Written as a column for my home town morning daily, the Cape Times, in September 1998
The essential choice before America, as summer turns to fall and political scandal suddenly seems like last year’s news, is simple: McGwire or Sosa. By last week both sluggers had taken major league baseball’s record for home runs scored in a single season up to 65. This may be simply a sports contest, but as the great Trinidadian historian and activist C.L.R. James has written, nothing can focus the passions and crystallize the aspirations of an entire city or nation as much as a sporting event can.
The six-foot-five son of a California dentist, McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals represents the traditional face of America’s national pastime: the white male achiever, who despite his flaws – he holds himself responsible for the breakup of his marriage – embodies the values that made America great: gritty and determined in the face of all adversity, he has taken responsibility for his personal failures by seeking psychological counseling and has donated $1 million to a foundation for children from broken homes. Edward Said, the internationally acclaimed Columbia University-based Palestinian literary theorist sees a signficance in McGwire’s occupying the opposite side of the daily front page to President Clinton, his achievements “symbolically making up for Clinton’s shortcomings and sins.” And offering relief to a nation badly in need of someone to believe in at a time when its capital is held hostage to petty nastiness and partisan cynicism.
Sammy Sosa, a Spanish-speaking black man born in the Dominican Republic and raised in poverty by his widowed mother, shining shoes for a living in his teens, represents something altogether different. Of course there’s a classic American tale here too, of the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who fashioned his first baseball mitt out of an old milk carton rising through talent and determination to command a $4.5 million contract in the major leagues. If Sosa makes the record his own, this is the narrative that will guide his plaudits. But there’s more to it, and the beery white guys and Latinos who confront eachother warily in the bleachers rooting for their particular champion know it. Sosa’s charge after the hallowed record once owned by Babe Ruth is but the latest sign of a trend that white male America can no longer ignore – baseball is fast becoming dominated by Latinos in the way that basketball is by African-Americans.
The first racial breakthrough in baseball came back in 1947, of course, when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and made him the first black player in the major leagues. Black players such as Ken Griffey Junior have been among the sport’s most recognizable stars for some time, but African-Americans have remained a minority in baseball. Latinos, on the other hand, are starting to prevail. Last year, it was Cuban rookie Livan Hernandez who pitched the Florida Marlins to victory in the World Series. But more telling, perhaps, was the fact that his teammates included another Cuban, a Dominican, a Puerto Rican, a Colombian and a Venezuelan. And that’s not just because it was a team based in Miami, a Caribbean Latino city. The star player on their opponents’ team, the very Midwestern Cleveland Indians, was Cuban-American Sandy Alomar.
Such observations, of course, are about a lot more than demographics. Statues to Sosa are already going up all over the Dominican Republic, the tiny Caribbean nation that shares an island with Haiti, and he has become a lightning rod for Latino pride in all of America’s major cities. Sammy Sosa’s cultural significance far outweighs the specific statistics he leaves in the 1998 baseball yearbook. To understand that significance, C.L.R. James’s cricket writing is indispensible (indeed it should be prescribed reading for those South African cricket officials shocked by Brian Lara’s dressing room exhortation to his teammates three years ago that they couldn’t allow themselves to be beaten by white men).
Cricket, of course, was the game of the British colonizer, but by learning and then mastering the sport, the colonial subjects of India, Pakistan and the West Indies were able to transform it into a weapon with which to assert national identity and pride – and by beating Britain at a game designed to emphasize the virtues of its culture, allowed them to subvert the racist claims of British cultural superiority that underpinned the colonial enterprise. There should be little surprise that Trinidad’s most accomplished cricketer of the pre-war era, Sir Learie Constantine, also became one of the earliest campaigners for the island’s independence from Britain – after all, Constantine spent many of his years proving himself the better of the Englishmen who claimed the right of sovereignty over him.
So what does all of this have to do with baseball? Well, the parallel is plain to see: For more than 100 years, the United States has treated Latin America and the Caribbean as its colonial possessions, intervening with impunity when Latinos had the temerity to choose political leaders disliked by Washington. Indeed, in Sammy Sosa’s native Dominican Republic, the U.S. Marines invaded in 1964 when an elected government seemed to be veering too far left for President Johnson’s liking. From Cuba down to Nicaragua and beyond, Latinos have lived under the shadow of Washington’s agenda for much of the century. And they too took up the game of their foreign masters with a passion – Fidel Castro himself was a talented left-arm pitcher in his youth, and apocraphyl stories have him trying out for various major league U.S. teams before sailing off on the Granma to overthrow Batista. Baltimore Orioles pitcher Dennis Martinez was urged to return home to Nicaragua in 1996 in order to stand for President, but indicated that he’d like to wait at least until his playing days were over. Cuba’s national baseball team was the pride of the nation, its victories over the U.S. at the Olympics were considered national achievements of epic proportions. Cuba has been fiercely reluctant to allow its players to seek their fortune in the U.S. major leagues, despite the fact that they could make millions of dollars in precious foreign exchange if they legalized the process (instead of forcing the likes of the Hernandez brothers to flee on rafts) – some things are more important than money to cash-strapped Havana, it seems, and
Even though the rivalry between Sosa and McGwire is extremely affable, the Dominican outfielder’s quest for the homerun record has been transformed into a passionate crusade by Latino fans everywhere. Californians won’t share a collective moment if the record goes to McGwire, but the significance of a Sammy Sosa triumph at the pinnacle of America’s national pastime cannot be understated.