Latino Sluggers

Back when Saturday Night Live was still watchable and before political correctness infected the national discourse, this comment by the fictional Chico Esquela became a buzz phrase (use Ricky Ricardo accent): "Base-a-ball has been berry berry goood to me." Garrett Morris's silly gag carried some social weight in that a number of Latin baseball players had escaped lives of deprivation and even squalor to become, at least by their homelands' standards, rich and famous. They weren't nearly as rich and famous as today's beloved gloved ones: Alex Rodriguez (born in New York but of Dominican heritage) makes more than $22 million per season and Dominican Republic native Sammy Sosa pockets some $11 million. As of 2001, Sosa was the highest-paid Latin in the National League; A-Rod was joined by six other Latins in the American League making even more than Sosa. (To his credit, Rodriguez said, "I'm embarrassed by this contract. I don't know if Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, or Alexander the Great would be worth this kind of money.")

The more than 40 current Latin MLB players who have slugged their way to millionaire status follow a grand tradition that began April 23, 1902, when a Colombian infielder named Luis Castro entered the Philadelphia Athletics lineup. Baseball might be as American as apple pie, but it has always been right up there with fútbol in the Americas as well. Smart scouts have always searched the sandlots of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama, and the rest of Latin America, not only because they could sign players for a few pesos but also because they could sign great players for a few pesos.

The list is long, but any citation must include all-around superstar Roberto Clemente (Carolina, Puerto Rico), the Pittsburgh Pirate who batted .317 over eighteen seasons and excelled in all aspects of the game the way Willie Mays and Hank Aaron did. And Panamanian Rod Carew, who hit .388 in 1977 and .328 over nineteen seasons. High-kicking pitcher Juan Marichal (Laguna Verde, Dominican Republic), the fabulous Alou brothers, Cuban pitching ace Luis Tiant, Minnie Minosa (Cuba), Orlando Cepeda (Puerto Rico), Vic Power (born Victor Felipe Pellot Pove in Arecibo, Puerto Rico) -- all of these stars began professional careers before today's stars were even born.

A new film called Viva Baseball chronicles the rich history of Latin diamond dogs such as Hall of Fame slugger Tony Perez (a former Marlins manager), Cookie Rojas (current Marlins broadcaster), and Tony Taylor, all three of whom are from Cuba and will be on hand for the film's regional premiere. Hall of Fame Marlins Spanish-language broadcaster Felo Ramirez and Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria will also be there. The film was made by Dan Klores (City by the Sea, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story), is narrated (in English) by pop singer Marc Anthony, and includes an interview with A-Rod.

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Greg Baker