Uhlman's Latin acts anything but a slur

JOHN EISENBERG

March 02, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- When the Orioles' Fred Uhlman Sr. told a USA Today reporter that "a genetic-type thing" caused Mexicans to lack foot speed and dance well, he made a terrible mistake. Stereotyping along ethnic lines is thickheaded, offensive and demands a response.

But is there a right response this time?

The Orioles apologized, but La Raza, an organization that lobbies for Hispanic causes, still demanded last week that Uhlman, a longtime scout, resign. You can't blame it. Stereotyping of Latins in baseball is institutionalized. A Hispanic name conjures unflattering images in the minds of too many executives.

Uhlman's comments only rekindle such a sad flame. As with those Al Campanis made on "Nightline," they can't be defended. Campanis, of course, lost his job, and La Raza, which exists to protect Hispanic rights and interests, has every right to take offense and ask for Uhlman's ouster.

But this is where the situation gets tricky. Should the Orioles give in to La Raza and fire Uhlman, they would be hurting the cause of Latin players. It's an undeniable fact. Uhlman is a long-standing advocate of Latins in a game where there are few.

"He's a great friend of Spanish-speaking ballplayers," said Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' scout in the Dominican Republic, who sought out reporters yesterday to make public his stand on the matter. "I don't know the circumstances of why he said what he said, but all I know is, No. 1, he is not a bigot, and No. 2, he has helped many of my people for years."

That is the unfortunate irony here. La Raza is asking for the dismissal of a man with a long history of supporting the lifeblood of the causes it supports -- Latin-American people.

The Orioles' record of signing Latin players has increased exponentially in the past five years, and Uhlman has been at the center of the effort. He travels to Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic several times a year, helps set up scouting and skill camps, files reports and urges the signing of the players with sufficient skills.

There were almost no Latins in the Orioles organization as recently as 1987, but now there are several dozen. For virtually each of these players, signing a pro contract represented the only chance they'd have to escape the current of desperate poverty that runs so powerfully in their countries.

"And you have to understand," assistant GM Frank Robinson said, "that most teams don't even send American scouts to those countries. It's not a glamorous assignment. A lot of American scouts just go, 'Oh, no way.' You're going to little towns, and sometimes the conditions are bad. But Fred has gone for years. He's comfortable in the culture. He wants to help the people."

Robinson's stance is worth noting because he has a history of speaking out when intolerance arises in sports. This certainly qualifies as intolerance, but Robinson points no finger.

"What Fred said can't be defended, not at all," he said, "but I would hate to see him lose his job over something like this. It's just not an accurate reflection of the man's attitude. I've been in a lot of meetings with him discussing players over the years, and never once have I heard him say anything even approaching a slur toward anyone, black or Hispanic. He's just not that kind of a man."

Which begs the question: Why did he say what he said?

"I know what he was trying to say," Robinson said. "He was at the Caribbean [winter ball championship] Series when he was interviewed, and he was comparing the nature of different teams from different countries. It's something scouts do as a matter of routine. He just went too far."

Indeed. Uhlman has been in the headlines for almost a week, but the similar quotes of a Pirates scout in the same article have stirred no storm. Why? The Pirates scout did not use the word "genetic," which rightfully sets off alarms.

In any case, the Orioles are in something of a pickle. Club president Larry Lucchino said yesterday he agrees that Uhlman's comments require a response, but the fact is that anything short of firing Uhlman might not satisfy La Raza. Yet the Orioles, while not defending what their man said, have every intention of defending their man. You can't blame them, either.

Lucchino was busy yesterday setting up a meeting with La Raza, at which, the club hopes, a better understanding can be reached. "We want them to know that we do not begin to condone such statements," Robinson said, "but, hopefully, we can make Fred's history known to them, and they'll accept both our apology and his apology."

It would be the right thing.

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