Roberto Clemente would be pleased, though not entirely satisfied.
On the day Major League Baseball celebrates the life and career of the Hall of Famer who tirelessly advocated for equal treatment for Latin players, signs of his legacy abound in the game.
Nearly 25% of the players on current major league rosters were born in Latin American countries, as were 35% of the players at this year’s All-Star Game.
The flow of Latin talent continues to pour in, with exciting youngsters like New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez (Dominican Republic), Boston Red Sox infielder Yoan Moncada (Cuba) and Seattle Mariners closer Edwin Diaz (Puerto Rico).
And national acclaim for their achievements has arrived much faster than in the past. An ad portraying reigning AL rookie of the year Carlos Correa, like Clemente a native of Puerto Rico, runs repeatedly on the MLB Network.
“In baseball we’re in great shape, because there’s a lot talent and a lot of young players doing things right,’’ retiring Red Sox icon David Ortiz said when discussing the state of Latinos in the U.S. Ortiz originally signed with the Mariners in 1992 and made his major league debut in 1997.
“MLB is doing an incredible job with Latin players, better than I’ve ever seen before.’’
Wednesday’s Roberto Clemente Day represents the launching point of a series of events during what baseball has designated as Hispanic Heritage Month –accompanied by a special version of the MLB logo with an accent mark – to recognize the contributions of Latin players to the game and their communities.
And yet, for all the awareness of the impact Latinos have had in the game, they can hardly crack the decision-making positions. The Atlanta Braves’ firing of Fredi Gonzalez in May left the majors without a single Hispanic manager, a source of puzzlement among some players.
“It bothers you,’’ Chicago Cubs catcher Miguel Montero, a native of Venezuela, told USA TODAY Sports. “You don’t want to think (there’s any discrimination), but you’re still left with that little resentment of, ‘Why is it? Why don’t they try it?’ I think we have demonstrated enough on the field for them to know we can be good managers.’’
Baseball has tried to address the issue by instituting this year a pipeline program aimed at finding and developing qualified minority candidates for field and front-office positions.
The Detroit Tigers’ Al Avila remains the only Latino general manager in the majors – although Miami Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill has Cuban ancestry on his mother’s side – meaning there’s one Hispanic among the 60 most prominent management posts in the game.
“We would like to have greater diversity among the managerial ranks. It is something we will continue to encourage and strive for,’’ Commissioner Rob Manfred told USA TODAY Sports. “Having said that, there are 30 of these jobs. It’s a very small sample. There is always going to be an ebb-and-flow of them. We, Major League Baseball, cannot dictate (hiring). Clubs are free to make their own hiring decisions.’’
What MLB can do is continue reaching out to the Hispanic audience, which only makes sense, given that its numbers are estimated at upwards of 50 million in the U.S. alone. An ESPN poll last year indicated more than 60% of Latinos in this country consider themselves baseball fans.
Manfred believes that market is ripe for the taking, which is part of the impetus behind initiatives like adding the accent mark to the surname on the jersey of several Latin players, such as Robinson Cano, Yoenis Cespedes and Adrian Gonzalez.
As part of its outreach this month, MLB will run spots in national-media outlets in English and Spanish.
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“The core of our business will always be here in the United States, but the United States doesn’t look the same as it did 20 years ago, and it may look even more different 20 years from now,’’ Manfred said. “I think it’s really important to focus on that.’’
But with so many players coming from abroad – and so many millions of potential fans to win over – Manfred has also made a point of promoting baseball outside U.S. borders. In the year-and-a-half since he took over as commissioner, Manfred has traveled to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and twice to Mexico, where MLB sees a potentially huge market for both players and fans.
This past spring, MLB staged exhibition games in Cuba and Mexico – where it opened a new office – and two years ago in Panama. Baseball has also set up developmental programs in Nicaragua and Brazil, a country of 200 million that was the birthplace of only two of the current major leaguers but could someday produce lots more.
Closer to home, MLB and the players association agreed on a plan to require Spanish-language interpreters for all teams, a move welcomed by dozens of players who can now rely on them to facilitate communication with the news media, teammates and team personnel.
Manfred said part of the objective of these kinds of efforts is to foster an environment of inclusiveness in the sport. However, reaching that goal remains a work in progress, considering a USA TODAY Sports study last year found more than half the bench-clearing incidents in the previous five seasons had featured white Americans and foreign-born Latinos as the main antagonists.
Ortiz said he has noticed the pregame fraternization that’s common among Latin players from opposing teams sometimes gets frowned upon by those outside that circle.
“What we’ve brought to the table – that Latin vibe, the playfulness – for whatever reason some people want to change that style of ours,’’ he said. “Some people are bothered by that, and I don’t know why because this is a family game.’’
Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates superstar who died at 38 when his plane crashed in a mercy mission on New Year’s Eve 1972, was known to organize his Latin peers for postgame gatherings, regardless of their team.
Were he alive today, he may marvel at how far Latinos have advanced in baseball, while recognizing they still have a ways to go.
USA TODAY Sports