Latinos' impact on baseball continues to grow
Many current stars follow Clemente's lead, on and off field
It's been nearly three decades since Roberto Clemente's deadly plane crash, but his legacy still resonates with Latinos.
Clemente represents an image of dignity: A strong Latino proud of his culture and language who embraced his ties to the community. In life, the Puerto Rican star was a better man than ballplayer, which says a lot because he was a Hall of Famer. In death, Clemente has emerged as a symbol of hope and goodwill among Latinos across the U.S. and Latin America.
Next month, Major League will honor one player with the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award for his contributions on and off the field. Over the next month, the country will celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, prompting some to wonder what Clemente would think of the baseball world he left behind.
The upcoming celebrations come at a time when Latinos are strong in numbers and influence in the clubhouses and in the stands. But they also come as Latinos struggle with fundamental issues that could slow their progress.
"Dad would be happy with all the progress we've made, but he would also make sure that the Latinos who have jobs in the Major Leagues would have a mission and think about the big picture," said Roberto's son, Luis Clemente, reached at his Puerto Rican home. "He would want them to represent themselves well but also give back to the community. He was an activist for equality and I know he would still defend rights of people."
Latino players have come a long way since Roberto Clemente's days. He died in a plane crash at the age of 38 while delivering food and supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua on New Year's Eve 1972.
Since then, the influence of Latinos has grown in nearly every way. They are the fastest-growing demographic nationally in the United States, and their strength is felt in businesses, schools, non-profits, and in the Major Leagues, where they now make up about 30 percent of players. They comprise many of the game's highest-paid and celebrated stars.
Latinos are also making strides in the front offices. Rockies owner Linda Alvarado and Angels owner Arte Moreno are of Mexican descent. Mets general manager Omar Minaya and Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. are also Latino. In the dugout, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is from Venezuela, Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez is Puerto Rican and Indians skipper Manny Acta is from the Dominican Republic.
The trio are following the path set by managerial predecessors like Mike Gonzalez, Preston Gomez, Cookie Rojas and Felipe Alou.
"On our side of it, what guys like Felipe Alou and Ozzie Guillen have done, and then [former Marlins manager] Fredi Gonzalez and myself getting a chance, and now Edwin Rodriguez in Florida, it gives the rest of the guys a chance," Acta said. "They see, 'Hey, it's possible. Those guys did it, we can do it.' It's got to come from us. You work hard, and people will notice you if you earn your peers' respect, regardless of where you come from."
Could the number of Latino managers be higher? Of course. But as with everything in life, the likelihood of more Latino managers hinges on the union of opportunity and skill. As their numbers of players and retired players grows, their numbers in managerial positions should grow, too. White Sox bench coach Joey Cora and Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo are among the Latinos waiting for an opportunity to manage in the big leagues. Longtime coach Juan Samuel served as Baltimore's interim manager this summer until he was replaced by Buck Showalter.
"Baseball is an extension of society," said Rodriguez, the first Puerto Rican-born person to manage in the big leagues. "If you look around, there are more Hispanic people living in the United States. That means there are going to be more Spanish-speaking people playing baseball. So chances are you are going to see more Latinos or Hispanics becoming managers. I think the baseball industry is very knowledgeable about it. The number of Hispanic players have been increasing every year in professional baseball. So that has to be a factor whenever they decide who is going to manage where."
|"Dad would be happy with all the progress we've made, but he would also make sure that the Latinos who have jobs in the Major Leagues would have a mission and think about the big picture."|
|-- Luis Clemente, son of Roberto Clemente|
Guillen had a point. Oftentimes, players, coaches or members in the front office double as Spanish-English translators for the players, and are often diverted from normal duties to help out. Guillen is passionate about the issue, and argues it's simply unfair for players to not have consistent access to designated translators. Major League Baseball points out it has made efforts to teach prospects English in baseball academies throughout Latin America, and offers programs to help players acculturate more comfortably. Individual clubs have their own translation policies, but it's ultimately the players' responsibility to learn the language and communicate with colleagues and the media.
It's an age-old problem, but it's refreshing to learn that players across the league have grasped the notion that learning English does not strip them of their Spanish pride. Speaking English isn't the only way for Spanish-speaking players to communicate. But if they really want to let fans know what they are thinking, it's a helpful tool to control the message.
The message always mattered to Clemente. For him, it was also important for Latinos to "represent." Imagine if Clemente were around to see all of the Latino Minor Leaguers and prospects suspended for violating Major League Baseball's performance-enhancing policy during the past few years?
The use of PEDs in Latin America can be a tricky subject. For many, it's tough to understand the hardships that would drive a young man to use performance-enhancing substances. On the other hand, it's easy for everyone to understand that it is not tolerated by the league.
Reducing the use of performance-enhancing drugs is an important step to improve the image of Latinos in baseball. Education is provided by the league and the clubs. It's up to the players to stay clean.
"There are so many ways to be successful in life, but if you choose a career that has been established for years like baseball, you have to follow the rules," Luis Clemente said. "You do something that goes against those rules, you get caught and you're out. There are many ways to increase your tools without using all that junk. You just have to be true to yourself."
A big part of Clemente's legacy was his emphasis on charity. He also insisted that veteran Latino players take care of younger Latinos in the clubhouse. He would be proud to know that those traditions are still honored in communities and stadiums across the country.
The examples are everywhere.
As teammates in Arizona, Livan Hernandez used to buy Miguel Montero suits, shoes and give him tips on the finer points of life of a professional ballplayer. In Texas, a young Carlos Pena was moved out of a local hotel and into Alex Rodriguez's Dallas mansion until he adjusted to life in the big leagues. Rodriguez later mentored Robinson Cano during his first few years in New York.
In Cincinnati, Francisco Cordero's primary job with the Reds is to close games, but he's also served as the bridge between the English-speaking world and Spanish-speaking world in clubhouses for a decade.
Several Latino stars, including San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez, St. Louis' Albert Pujols, Boston's David Ortiz, Guillen, Acta, Carlos Delgado and Pedro Martinez, have created non-profit foundations to help their communities in the United States and Latin America.
The Roberto Clemente Foundation, established 1993 to help the youth in Pittsburgh, is still going strong, and The Roberto Clemente Sports City for young ballplayers in Puerto Rico, is being renovated.
"Like everything, there is good and there is bad, but it's better than what it was before," Luis Clemente said. "There are a lot of Latinos that have been giving back to the game, a lot of great players that bring a lot of fans to the game. They've become role models. Latinos have been a real good influence on baseball but there is still a lot that can be done."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.