Politics has become a focal point of the sporting world in the past year, particularly on the international stage. For example, there were numerous protests leading up to, and during, the Beijing Olympics last August. Six weeks ago, the Israeli female tennis player Shahar Peer was barred from the Barclays Tennis Championships in Dubai, due to Israel’s military action in Gaza. The Emirate’s decision caused a strong response, including Andy Roddick boycotting the men’s event and The Tennis Channel removing the tournament from its broadcast schedule.
The World Baseball Classic has not been immune to politics. In fact, it was a topic of conversation this week on some sports talk radio programs. I happened to catch one of these discussions, between Michael Kay and Al Leiter. Prior to the Puerto Rico-U.S. game in Miami, Kay, like many of his broadcasting brethren, lauded the enthusiasm of the Latin American players and fans, and how seriously they took the WBC. This should be a non-story. So why is that not the case? Because Kay demonstrated a shallowness and a lack of understanding of the sport he covers and the people who play it.
Yadier Molina, who hit the home run to put the Cardinals into the World Series in 2006, delivered a go-ahead double in the eighth inning against the Netherlands to advance Puerto Rico into the second round of the WBC. Afterward, Molina told reporters that the moment would “be in his heart all his life,” and that he considers the WBC “to be his World Series and that he enjoys it more.” That the game took place at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan likely added to the emotion.
Kay was incredulous at the Molina quote. “I don’t get it,” he said. “You mean to tell me that that base hit meant more than getting to the World Series? Come on.”
Come on? I beg to differ with my former YES Network colleague. He’s been around the game long enough to know that Molina’s comment makes perfect sense. Playing Major League baseball is a job to many of the Latino ball players; a means to help their families and/or communities out of poverty. Prime examples can be found in Roberto Clemente, Rico Carty, Juan Marichal, Luis Sojo, and Pedro Martinez.
Leiter, replying to Kay, issued an impressive response. He understood Molina’s point and went into a short explanation of Latino pride and nationalism, adding that it is even greater at the annual Caribbean World Series. Leiter also added that Venezuelan fans booed Magglio Ordoñez because he supports Hugo Chavez. (You didn’t see fans who are registered Democrats booing A-Rod because he donated to George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign.)
Former Met Endy Chavez, who’s playing for Luis Sojo’s Venezuelan contingent, had a telling quote in an interview with Tyler Kepner:
When we’re in the majors, it’s our job. We are professionals. You play for your team, but you just try to do your job. Here [in the WBC], it’s something special. You feel like a little kid. It’s not money. No matter who you are, you have to play hard for your country. I think it’s the biggest thing that has happened in my life.
The U.S. complacency is as understandable as the Latinos’ fervor. It’s a matter of conditioning. We’re taught that being a Major Leaguer and playing in the World Series is the pinnacle of the baseball experience here in the United States. That’s not the case elsewhere, where representing your country is the greatest honor you can achieve. With that in mind, the U.S. players give the impression they’re playing out of deference to the public relations disaster it would cause Major League Baseball, which runs the tourney, if they didn’t play. Thus, on a game-by-game basis, the U.S. team has been forced to match the intensity of their opponents, a reaction to the “playoff atmosphere” that many have described.
Deep down, I believe Michael Kay knows this and understands this. If he was playing the “Ugly American” ethnocentric card for radio, it was a poor strategy that only made him look bad.