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Baseball as a Pastime and a Metaphor

June 15, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — When asked about the ubiquity of the thing called pelota in this island's life and culture, Puerto Rico's top justice official said she only has to glance out the windows of her home to catch the dazzling blue-white lights of Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Or to think back to when she was a schoolgirl.

"My father and I, whoever had gotten up first, would go get the paper," said Anabelle Rodriguez, the secretary of justice in the Puerto Rican government. "We wanted to know what Roberto Clemente had done in his at-bats the night before."

Since the first bats, mitts and balls arrived more than a century ago in the baggage train of invading U.S. troops, baseball, or pelota, has become a deeply rooted part of society on this eastern Caribbean island, influencing Puerto Ricans' image of themselves and even how they spend tax money.

This summer, the commonwealth finds itself with its own major league team, or at least a share of one, as the financially shaky Expos split their home stands between Montreal and San Juan.

For 22 games, Les Expos are morphing into Los Expos, and plying their craft at the same wind-buffeted San Juan field Rodriguez can see from her windows. For many Puerto Ricans, it is tacit tribute to the rich talent pool that the island and its nearly 4 million people have become for baseball, and American society as a whole.

"All of our engineers leave. Half of our doctors go to the smaller states," said Father Fernando Pico, a Jesuit priest and history professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Four of Pico's own nephews are doctors, and all practice in the United States.

Baseball can serve as a metaphor for the confused, sometimes contradictory sentiments people here feel toward the mainland, where 2.7 million Puerto Ricans live. It is perfectly possible, said analysts of Puerto Rican politics, for an islander to advocate independence -- the departure of the Yanquis -- while rooting for the New York Yankees.

Even for Puerto Ricans who desire a continuing link with the United States -- either statehood or the current self-governing commonwealth status -- baseball and all sports have become a soft and safe form of nationalism, a cause for self-identification and collective pride.

In 1993, when a nonbinding plebiscite was held about Puerto Rico's future, advocates of keeping the commonwealth noted, among other things, that if the island were to become the 51st state, it would lose the right to send a baseball team and other athletes to the Olympics.

"Their argument was, we'll keep the Puerto Rican national basketball team and our representative to the Miss Universe contest," said Jorge Martinez, a Puerto Rican who works as spokesman for the Justice Department in Washington. "You know, for a lot of people, that was one of the main reasons they voted for the commonwealth."

In that referendum, a narrow plurality of 48% cast ballots in favor of keeping the existing relationship with the United States, while 46% voted for statehood and 4% for independence. Economics was cited at the time by observers as a major factor in voter behavior, for under American tutelage, Puerto Rico's per-capita income, estimated at $9,800 in 1999, has become Latin America's highest.

However, with the island politically and economically dominated by the United States, the achievements of sports figures are embraced as the triumph of all.

"We follow teams and our athletes as our brothers and sisters," Martinez said. "When we see athletes or Miss Universe contestants from Puerto Rico succeed, for us, it's a matter of pride that someone from our backyard made it this far."

On the long list of the islanders who have made good on the mainland -- or "over there," as Puerto Ricans call it -- none is more venerated than Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirate superstar who died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve 1972 while flying with relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

"He is not only known as a baseball player, but as a hero," said Bruce Markusen, author of the 1998 biography "Roberto Clemente: The Great One," and Puerto Rican on his mother's side. "He is known as much for his charity work and how he died as for what he did on the field, maybe more so."

There is another, sometimes unspoken reason for the lofty status of athletes here. Like Clemente and the other Puerto Rican who is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. -- former San Francisco Giants slugger Orlando Cepeda -- many are dark-skinned.

"One of the ways in which sports appeals to the average Puerto Rican is that the average sports figure on the island tends to look like the average Puerto Rican," said Amilcar Antonio Barreto, a Puerto Rican who is an associate professor of political science and Latino studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "Sports figures tend to be black, or of mixed race. The political or literary figures tend to be very white."

Not everyone likes the prominence of sports here.

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