population is almost 70% Latino. First place or last place, they come in league-leading numbers every year. Loyalty and communication are always rewarded in sports. Ozzie Guillen, manager of the Chicago White Sox, recently complained the new Asian players were given translators while Spanish-speaking players were left to cope on their own. I often wonder how attendance is in Chicago, even with the “Sox” currently leading their division.
New Yorkers don’t even think twice when they hear someone refer to their team as “Los Mets.” “Los Jankees” are the favorite team of most Puerto Ricans. Just the other day, I saw a guy with a t-shirt, proclaiming that he was for “Los Doyers.” (As a side note, his shirt had an image of Cheech and Chong on it, too, I guess from the day we read the park rules shown on the big screen at every home game.)
What I think is going on is the increasing globalization of all sports. Basketball is without doubt totally global. There are numerous players – some of the best in the league – on every NBA team from Europe, South America, Australia and China. Soccer has been popular worldwide except for America until recent years. Now there are as many soccer leagues in the U.S. as there are Little Leagues for baseball (the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics and won the World Cup several years ago). While there can be a case made for pro football being the new America’s national pastime, for me, as long as Los Angeles doesn’t have a team, it can’t be a national anything … if you know what I mean.
In the end, the great leveler in any sport is performance on the field or on the court. Kids don’t care what language players speak or if they eat tacos, rice, or sauerkraut. They don’t care if they’re white, black, or brown. They develop lifelong devotion, loyalty, and admiration for players who leave everything they have out on the field … or just throw them a ball over the fence.
~ Cheech Marin