Standing Up for Those Who Sit Down
By Thomas Boswell
On Tuesday night, some of the best performers in baseball, including
Orlando and Livan Hernandez, Jose Canseco and Rey Ordonez, refused
to play. Some of these Cuban-born athletes wouldn't even put on their
uniforms. Particularly forceful was the image of El Duque, perhaps the best
starting pitcher on the best team in baseball, boycotting his sport for a day
as a matter of principle because of his displeasure at the seizure of
6-year-old Elian Gonzalez by federal agents.
Here we have a Cuban exile, who defected to America in a fishing boat,
refusing to play America's national pastime so that he can protest a policy
of the American government, implemented by the Justice Department after
consultation with the White House. Not only was his protest against his
adopted country seen as legitimate and tolerable, but Hernandez, and all
the other dissenting Latin players, even got paid for the games they refused
To top it off, Commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday, "I was proud of
How American can you get?
"There was never a doubt in my mind that the players should be
encouraged to do what they believe is right," Selig said. "We talk about
social responsibility, so we should support it.
"These players were deeply affected [by the Gonzalez case]. They care.
Their positions are based on the experiences of their own lives and the
lives of their families. Whether you agree or disagree with them is
irrelevant. And I guess [the polls say] most disagree. What mattered were
the feelings of these people. It was clear to me, and I only had one
conversation with [baseball's chief operating officer] Paul Beeston [to
reinforce that decision], that baseball's job was to support and understand
them. We wanted them to do what their consciences dictated."
This time, baseball got one right. We can't say we wish athletes were more
responsible citizens, then criticize them, or dock their pay, when they take
a stand on an issue that's larger and more controversial than their game.
Personally, I thought the Justice Department action was justifiable. Though
there's no excuse for anybody with a gun and a combat visor grabbing a
6-year-old child. There's got to be some brave volunteer who goes
through that door dressed in an unthreatening way, so that the person who
actually lays hands on the child looks like a sane human being, not a
monster. My wife, joking, suggested a SWAT team of 10 guys with
machine guns and one--the designated Elian grabber--dressed in a big pink
Easter Bunny costume. There's truth in that.
The player protest, called in support of a citywide work stoppage in Miami
called by local community leaders, had its firmest backing among Florida
Marlins players. The Marlins, with Selig's encouragement, supported not
only their players and coaches, but any front office personnel who wanted
to take the day off in protest. "Each individual franchise is part of its
community," Selig said, "so they need to be aware of the large issues which
affect that community."
Of course, the team endorsing the strike was good PR for the Marlins,
who average only 14,000 fans in a stadium that holds 42,531 and wish
they could draw more from Miami's large Hispanic community. "I don't
think it had anything to do with PR," said a Marlins spokesman on
Tuesday. "It had to do with [respecting] the emotions and sensitivity of the
staff--the people who work and play for the Marlins."
Baseball, like any pro sport, never misses a public relations angle. And
that's probably present this time, too. Tolerance of diverse opinion and
support of the right to protest isn't exactly a tough position to take. But it's
still the right one. Give a little credit. In Miami, an angry minority population
is demonstrating in the streets, burning tires to send plumes of smoke up
for the TV cameras to film, and baseball backs the right of its Latin stars to
join that protest against government policy.
In recent years, as a steady influx of Cuban players has entered the game,
the plight of Castro's Cuba has actually become a subject of locker room
conversation. Last spring, when the Orioles played an exhibition game
against a Cuban national team in Havana, we were all struck by the
incredible physical deterioration of the city. Entire neighborhoods looked
like a bizarre deserted sound stage for the post-apocalyptic "Road
Warrior" movies. The whole island seemed frozen in time, trapped in a
languid limbo of stunted hopes. We could hardly imagine a more
depressing place for anyone with ambition or independence. To go to
Cuba is to understand how much you might want to escape. Or prevent a
child from returning.
However, many of us on that trip were also struck by the universal
cleanliness of the people, by the absence of abject poverty and by the
apparently normal life of many children. True, you can't drive two blocks in
Havana without seeing somebody in a military uniform on a street corner.
But it's not hell. There's still festivity, good food, beautiful scenery,
romance and sport. You can live a life there. And a child, with his father,
can probably grow up fairly happy, if not free, in Cuba. Sometimes, the
more you know firsthand the more conflicted you feel.
The Elian case is sad in so many ways. On all fronts, many have shown
their most self-aggrandizing and ideologically intransigent side. Cold
comfort that it may be, baseball has at least taken a morsel of something
decent out of this bitter meal.
A couple of dozen players have taken a public stand, one not widely
popular, but based on principle. Their sport, right to the top, has supported
them. And many a ballplayer, like us all, will have to think hard about this
ugly tug-of-war between politics and family, and the small boy drawn, but
not yet quartered, by it all.