See their homes, and blinders come off

JOHN EISENBERG

December 26, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Doug Melvin warned it would happen. "You'll never look at Latin players the same way again," said the Orioles' assistant general manager before I left to spend a week studying the baseball life of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

He was right. You see their homes, streets and culture, listen to them tell their life stories, and you might as well go buy a new pair of glasses: Never again will they be just names on my score card.

They are sons of a different society, many from desperate homes, their high place in the game achieved even though the vast majority of people in the game -- from fans to administrators -- have made almost no effort to understand them.

The lack of effort doesn't make sense, given the enormous place of Latin players in the game. But it's a fact.

"For a long time teams would sign a Latin player, and if he could play, OK, but if not, well, maybe they didn't keep him as long as they should," Melvin said.

"Our country is a very isolated place, and to many people these are foreigners," said Milton Jamail, a University of Texas professor of Latin American studies, who has written a book about Caribbean baseball. "They'd see a kid do something they didn't like and go, 'Oh, damn, look at that.' Never bothering to ask why he did it."

In a perfect world, a trip such as mine would be mandatory for everyone in the game. Players. Administrators. Reporters. Maybe then so many wouldn't dismiss Latin players as crazy, sullen or troublesome -- without asking why.

Such adjectives are used all the time, and it is no different than calling a black player lazy. It's racist. It shows no understanding.

A trip to these countries cures you of that. You see and hear too much to come back and ever again stoop to such stereotyping.

"Americans expect us to behave just like they do," Nelson Norman told me, "and our culture is different."

Norman is a Dominican who has spent almost two decades in the States as a player and coach. He speaks perfect, unaccented English, and is managing a Dominican winter ball team this year in San Pedro de Macoris.

"It's not just the language that's different," he said. "Like, Americans are really high on not lying. Here, a lot of these kids have never even heard the word 'discipline' before. They're from poor, broken homes, and didn't grow up with daddy telling them what to do. They're going to try to get away with things.

"It doesn't make them bad people.You have to understand the background. Not all of them have been to school. They don't really know how to answer questions. They're from rough areas. But they're still nice kids. You have to be patient."

What happens, he said, is too many players get labeled early, when their English is crude and they're still adjusting to the twin shock of emerging from poverty and moving to a new country.

Consider the Orioles' Dominican oufield prospect, Luis Mercedes. Most fans here would say he is a head case. He was suspended twice last year at Rochester, once for just walking out, another time for throwing a helmet at an opponent.

Those are the facts, and they meld an image Mercedes will have trouble shedding. But as Milton Jamail says, you must ask why these things happen.

Mercedes was 22 last year, four years removed from living in a tiny house with eight brothers and sisters, struggling every day to eat. His English is passable, but needs work. He walked out that day because he didn't understand something in his paycheck. He threw a helmet because he was immature.

"I was wrong last year, and I understand that now," he said one night before a winter ball game in Santo Domingo. "I have to prove to the people in Baltimore that I am a good person inside, like my family knows and the people in the Dominican know."

Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' Dominican scout, said: "I firmly believe that no Latin player is ready for the major leagues until he is, say, 23. It's too much for their heads, coming from where they come from, to expect them to be comfortable [in the States] at 20 or even 21. You must be patient."

Mercedes is leading the Dominican league in hitting and steals this year, but, more importantly, he is clearly a team leader, the one who starts clapping and picks up the bench when things look bad. This is a player whom one Oriole called "an ass" last year.

The point is not to make excuses for Mercedes. He does have a bit of a temper, and who knows what might happen? But the point is there is another side to his event-filled story, another perspective -- a perspective fully understood only after a trip to his home.

Maybe the Oriole who slurred him didn't like his speaking Spanish and laughing in the clubhouse. Some American players hate that, paranoid about being laughed at. But is Mercedes wrong for speaking his native language?

Or maybe the player didn't like Mercedes' boisterous personality. It'salmost impossible not to have one when you're weaned in Dominican clubhouses, which are patently rowdy and anything but uptight.

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