October 7, 2005

The Cheap Seats: Latino Legends worth more than just your vote

The herky-jerky motions. The high leg kick. The ball coming out of nowhere. The inning-ending strikeout.

You’re probably thinking of Dontrelle Willis. You’re almost certainly not thinking of the man who first made quirky windups an art.

It’s surely a shock to old-time baseball fans that Juan Marichal has quietly slipped out of the Holy Trinity of pitching. His unorthodox style aside, the Dominican Dandy won more games than anyone else throughout the 1960s, out-dueled Warren Spahn over 16 innings for a 1–0 decision in July 1963, and single-handedly pitched the Giants into the ’62 Fall Classic. Despite all this, the game seems to have passed him by. He finished 20th in the All-Century Team Voting, a full 20,000 votes behind Dennis Eckersley.

Bob Gibson? The Invincible Intimidator. Sandy Koufax? The Unhittable Jew. Juan Marichal? Hmm… wait as second, I’ll get it…

Unfortunately, Manito’s disappearing act isn’t an isolated incident. The increasing dominance of the game by Latinos over the last decade has thrown the remarkably casual attitude about those player’s forebears into sharp focus.

This season, we have at long last made some progress in recognizing the historical power of baseball with a Spanish accent. “Viva Baseball,” Spike TV’s critically acclaimed documentary on the growth of Hispanic influence on the game, finally made it to the airwaves last month—a mere seven years after it was first proposed. During Game Four of this year’s World Series, Major League Baseball and Chevrolet will announce the final tally of votes for the Latino Legends Team, a fan-picked group of 12 Hispanic all-time greats. The ballot isn’t perfect (Why only 12 players? And hasn’t everyone pretty much accepted that Ted Williams was half-Mexican?), but it’s a great step in the right direction.

But it’s just that. A step.

The “powers that be” in baseball have worked admirably in recent years to spark interest in the Negro Leagues, to the point that once-lost classics like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell are finally serious candidates in the “Greatest Player of All Time” debate. The fact that there was no institutional policy of racism specifically aimed at Latinos shouldn’t stop the league from making a similar effort where they are concerned.

Until Jackie Robinson broke into the league, only light-skinned Latinos were given the opportunity to play, and despite the success of Reds ace Dolf Luque and others like him, disgracefully few of them were able to take advantage of it. All-timers like Martin Dihigo—the best player even baseball junkies have never heard of—were just as much out in the cold as their Negro League brethren.

After 1947, the door was open. The only challenges that Hispanics faced from there on in were endemic racism, language barriers a mile high, and managers and teammates who didn’t understand them and frequently didn’t care to. Marichal’s San Francisco manager Alvin Dark was sadly not atypical when he banned his Latin players from speaking Spanish with their counterparts on opposing teams.

Despite it all, no one could keep the Latinos down. From Cuba and the Dominican, from Mexico and Venezuela, from Colombia and Panama, they just kept coming. At long last, they won over fans and management, eloquently making their point with language they all spoke: 3000 hits, .317 BA, 1305 RBI. It’s an unwritten rule of baseball: Get the strikeout with the bases loaded enough times, and eventually you’re at least going to be tolerated.

If your hero is Vladimir Guerrero, if you live and die with Mariano Rivera, if you proudly display ORTIZ 34 on your back, you’d better be prepared to show the men who paved the way for them a little respect. The game was something short of berry, berry good to them.

Want some suggestions? Next season, let’s rally around the Hall of Fame candidacies of Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva. Let’s give the idea of giving the Jackie Robinson treatment to Roberto Clemente’s number the attention it deserves. Let’s not just pat ourselves on the back for giving guys like Tiant, Oliva, Luque, and Dihigo a brief moment in the sun and then return to complacency. Voting for the Latino Legends Team on lasts through Monday. Here’s hoping our newfound interest in the accomplishments of those players lasts a little bit longer.