The New Face of Baseball: The One-Hundred-Year Rise and Triumph of Latinos in America's Favorite Sportby Tim Wendel
Going as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, to the early days of Cuban baseball, Wendel traces the spread of American baseball fever in the Caribbean and Mexico; discusses lesser-known historical standouts, including Adolfo Luque and Martin Dihigo; and describes the days when only light-skinned Latinos wereallowed to participate in Major League competition as… See more details below
Going as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, to the early days of Cuban baseball, Wendel traces the spread of American baseball fever in the Caribbean and Mexico; discusses lesser-known historical standouts, including Adolfo Luque and Martin Dihigo; and describes the days when only light-skinned Latinos wereallowed to participate in Major League competition as well as the linguistic barrier many Latinos faced when playing on teams with "English only" rules.
Featuring interviews with Latino superstars past and present; a foreword by Bob Costas; the first-ever-published Latino All-Century Team, featuring players selected by Omar Minaya; and photos taken by award-winning Sports Illustrated photographer Victor Baldizon, The New Face of Baseball helps fans of America's favorite pastime to understand the history of those who bring hope and honor every season to the teams they have given their lives to, and the Hispanic culture that, if allowed, can lie hidden and unnoticed under a team jersey.
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The New Face of Baseball
The One-Hundred-Year Rise and Triumph of Latinos in America's Favorite Sport
Lost in the Shadows
They play baseball everywhere -- in the alleyways and on the narrow streets beyond the columns, in the small parks that line the wide boulevards coming into Havana and near the sweeping Malecon seawall. Everywhere they play. For in Cuba there may not be much, but there is always baseball.
Love for the game moves beyond the political and the past. In the years after the Soviet Union's collapse, baseball has become more important than ever on the island. The people know about those who have left to play in the major leagues in El Norte. They build makeshift radio antennas that rival the Tower of Babel in hopes of picking up the signal of a game, any major-league contest, across the Straits of Florida.
"It's like a huge curtain separates us," a fan in Havana tells me. "We can hear what is happening out there, with the sport. But, we can never see. We never really know."
For centuries Havana has been called the city of columns. The nickname reflects the architecture, especially in the old part of town, near the harbor and El Morro Castle. Many storefronts are adorned with columns. They can divide the world into what is going on in the street and what is happening on the sidewalks near the shops. The columns remain symbolic of what has happened in this land since 1959, when Fidel Castro, a baseball fan, one who understands his people's passion for the game, came to power. For the figurative columns and curtains divide this land into loyalists and exiles. Who has stayed and who decided to leave.
Rafael Palmeiro was born across the harbor from old town Havana, where the city soon opens up into two-story cementblock houses and the horizon of the island's vast interior is clearly visible. Not that Palmeiro remembers much from those early days. He left Cuba with his family at the age of five. He passed beyond the columns and has never returned.
Palmeiro's father, Jose, played amateur baseball back in Cuba. But again those images have been lost to the past. Palmeiro never saw his father play. His earliest memories are of his family fleeing Cuba and moving to Miami and putting down new roots. While his father didn't speak English when they moved, they had baseball and the game offered much in their new land. Soon after the family arrived in the United States, Palmeiro's father brought him a glove and the two of them began to play catch in the small backyard. Soon they were spending late afternoons in the neighborhood park a few blocks away, where the father would pitch to Rafael and his brothers and then hit them grounders and fly balls.
"My father was a hard worker in everything he did, and he carried that into baseball for me," Palmeiro says. "He worked construction after we came to this country, and I didn't understand it back then, but the last thing he probably wanted to do during the hot days in Miami in the summer was go out and play baseball when he got home from work. But he did. His main thing was to keep us off the streets. To keep our minds on good things. I know he enjoyed baseball, that he wanted me to play baseball, but I realize now that he also did it to keep me and my brothers off the streets. We grew up in a bad part of town. We were right there in Liberty City. Tough place to grow up. But we never knew that."
The sweet swing from the left side of the plate and the defensive ability that won him three Gold Gloves were a result of those after-school workouts. But at no time did the father ever tell the son that he could be a major-leaguer. The world can be a hard place, especially when you're new to this land. Daydreams are something to be wary of.
"He was very critical of me," Palmeiro tells me. "But he did it for my own good. I think he knew I could handle it. I saw [my father] as a hero, as somebody who worked really hard and didn't accept any handouts or gifts from anyone. just by watching him, I learned to work for the things that I wanted to achieve."
Growing up, Palmeiro dreamed of one day playing in the major leagues. But it wasn't until he was named the nation's college freshman player of the year at Mississippi State that he began to believe that his dream was a realistic one. Now in the twilight of his career, Palmeiro finds himself with more career RBIs than Mark McGwire and more Gold Gloves at first base than Willie McCovey. Barring injury, he will finish his playing days with more than 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. Nobody who has reached such heights has been refused entry into the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
"In the end those are numbers nobody can overlook," says Luis Mayoral, former consultant to the Texas Rangers and radio commentator. "I can remember when people said Raffy couldn't hit for power. You could say that he's hurt himself because he keeps things to himself. He's not after the headlines. When he played in Baltimore he was overshadowed by Cal Ripken and Roberto Alomar. In Texas, there's 'A- Rod.' Raffy's overshadowed. But nothing can take away from his numbers."
In August 2002, in an inconsequential game between the Rangers and the Indians in Cleveland, Palmeiro homered to win the contest. The homer was his thirtieth of the season, the eighth straight season he had reached that plateau. He was only the tenth player in baseball history to achieve that feat.
"I know I've been overlooked in my career," Palmeiro told me that day. "But it hasn't been unfair, because you look at guys like Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds. I've played with Cal Ripken, Nolan Ryan, Ryne Sandberg; I'm playing with Alex Rodriguez and Ivan Rodriguez right now. Those guys are Hall of Famers, too. I feel recognized. Maybe not as much as I should. But I don't play this game for recognition. I play this game to satisfy myself; to win, to earn respect from my teammates and opponents. If I get recognition, that's great, but inside I know I've done everything I can do."The New Face of Baseball
The One-Hundred-Year Rise and Triumph of Latinos in America's Favorite Sport. Copyright © by Tim Wendel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Tim Wendel is an award-winning journalist and the author of Castro's Curveball, a novel about baseball in Cuba. Wendel is one of the founders of USA Today Baseball Weekly, where he served as an editor and writer. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and lives, in Vienna, Virginia.
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