THE YANKEES WON TODAY
(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on October 11, 2000)
It has been my favorite American baseball team for as long as I can remember. Long before I knew the names of most of the other teams, or the cities they represented, I was a New York Yankee fan -- back in my native Cuba.
As a young boy, I can remember owning but not being able to wear my own Yankee cap.Back in the early 1960s, wearing a cap that symbolized Yankee imperialism" was seen as an act of defiance against the Communist regime. My parents wouldn't let me wear it.
“It's only a baseball team,” I would cry. I was too young to understand that I lived under a regime that had politicized even baseball. And my parents were not about to allow me to jeopardize the family's chances of leaving Cuba over a baseball cap.
“I'll buy you a better one when we get to Miami,” my father told me. “And there you can wear it all the time.”
He did. And I still do -- not the same cap, of course. But for me, any Yankee cap became a symbol of my family's struggle for freedom.
For many years before my father died in Miami in 1987, whenever he wanted to cheer me up about the prospects for a free Cuba, he would tell me that “the Yankees won today.” It was our own private joke, our way of reminding each other that we overcame, that we valued our freedom in this country.
On the night in the summer of 1977 when I moved from Florida to New York, I unloaded and returned a U-Haul that I had towed from Miami and -- as others might go to the Statue of Liberty -- drove directly to Yankee Stadium, bought a ticket and a new baseball cap, and paid my respects.
But for many years, as I've been able to follow my team first as a New Yorker and now as a New Jerseyan, I have been whining about not having enough Latinos on the team.
Frankly, my allegiance was often torn when the Yankees played another team with many more Latinos on the roster. And that's playing American League teams. In the National League, teams such as the Dodgers and the Pirates always had many more Latinos.
The Yankees always had one or two Latino starters. But in a stadium surrounded by a predominantly Latino neighborhood, it seemed incomprehensible that an effort was not being made to recruit more Latino players. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner has never liked his Bronx neighbors -- if he could, he would move out -- so he was in no hurry to please them.
In other words, I don't think it was affirmative action that made the Yankees who they are today. It was the overwhelming amount of Latino talent in professional baseball. Nevertheless, it has become a lot easier to root for my team.
We've come a long way. Now the Yankees are one of the most Latino teams in baseball. Now the Yankee dugout is bilingual.
Now I love my team for many different reasons: Tino Martinez on first; Luis Sojo on second; Bernie Williams in center field; Jorge Posada behind home plate; Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez on the mound; with Mariano Rivera ready to relieve and Jose Canseco as a designated hitter, although he has been left off the roster for the league championship series.
With talent from several countries, the Latino Yankees represent the diversity of their community.
They are a source of pride to many Latinos, the kind of nationalist pride that is common in all sports and nationalities.
When El Duque is pitching -- as he is scheduled to do tonight -- the Yankees can have as many as six Latino players (seven with Canseco) in the top 11 positions, including the designated hitter and the closing reliever.
To find a New York baseball roster with as many Latinos, you would probably have to go back to the days of the Negro leagues.
Times have really changed. American baseball is much closer to the way it was when I was a boy in Havana. Now they play Salsa and Merengue in Yankee Stadium when Latino players go up to bat, as they did at Havana's El Cerro Stadium during my youth.
Back then, the teams playing winter league ball in Cuba always included several non-Latino players, perhaps as few as the Yankees have on their starting roster now.
One of the “Americanos” on a Cuban team went on to manage in the World Series and the Olympic Games two weeks ago in Australia. And so, when Tommy Lasorda led the U.S. team to victory over the Cuban national team at the Olympics and dedicated the victory to Cuban exiles, the spirit of my Yankee cap was revived again.
I could just hear my father saying, “The Yankees won today.”
On the Spanish-language talk-radio circuit, Lasorda has been criticized by non-Cubans and praised by grateful Cuban-Americans. The naive critics said he should not have politicized the game.
But Lasorda knows who politicized it first. He knows how Fidel Castro has made sports an instrument for promoting his dictatorship. He knows that had the Cuban team won, Castro would have treated it as a victory over “Yankee imperialism.”
When the Americans beat the Cubans in the Olympics, I felt sorry for my fellow Cubans, some of whom may have been trying to defect. But I was happy to see Lasorda and his team make it a victory for freedom.
“It's only a baseball team,” you might tell me.
And I might tell you a little something about the baseball cap I couldn't wear.