Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

July 3, 2008

Baseball's New Wave

Tim Wendel tells Gelf about the triumphs, the dreams, and the outsize influence of Latino ballplayers.

Max Lakin

Baseball has long been a game of personalities. Hank Aaron, Roger Maris, the Babe. In baseball's modern incarnation, though, much of the attention has shifted from the homegrown boys of yore to the imported brand of Latino players who come to the fields of the US with their own style and stories.

In sportswriter Tim Wendel's previous book, Castro's Curveball, he imagines an alternate reality for the former standout pitcher in which Fidel gives up revolutionary thoughts for a shot at the big leagues. In Wendel's new book, Far From Home: Latino Baseball Players in America, he shifts to reality, charting the emergence of Hispanic players in the major leagues and dissecting their influence on America's pastime.

Tim Wendel
"The tides that bind in baseball are still very much alive in the Caribbean."

Tim Wendel

Gelf spoke with Wendel to discuss Latin players' influence on the US leagues, the role of story in baseball's enduring popularity in the region, and how to fix the World Baseball Classic. The following interview was conducted via telephone and has been edited for clarity. You can hear Wendel, his friend and fellow Latino-baseball chronicler Milton Jamail, and other baseball writers read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, July 3rd, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Why a book on Latino players? Or rather, what prompted such an examined case study?

Tim Wendel: My fascination with Latino baseball began in 1992 when I went to Cuba for the first time—to cover an exhibition series between the US Olympic team and Team Cuba. The US team was young, but it had plenty of good players—Nomar Garciaparra, Charles Johnson, and Jeffrey Hammonds. They were trounced by the Cubans, who had Omar Linares (probably the best third baseman I've ever seen) and Victor Mesa.
Before going to Cuba, I'd already covered a World Series or two and the playoffs. As an editor for Baseball Weekly, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about baseball. Nothing prepared me for the passion and the energy for the game in the Caribbean. About the only thing I can equate it to is a World Cup soccer game, with everybody dressed in the team colors and chanting the team songs. Throw in a pep band, cowbells, and a dash of Havana rum, and that's baseball in Cuba. The style of play also captivated me. It was aggressive and often involved taking the extra base and pitchers who weren't afraid to come inside. In many ways, it reminded me of how baseball used to be played in this country by the Gashouse Gang or when New York had three major-league teams. In many ways, the Latino influence, even the international influence, is bringing our game back to us.

GM: The book has an introduction from Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal. Did you approach Marichal to write? Why do you think he was most poignant?

TW: I thought Juan would be perfect for the intro. I didn't approach him this time around. National Geographic did that. But I've gotten to know Juan over the years and there's no better spokesman for baseball and the Dominican Republic.

GM: Granted, they're probably not going to push hockey, but why do you think countries like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela consistently produce this level of talent?

TW: Baseball can be played year-round and it's a way out of poverty for many. Those are the reasons normally cited, and they're legit. But I believe many experts overlook one more key reason—the power of story. Time and time again, I've been surprised by how well the players who make it in the major leagues know the stories of the players who preceded them (Minoso, Clemente, Concepcion). Many of the guys who make it big still return to their home countries. They are still very much a part of their communities. One of my favorite baseball photos is of Willie Mays playing stickball with the kids in New York, when the Giants still played at the Polo Grounds. You can still see such scenes in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc. Unfortunately, in this country our children can see plenty of highlights on ESPN and Fox, but they rarely get to know big-league stars as people. They don't know the stories of how such stars got to where they are. In essence, our children only see the finished product and then wonder why they often don't measure up.

GM: Early on in the book, you reason that the game and faith are deeply entwined in the Latin mindset. Do you think that sacredness holds up once players make it to The Show?

TW: For the most part, because, as I said previously, they are often still part of their communities, even if it's just building fields or handing out equipment. The tides that bind in baseball are still very much alive in the Caribbean.

GM: The World Baseball Classic in 2006 did a lot to showcase concentrated Latin talent. But as inspiring as it was on paper, it fell short with critics and audiences. Also, Japan won. What gives?

TW: Team USA and MLB need to take it a bit more seriously. A lot of people were surprised that Team USA didn't even make the finals. I really wasn't because the US didn't put as much into it and didn't feel that much was at stake. Look for that to change in the upcoming years. Also, it would really help if they played the WBC during the current All-Star break (extend it to a week to make it work). That way all the players would be in top form.

"Roberto Clemente was the Muhammad Ali of baseball. Here was a guy who spoke his mind and pointed out the sins of the world."
GM: The mystique around Cuba is that it's baseball's veritable Cradle of Life as far as many sportswriters— including Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price, who guestspots in the book—are concerned. Yet, with the exception of Livan and Orlando Hernandez, we don't see a modern influx of Cuban players in the bigs. Why don't more defect, or do we just not hear about it?

