Sheffield overruns, but isn't far off base

June 10, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

A lot of people who read or heard about Gary Sheffield's comments regarding Latino players in this month's GQ magazine say Sheffield is wrong. He is wrong, they say, on the idea that the increase in Latino baseball players and the decrease in African-Americans is about "being able to tell [Latinos] what to do. ... Being able to control them."

Marcos Breton, who literally wrote the book on the rise of Latinos in today's game, doesn't necessarily think Sheffield is wrong. His reasoning? "Two thousand dollars," he said.

"That's what Miguel Tejada got as a signing bonus. A $2,000 investment has now produced, in my mind - and I know I'm biased - the finest shortstop in the American League when you consider hitting, power, glove, arm and the fact that he's in the lineup every day."

There is no other culture whose players can be signed at prices like that and be so routinely put in vulnerable positions. Many of the same factors - except the language barrier - accompanied black players into big league baseball in the 1940s and '50s.

Those who think deeply about the shift in the game from one demographic to another acknowledge these things all the time, adding them to a formula they hope will produce a definitive answer. But there has been a severe shortage of deep thinking concerning Sheffield's comments. Lots of shallow bellowing, though.

The hollering has died down a little lately, partly because someone had the bright idea of actually asking Latinos about his comments, rather than assuming how they should feel. Turns out some of them, including two of his teammates, didn't think Sheffield was wrong.

Breton wasn't a fan of what he called the "over-generalization" in Sheffield's remarks, he said last week, and, like everyone else, he understands Sheffield is, as Breton put it, "a capitalist more than a revolutionary or a social scientist." But, he added, "I didn't take offense to what he said."

Take his word for it, rather than your local talk-show blowhard's. A news and sports columnist for The Sacramento Bee, Breton co-authored Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Baseball Player, published in 1999. It details the origins and effects of the system, now commonplace, that funnels teenage players from Latin American countries into major league organizations.

The player referenced in the title, you might have guessed, is Tejada (thus, the reason Breton is "biased").

Tejada's path to the majors (and, eventually, to the Orioles), as detailed in Away Games, is typical of today's Latino players, star and otherwise, from the poverty of his childhood to his routing through a baseball academy to his signing - a fortune by his country's standards - and entrance into an alien, sometimes hostile, universe.

Wrote Breton: "Making it would mean succeeding in a country that has invaded the Dominican Republic twice this century, that controls the Dominican economy and the hearts and ambitions of all young Dominicans who either have traveled to the United States, want to live there, or have family and friends there."

Breton said of Sheffield's comments: "Certainly, when these players are signed, that point is a valid one."

On the other hand, he added, "it's a two-pronged thing" - and that's probably selling it a couple of prongs short.

"All the Latin kids, when they come up, they know what time it is," Breton said. "They're carrying baggage American kids don't." American kids who, if they were prospects as highly prized as Tejada was, have far too much leverage to settle for $2,000.

At the risk of even more generalization, so much is riding on those Latino players' success that they constantly walk the finest of lines between going along with the program and asserting the aggressive traits they need to thrive.

Thus, when stardom, huge contracts and greater status arrive, such players are as assertive and demanding as any American born-and-raised kid. It's a blueprint drawn up by Roberto Clemente, a hero in Latino ball to an extent that American fans can barely comprehend.

Sheffield definitely got in his own way with his clumsy characterizations of both black and Latino players. Still, you didn't have to read too far between the lines to discover some important kernels of truth.

The subsequent public name-calling didn't exactly advance the dialogue; one clever online author referred to him as a "moron" so many times, you thought Sheffield had legally changed his name.

Along the way, a significant story line about Latinos in baseball was cavalierly dismissed.

Plus, no one can deny Sheffield went way off-message with this line: "I know a lot of players that are home now [who] can outplay a lot of these guys."

Breton said: "I'll quit my job and become the agent for the guy who's sitting at home who's better than Magglio Ordonez."

Then again, he continued: "I see where he's going with it. So I'm not going to whack him on it."

If he can see where Sheffield's going with it, why can't everybody else?

david.steele@baltsun.com

David Steele -- Points after

With the way Ray Lewis showed up at the mandatory minicamp, in retrospect it didn't seem worth the breath expelled debating whether he should have been at the voluntary camps or not.

Once again, seeing Troy Smith walking around the Castle and looking as if he tops 6 feet 1 easily, you wonder if they measured him at the combine with metric tape or something.

Speaking of meaningless measuring, word is that Kevin Durant's bench press might lower his NBA draft position. Legend has it that Red Auerbach was sold on drafting Bill Russell because of his squats.

It would be petty, mean spirited and unsportsmanlike for fans at Florida's road SEC basketball games to throw waffles at Billy Donovan. But if that happens, let's hope they won't throw frozen ones.

Can't wait 'til the next time Donovan is asked by one of his recruits to be released from his letter of intent because he made "a huge mistake."

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