Monday, March 16, 2009

Baseball creates strong Latino ties

Classic a Reminder That National Ties Are Unwavering
By HARVEY ARATON NY Times March 14, 2009

There were two outs in the eighth inning, two runners on, a one-run lead to protect and Luis Sojo stepped from the dugout. The pro-Venezuelan crowd erupted — “Frankie, Frankie” — as Sojo, the manager made his way to the mound. And here came Francisco Rodríguez, on March 14, in the World Baseball Classic, against the Netherlands, for a four-out, 22-pitch save, while up in Port St. Lucie the Mets’ organization gulped.

“Can you give us four outs?” the pitching coach, Roberto Espinoza, had asked Rodríguez, the man they call K-Rod, in the bullpen.

“I tell him, ‘Yeah, if you need me, I’ll be ready,’ ” Rodríguez said after going the extra inning and mile on the fastball for his country and saving a 3-1 victory at Dolphin Stadium.

Apparently, these games are serious business for some, as the United States learned again Saturday night, when it was hammered, 11-1, by Puerto Rico in a game ended by mercy rule. If that wasn’t humbling enough, consider the possibility of the United States’ being eliminated by the Netherlands on Sunday night. Mercy!

The Classic will come around only once every few years, but teams like Puerto Rico and Venezuela, and their boisterous fans, remind us that players have loyalties that are national and permanent, while most are only temporarily affiliated with their big league franchises. Even Derek Jeter wasn’t born to play for the Yankees; he was drafted into Steinbrenner’s army. The odds are that he will spend his entire career in pinstripes. But it’s possible that he won’t.

No one loves calling the Bronx his baseball home more than Jeter, but I am guessing he would deal with a hypothetical separation better than most Yankees fans.

The average Mets supporter probably wondered, “What’s up with that?” when Rodríguez, after getting the last out in a W.B.C. victory over the United States on Wednesday, said: “For some reason I feel like right now I’m at another level. Just to be able to wear a Venezuelan jersey, it’s totally different for some reason.”

Why wouldn’t he feel that way? The Angels, whose bullpen K-Rod anchored for six seasons, made a business decision not to outbid the Mets and to change closers as easily as they switched their primary civic identification from Anaheim to Los Angeles. Rodríguez will work hard for the Mets, but go tell him that Venezuela’s bid to reach the semifinals in Los Angeles next weekend doesn’t count in the grand scheme of a major leaguer’s life.

Nor do Big East tournament games mean much in the context of the N.C.A.A. tournament, or rate much in Nielsen’s America, but Syracuse and Connecticut summoned the will to play six overtimes at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Why? Because that’s what competitors do when given the chance.

I’ve heard some sports radio yakkers dismiss the Classic as a contrived exhibition, while the Yankees, who believe all global marketing of the game ought to begin and end with them, chafed when the Dominicans Robinson Canó and Dámaso Marte returned from the Classic with minor injuries. Not to minimize the investment or risk, but there is such a thing as the interest of the sport at large.

Personally, I especially enjoy seeing all the Latino ballplayers line up for countries with different cultures and traditions. Beyond the obvious associations, I am trying to create a little scorecard inside my head that I can draw on during the baseball season.

As was the case when Omar Minaya began to remake the Mets with a strong Caribbean flavor, many Americans act as if Hispanic players hail from the same place, south of Miami, the republic of Hispanica. But here at Dolphin Stadium, the Venezuelans even took sides against one of their own, Magglio Ordóñez, whose outs were cheered by his country’s fans in the United States because he is a supporter of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez.

“So that’s why they boo me, they heckle me, they criticize me, because I made a personal decision,” Ordóñez said. His teammates weren’t pleased by the political intrusion, but it was another example of why lumping Hispanic players and countries is like conflating China and Japan. The common language of Spanish is no doubt a contributing factor in a way it isn’t for, say, Europeans in hockey. But American baseball has also long had an aura of insularity that has deemed other versions of the sport inauthentic, unworthy, and some of that shows up in response to the Classic.

Far from perfect, the tournament at least makes the American purists and old-school elite sit up straight on their high horse for fear of being knocked off, the way the Dominicans were by the Dutch.

If nothing else, the drubbing by Puerto Rico should have dampened America’s competitive conceit, assuming the results of the inaugural W.B.C. in 2006, won by Japan over Cuba, didn’t do the trick. Maybe it will get more people in this country to pay closer attention, the way a couple of Team USA players wistfully said they would.

Who can so easily ignore a train wreck?


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