TW: It's become increasingly difficult to defect. In my opinion, the best young talent is often left off the touring national and Olympic teams. That makes Cuba's finish in the first World Baseball Classic—second place—even more incredible. Also, I think, parts of the island have suffered from lack of access to quality equipment, sometimes quality fields. Too much centers on Havana, which will probably change in a hurry when MLB is allowed to establish baseball academies there. On one of the trips Milton Jamail and I took to the island, even at the top ranks of their professional leagues, the baseballs they were using were awful. Their hide was made of vinyl. When Cuba's passion for the game comes together with MLB capitalism—look out.

GM: You write about Major League baseball academies in the Dominican in the 1990s. Did clubs ever circumvent immigration laws to get prospects on American soil?

TW: Not that much, because there's too much at stake. Also, from what I understand, it's become easier to secure visas for prospects in recent years.

GM: Who would you say made more inroads in the game, Clemente or Jackie Robinson?

TW: Both did—but in markedly different ways. Robinson was the saint baseball needed at the time to truly open the door for all athletes to play. Several years ago, when I was an editor with Baseball Weekly, I returned to Pasadena, California, where Robinson grew up. I met his older brother, who was an Olympic sprinter. What Robinson and his family had to put up with is difficult for anybody to imagine. But any true movement also needs a pioneer like Clemente. For me, Clemente was the Muhammad Ali of baseball. Here was a guy who spoke his mind and pointed out the sins of the world. The national pastime doesn't move ahead without him.

GM: You include Reggie Jackson in the fanfare, however briefly. Does he really figure into the Latin equation?

TW: We included Reggie because he belonged to many different worlds. In a way, he was like an Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols of today in that many kinds of fans call such stars their own. I also included Jackson because he was the big slugger on the Oakland A's, which is where Alvin Dark was the manager for a time. If Dark had taken the same tone with the San Francisco Giants (instead of not allowing them to speak Spanish in the dugout or clubhouse), that team would have appeared in more Fall Classics. Also, Jackson had a huge impact on the upcoming crop of Latino sluggers.

GM: Latino players have had their share of ignominy too—Canseco, Palmeiro, and Sosa, to name a few. What do they teach us?

TW: I guess that anybody can mess up, But, more important, MLB needs to realize that when you set up shop in a country, especially in a place that supplies so much of your workforce like the Dominican Republic, that everybody needs to follow the rules. Baseball eliminated many of the questions about players' ages by setting up an office in Santo Domingo. Now they need the same enforcement for performance-enhancing drugs.

"I believe this is the golden age for Latino baseball."
GM: Speaking of ages, can you ballpark Orlando Hernandez's (pun unintended)? Will anyone ever know for sure, or is that a secret on par with what Dodger Dogs are made out of?

TW: Oh, that's a tough one. I'd add three years probably. That said, his arm still seems to be OK. He wasn't allowed to play in the Cuban big leagues after he got into trouble with the authorities. That has kept the arm young. Too bad the rest of his body is falling apart.

GM: The book is replete with lush photographs courtesy of Jose Villegas, a noted photojournalist, who aside from much of the illustrative content, contributes a striking photoessay that evokes the title of the book. Most notable is a picture of the late Mario Encarnacion upon his arrival to the States back in '96, adrift in a Scottsdale mall food court among geriatrics and Sbarro patrons. The shot is unbelievably sad. Does that characterize the experience of players who come here on the whole?

TW: Amazing shot, isn't it? Thankfully, it characterizes more of what it used to be like. That's why it's difficult to imagine what guys like Minoso, Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, the Alou brothers, and Vic Power went through coming to the US big leagues. The teams that are doing their jobs today don't allow an Encarnacion situation to happen. They've learned that it's important that their top prospects speak English and know something of the culture they're heading into before coming north.

GM: There's a similar influx of talent out of East Asia. Is the Latin influence going to hold strong, or are we going to see a shift, if we haven't already?

TW: As long as the academy system is vibrant in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and perhaps in Cuba someday, I see it staying strong. There's such a passion for the game in the Caribbean that's supported by family and community. That's the missing link in many ways in regard to US inner cities and baseball. The game isn't being handed down anymore from parent to child. That's still the case in many of the Latino nations.

GM: How long do you figure Julio Franco can still play baseball? (He'll be 50 at the end of August.)

TW: Ten, 20 years? Nah, the guy's in great shape. Maybe another three or four.

GM: Today, teams seem to carry a surfeit of Latin talent, including Albert Pujols, Ivan Rodriguez, and the starting lineup, bullpen, and bench of the Mets. Are we in the greatest age of Latin baseball?

TW: Yes, I believe this is the golden age for Latino baseball. Certainly you had icons back in the 1960s and 1970s with Clemente, Marichal, etc. But in terms of numbers and quality of play, the last decade has been amazing.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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