Commentary

This Sporting Life: Naming names

Originally Published: October 16, 2009
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

With Hispanic Heritage Month just ending, a simple thought this week about baseball and the heroic power of the ordinary.

So let's talk for a minute about the scattered mess of ancient history and baseball and the unintentional wearing away of prejudice.

I was born what seems a very long time ago, in 1957, and when I was a kid, this is what "Hispanic" sounded like in America:

"Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges."

Or this.

Or this.

To many Americans -- maybe most Americans -- "Hispanic" back then meant lazy thieves or wild-eyed nightclub entertainers. The most culturally enlightened among us were those folks who'd managed to get tickets to see "West Side Story" on Broadway. Or had at least bought the cast album.

Like most Northeastern middle-class suburban kids of that era I was born with a heart made of Wonder bread and a head filled with Miracle Whip ("For those times when mayonnaise is just too much!").

Which is another way of saying that I was generally and biologically and culturally as Amana-white and as Anglo-centric and as clueless as it was possible to be.

Which itself meant that without help I was destined to bear forward all the terrible switchblade clichés and narrow welfare prejudices that old movies and television reruns could pour into me.

What changed that was baseball.

To see men playing baseball. To see ordinary men doing things I understood to be ordinary on TV. To hear their names. To hear their names on the radio again and again, on that little turquoise RCA transistor I carried everywhere in the brown leatherette case. The one I kept beneath my pillow at night.

Tiant and Clemente; Oliva and Aparicio; Cepeda, Perez and Marichal.

Close my eyes, and I hear them still.

These were the first "Latin" names I remember from my youth that I associated with actual people rather than with Hollywood's muggers or tango instructors, with Hollywood's bad examples or theatrical constructs: Luis Aparicio, Juan Marichal, Tony Oliva, Luis Tiant, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez.

Roberto Clemente.

Better than movies or television, both of which relied then (and now) on criminal stereotype and greasy cliché, baseball did the work of broadening and normalizing my sense of what "Latin-American," or "Hispanic," or "Latino" meant. As much as Mantle or Killebrew, Gibson or Koufax or Maris, these men played a game I loved. They had names. Thus, they were human.

I was thinking about all this last weekend. I spent Sunday night down on Avenue C in Alphabet City watching the Yankees play the Twins on the television behind the coffee bar at Cafecito. There was that sweet/bitter thimbleful of café cubano; there was Andy Pettitte peeking over the top of his glove against the billiard green of the field; there was Joe Girardi, pensive as a man at prayer; there was the sound out of the kitchen, the thumpthumpthump of the sous pounding flat another pork leg steak; and over it all there was the music, that music, that Batista-era ballroom mambo so filled with longing and with joy.

To take that all in, even for a moment, is to understand that the genius of America lies in the breadth and sprawling mess of its diversity -- not in the perfection of its assimilation, but in its very imperfection.

What remains remarkable about our diversity is how unremarkable it is.

Tiant. Cepeda. Clemente. Perez. Marichal. Aparicio.

Along those lines, this: The average roster population leaguewide for "Hispanic" players, or "Latin-American" players or players of "Latin extraction" is now right around 30 percent.

(Remember though that hate is a powerful thing, and even baseball may not save us from ourselves. During the years I lived in Los Angeles it always struck me odd that so many people so loved Fernando Valenzuela and his terrifying screwball -- and yet so many of those same people so resented, feared or hated "Mexicans" in general. In this specific puzzle lies the central dilemma of our humanity.)

But we evolve. And one day we'll be as smart as baseball, until the only question we ever ask of one another is "Can you play this game?"

Can you contribute?

Can you help?

This is one of the things sports did first for me, and did best. It brought the world to me in small ways, ways I could understand, and it made that far-flung world familiar. It made that world and some of its strangeness less frightening.

Such is the beauty of sports. Such is the magic of language, and the comfort of a name. Such is the heroic power of the ordinary.

Tiant. Oliva.

Such is the power of repetition.

Aparicio. Cepeda.

Like wind against stone.

Perez. Clemente.

Waves against the shore.

Marichal.

Like music.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.