Latino baseball players' story told

Exhibition tells story of Latinos in major league baseball
By Kevin Baxter, LA Times, May 23, 2009

When Juan Marichal came to this country to play baseball more than half a century ago, he remembers being a lonely, frightened teenager.

"It was a very difficult time," he said Friday. "When you come [to] a country where you didn't know the language, you didn't know the culture . . . it's tough, especially at that age."

At the time, only one Dominican player had reached the major leagues -- and he was discovered on a playground in New York City. But while Marichal was trying to find his way, he also was cracking open the door to what has become one of the greatest influxes of foreign-born talent in the history of U.S. sports.

Since 1980, four seasons after Marichal's Hall of Fame career ended, nearly 8% of all major leaguers have come from the Dominican Republic, a country with a population smaller than Los Angeles County's. And nearly one in every five players in the majors has come from Latin America.

"I never thought that some day we were going to be No. 1 [in] Latin players at the major league level," Marichal said.

What began as a trickle became a flood, changing everything about baseball, from the way players are scouted and signed to how the game is played.

That changing landscape is something the Hall of Fame has spent years exploring in preparation for today's opening of ¡Viva Baseball!, one of the largest and most ambitious exhibitions in the museum's history.

"There's no more relevant story in baseball in this era than the role of Latinos and the positive impact Latino baseball has had on Major League Baseball," said Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. "When you look at . . . the last 20 or 30 years, you could argue convincingly that there's been no greater impact on baseball than from the Caribbean-basin countries."

Certainly no area outside the U.S. has produced more talent. Since 1980, Mexico, for example, has sent more players (72) to the major leagues than Canada (65), while Cuba (40) has produced nearly as many as Japan (46), though the Dominican Republic still beats them all (417).

"This is not merely a Major League Baseball story. This is a cultural story," said John Odell, the lead curator on the exhibit."There are some things you can measure. But there's another element that Latin players bring to the game. And it's passion. They bring a certain style to the game."

It's a story the museum tells in a groundbreaking way, using videotaped interviews with Latino members of the Hall of Fame as well as current All-Stars, who tell their stories in their native language. English subtitles are used. In fact, every display in ¡Viva Baseball! features English and Spanish.

"It's not only the sights and the feel and the flavor, but it's the sounds as well," Idelson said of the overall exhibit.

That is especially true in one four-minute multimedia presentation narrated in both languages by Hall of Fame Dodgers broadcaster Jaime Jarrin that takes viewers into the grandstands at a game in Venezuela.

A part of the exhibition is devoted to former Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela; artifacts from Campo las Palmas, the developmental baseball academy founded in 1987 in the Dominican Republic by Dodgers scout Ralph Avila; an interview with Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero; and the sombrero that Angels owner Arte Moreno gave Manager Mike Scioscia on the day Moreno became the first -- and still only -- Latino owner in major league history.

But the exhibition -- which will have a permanent home in the museum, joining installations on women's baseball and African American ballplayers -- doesn't ignore some of the darker chapters in the Latin American baseball story, such as charges of exploitation, the banning of dark-skinned Cubans and Puerto Ricans in the days before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, problems of racism and acculturation and current controversies involving drugs, signing bonuses and fraudulent birth certificates.

"We don't spend a lot of time on it, but we recognize that all is not sweetness and light," Odell said. "There are abuses that take place. If we didn't bring those issues up and say we recognize -- and everybody recognizes -- that these are issues, it would undermine our ability to say 'but there are good things that are taking place.' "

Marichal, still the only Dominican in the Hall of Fame, said the recognition is flattering and overdue.

"I think that's wonderful," he said of the exhibit, but "the Latin players deserved that a long time ago."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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