Sur­fac­ing ten­sions: Blacks, His­pan­ics not on the same team

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Thom Loverro

Gary Sh­effield hit a nerve that grows in­creas­ingly raw with each pass­ing year: The num­ber of His­panic play­ers on ma­jor league ros­ters has risen, Sh­effield said, while the num­ber of black Amer­i­cans de­clined be­cause His­panic play­ers are eas­ier to con­trol.

“I called it years ago,” the Detroit Tigers slug­ger told GQ mag­a­zine in June. “What I called is that you’re go­ing to see more black faces, but there ain’t no English go­ing to be com­ing out. [. . . ] [It’s about] be­ing able to tell [His­panic play­ers] what to do, be­ing able to con­trol them.”

That, pre­dictably, did not sit well with His­panic play­ers and coaches. “That’s go­ing to hurt a lot of peo­ple,” said Ed­die Perez, a for­mer Sh­effield team­mate who now serves as the bullpen coach of the At­lanta Braves.

Hurt feel­ings aside, Sh­effield’s words also ex­posed a di­vide be­tween black Amer­i­can play­ers and the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of His­panic play­ers that sur­faces with each real or per­ceived slight.

A study by the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Florida In­sti­tute for Di­ver­sity and Ethics in Sport showed that 8.4 per­cent of play­ers on Open­ing Day ros­ters last sea­son were black Amer­i­cans, down from 27 per­cent in the early 1970s.

The num­ber of His­pan­ics in base­ball, mean­while, has risen steadily: More than 29 per­cent of the play­ers in the ma­jors are His­pan­ics, which is more than dou­ble the per­cent­age of 20 years ago.

As their num­bers rise, the power and voice of His­panic play­ers also in­crease and so does the ten­sion be­tween them and cur­rent and for­mer black Amer­i­can play­ers, who see their place in the game di­min­ished and their legacy dis­ap­pear­ing.

The strained re­la­tion­ship was ev­i­dent when His­pan­ics pe­ti­tioned base­ball to re­tire through­out the ma­jor leagues the No. 21 uni­form of the great Roberto Clemente, a black Hall of Famer from Puerto Rico, the same honor be­stowed upon Jackie Robin­son for break­ing the color bar­rier in 1947.

Sharon Robin­son, Jackie Robin­son’s daugh­ter, told the New York Daily News that it wasn’t ap­pro­pri­ate to honor Clemente in the same way as her fa­ther.

“To my un­der­stand­ing, the pur­pose of re­tir­ing my fa­ther’s num­ber is that what he did changed all of base­ball, not only for African-Amer­i­cans but also for Lati­nos, so I think that pur­pose has been met,” she said last year. “When you start re­tir­ing num­bers across the board, for all dif­fer­ent groups, you’re kind of di­lut­ing the orig­i­nal pur­pose.”

Hall of Famer and for­mer Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als Man­ager Frank Robin­son, who now works in the com­mis­sioner’s of­fice to in­crease in­ter­est in base­ball among black youth, also ques­tioned whether Clemente should be so hon­ored.

“Jackie Robin­son was a very unique sit­u­a­tion and his­tor­i­cal,” Robin­son said at the time. “Clemente did an aw­ful lot of good things and was a ter­rific ballplayer, but I don’t think it’s the same type of sit­u­a­tion as Jackie Robin­son. And if you do it for him, where do you go? Where do you stop? Then you ne­glect some­one and cre­ate some big con­tro­versy.”

Jim “Mud­cat” Grant, an au­thor and for­mer ma­jor lea­guer, up­set His­panic play­ers with his trib­ute to the “Black Aces,” the 13 black Amer­i­can pitch­ers in ma­jor league his­tory to win 20 or more games in a sin­gle sea­son.

No black His­panic pitch­ers have been in­vited to join the group — a snub that angers Luis Tiant, a black, Cuban-born pitcher who won 20 games four times in a ma­jor league ca­reer that lasted nearly two decades.

“Whoever came out with that idea, it’s em­bar­rass­ing to us,” Tiant told the Fort Laud­erdale (Fla.) Sun Sen­tinel.

Or­lando Cepeda, a black Puerto Ri­can who was in­ducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, said he un­der­stood Tiant’s anger and re­called a time when those groups shared not a grudge but a bond.

“When we came here, black and Latins, we both had to go to the back on the bus, and we had to eat in the kitchen,” he said. “We got the same treat­ment black play­ers did. We were black, pe­riod.”

Getty Images

Out­sourc­ing the na­tional pas­time? Gary Sh­effield of the Detroit Tigers an­gered His­panic play­ers when he said they were eas­ier to con­trol than black Amer­i­can play­ers, the latest salvo across a grow­ing di­vide.

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