McGwire beat Sosa early on

October 05, 1998|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

IT ISN'T, by this point, an original thought, but here it goes, anyway: Baseball is back.

A season of home-run heroics has returned the game to its place of prominence in the nation's life: A vicious swing, a crack of bat to ball, a tiny sphere arcing away, bound for glory, and something sighs in your soul at how . . . right it is.

Things don't get much more American than this.

Meanwhile, here I sit, feeling not unlike Scrooge at a Christmas party, pondering a singularly rude question:

Why do we love Mark better than we love Sammy?

Meaning, of course, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs. The regular season's over now and Mr. McGwire finished with the new single-season home-run record, having 70 times bashed the ball out of the park. Mr. Sosa's a close second, having done the same thing 66 times.

But recently, on a day when both men were equals, still tied at 65, the Washington Post ran a story codifying what some have long suspected. According to marketing experts, even if Mr. Sosa had won the home-run chase, it would not have translated into the kinds of endorsement deals and other career perks Mr. McGwire can expect to enjoy. There were several reasons given, including the fact that Mr. McGwire has been a major-leaguer longer.

An 'all-American' guy

But the primary reason Mr. McGwire is more marketable, the observers seemed to agree, is that he fits what one called "an all-American image," while Mr. Sosa does not. Meaning that Mr. McGwire is a white guy of Irish ancestry and Mr. Sosa a brown man from the Dominican Republic. He's not "all-American" in ways that have nothing to do with immigration status -- could never be "all-American," even if he'd been born in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July. In 1776.

As one expert put it, "It's naive to say, 'Gee, this has nothing to do with race.' "

So here we go again. Similar accomplishments bringing dissimilar rewards. Man, where have we heard that one before? For dark-skinned strivers, it's a frustrating truth daily discovered: You can do what the other guy did, but you won't get what the other guy got.

The disparity penalizes black and brown people no matter what direction life takes them. Going to work? Well, according to recent media reports, a black man earns only 73 cents for every dollar made by a white one. A Hispanic man gets 62 cents on the dollar. Going to jail? According to "The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission," an African-American or Hispanic defendant can expect a significantly harsher penalty than a white defendant with a similar record who commits the same offense.

Damned if you do, more damned if you don't.

And it's insulting to claim that the white guy is favored because he represents "all-American" ideals. Africans and Spaniards were among the earliest outsiders to explore this continent. Indeed, Estevanico, a black Hispanic, led an expedition through present-day Arizona and New Mexico in 1538. In the intervening years, Hispanics and blacks have faithfully tilled American fields, fought American wars and dreamt American dreams.

How much more must they do before the phrase "all-American" includes them, too?

But it's only a game, after all. Only baseball.

America's pastime

On the other hand, it is, perhaps, useful to remind ourselves that even in our oldest and noblest major sport, as played by men we like and respect, there is in the national psyche something small and unevolved that gravitates toward a white man for no better reason than that he is white.

In a very real sense, Mark McGwire had Sammy Sosa beaten before either of them ever picked up a bat.

This, too, is as American as it gets.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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