Latinos have come a long way in baseball
MLB set to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, honor Clemente
It's been nearly four 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 Baseball will honor one player with the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award for contributions on and off the field. Over the next month, MLB will join the rest of the country in celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. Ceremonies will take place at ballparks around the Majors.
The upcoming celebrations come at a time when Latinos are strong in numbers and influence in the clubhouses and in the stands.
"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 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 the rights of people."
Latino players have come a long way since the days of Clemente, who died in a plane crash at the age of 38 while delivering food and supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua in 1972. Since then, the influence of Latinos has grown in nearly every way. Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic nationally, and their impact is felt in businesses, schools, non-profits and in the Major Leagues, where Latinos make up about 30 percent of players and comprise many of the game's highest-paid and most-celebrated stars.
Major League Baseball, under the leadership of Commissioner Bud Selig, has made an institutional commitment to sound hiring practices and diverse participation at all levels of the game, and Latinos are making strides in Major League front offices. Angels owner Arte Moreno and Linda Alvarado, a member of the Rockies' ownership group, are of Mexican descent. Mets general manager Omar Minaya and Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. also are Latino. Young front-office executives like Moises Rodriguez in St. Louis, Manny Colon in Florida, Rolando Fernandez in Colorado, Eddie Romero in Boston and Rafael Perez, who oversees International Player Development with the Mets, could be future general managers.
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.
They follow the path set by managerial predecessors such as 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 say, '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 the numbers of Latino players and retired Latino players grow, the 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 the 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 manager in the Majors. "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."
Major League Baseball, through the MLB-Dominican Development Alliance/USAID Incentive Fund, matches grants to carry out development projects in players' hometowns and communities where big league teams have academies. As of this month, the MLB-DDA has directed more than $840,000 to support 16 projects in the D.R.
The number of Latino players could increase in the future. Major League Baseball's expansion into Latin America now includes Panama, Nicaragua and Colombia. The Atlanta Braves have explored baseball options in Spain, while the Tampa Rays have made connections with Brazil.
"I am very pleased with the progress Latinos have made in baseball in terms of players, and it will keep growing because clubs have made a tremendous investment in Latin America," said Lou Melendez, MLB's vice president of international baseball operations. "But you can never get comfortable. There is still room for growth, growth in more significant roles in the industry, especially in policy-making roles and decision-making roles. We are all aware of Arte Moreno, and I'd like to see other Latinos consider purchasing teams and becoming part of the industry."
A big part of Clemente's legacy is the emphasis on charity. He encouraged veteran Latino players to 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 provide advice on the 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 under renovation.
"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.