- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

The baseball playoffs are a reflection of the game today — a strong Latin presence.

Bartolo Colon, Rafael Furcal, Manny Ramirez, Mariano Rivera and Albert Pujols are All-Star players and examples of the growing Latin influence in the major leagues. At the start of the 2005 season, about 26 percent of major league players were of Latin descent.

But while Latin players grow in numbers, the opposite is happening with African-American ballplayers. In 1975, an estimated 27 percent of major league rosters consisted of black players. Today, that number is around 10 percent — and falling.

Those numbers, going in different directions, seem to have sparked tension between Latin and black players — not current players, but those from days past. There is a fight brewing between old-time Latin and black ballplayers over their legacy in the game, with Latin players rising in prominence, and black players seeing their place in the game disappearing with the new generation of ballplayers.

Right now, the celebration of the contribution of Latin players has gained momentum. Watching the playoffs, you can see the superimposed sign behind home plate during these games pushing Chevrolet’s “Latino Legends Team,” an all-20th century team of Latin players, making up for the fact that none were voted to the MasterCard All-Century team in 1999.

Recently, a terrific film about the struggles, conflicts and triumphs of Latin players from the 1950s through the 1970s — “Viva Baseball,” produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Dan Klores — made its debut on Spike TV. It featured the stories of great players like Juan Marichal and Roberto Clemente — who was called “Bob” by Pittsburgh announcers during his career — and the issues those generations of Latin players faced breaking into major league baseball.

“It is very important [that] people know what we went through,” Orlando Cepeda said. “This movie shows how much we had to overcome and suffer to make it all the way to the top. It is a very important message for Latin kids, American people, anybody.”

There is the story of Vic Power — whose real last name is Pellot — and how one of the best fielding first baseman of his time was held back in the Yankees organization for many years because he was considered too flashy. He tells the story about how he was always asked by baseball people why he made so many one-handed catches. “If they wanted me to catch with two hands, they would have given me two gloves,” he said, jokingly.

It is a wonderfully entertaining film, but it is another ingredient to add into this bubbling tension between retired Latin and black players, along with the Latino Legends team and efforts by the Hispanics Across America advocacy group to get Clemente’s number 21 retired by all major league clubs, the same way Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was eight years ago.

The Latino Legends concept raised the question about what do you do for the other players left off the list — the most glaring being Frank Robinson. It seems if you are going to revisit oversights and correct them, you should start with the most obvious. Any list of the greatest players of the 20th century without Frank Robinson on it is an insult, period.

Frank Robinson was certainly insulted, and he questions why baseball should separate what Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente did. “Jackie Robinson was a very unique situation and historical,” Robinson said recently. “Clemente did an awful lot of good things and was a terrific ballplayer, but I don’t think it’s the same type of situation as Jackie Robinson. And if you do it for him, where do you go? Where do you stop? Then you neglect someone and create some big controversy.”

Yes, when you start declaring one legacy is more important than other, it does create controversy, as it has with former major league pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant’s group of “Black Aces” — black pitchers who have won 20 games or more in a season, soon to be featured in a book.

No Latin pitcher has been invited to join the group, which has Luis Tiant — a four-time 20-game winner — upset. “That is a shame what they did,” Tiant told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel last month. “Whoever came out with that idea, it’s embarrassing to us. It stinks.”

Cepeda said he understands Tiant’s anger. “When we came here, black and Latins, we both had to go to the back on the bus, and we had to eat in the kitchen,” he said. “We got the same treatment black players did. We were black, period. I understand why Louie is upset.”

But then, if they got the same treatment as black players, and, as Cepeda says, “were black, period,” then why separate themselves from Jackie Robinson’s accomplishment and seek separate recognition for Clemente?

See, this legacy stuff can get pretty messy when you start segregating one group from another.

“This is not a racial thing,” MLB chief operating officer Bob DuPuy said when he introduced the Latino Legends promotion. “The Latin American influence in baseball has been pervasive.”

Yes, it has been. Unfortunately, the African-American influence is fading, and a generation of great players sees few players who look like them coming up to carry on their legacy.

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