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Latino `insult' much ado about nada

October 21, 2006|Gustavo Arellano | GUSTAVO ARELLANO is a staff writer for the OC Weekly, where he writes the "¬°Ask a Mexican!" column.

THOUGH STEVE LYOns probably doesn't think so right now, sometimes it pays to insult Latinos.

Take, for instance, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's description of Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City) as "very hot," followed by this ramble: "I mean, they [Cubans and Puerto Ricans] are all very hot ... they have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it."

It was that rare insult in which everyone involved emerges unscathed and for the better. The governor offered an apology to the state's Latino masses; Latinos dismissed his remarks as another moment of Schwarzenegger stupidity; Garcia showed the world there is such a thing as a non-Cuban Latina Republican; the Phil Angelides camp got to think victory was within reach for at least one week.

Now consider the controversy involving Lyons, the garrulous baseball announcer known in his playing days as "Psycho." Fox Sports fired him for making what an official statement described as "comments on air that the company found inappropriate." The transgressions in question occurred during Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, when Lyons snickered that fellow announcer Lou Piniella was "habla-ing some espanol" just after Piniella finished, well, habla-ing some espanol. Oh, and Lyons also insinuated that Piniella might steal his wallet.

It seems no one can possibly gain anything from this mess. Not Lyons, who lost his network job (though not his part-time Dodgers gig). Not Piniella, whose lame Spanglish deserved mocking -- Sweet Lou described an Oakland A's player as being en fuego (geez, Lou: I didn't know that cliche translated into espanol, tambien). Not Fox Sports, which now must answer to accusations of political correctness from its frothing news division. And not even the nation's alphabet soup of Latino advocacy groups -- MALDEF, LULAC, NALEO, MEChA -- can use the incident to thunder about the plight of their wards before a rapt, donation-ready audience, because the remarks were so mild.

Truth is, the Lyons incident is much ado about nada. But it's telling that Fox executives reacted with such speed and draconian force to his slip of the tongue. Fox, intentionally or not, is assuming baseball journalism's collective guilt over its shabby historical coverage of Latinos, and trying to make amends. So goodbye, Psycho; hello, Jose Mota, the Angels' Spanish-language broadcaster who as Lyons' replacement proved more than adept at analyzing the game in a thoughtful, bilingual manner without any spicy Latin histrionics.

Insulting Latinos -- the nation's largest minority, with billions in spending power, blah, blah, blah -- is a cherished tradition among baseball writers and analysts. Long after the sport integrated, professional hacks still found it acceptable to refer to players as a "lashing Latin" or give them quaint nicknames such as "Arriba" (Roberto Clemente) or "Senor Smoke" (former Detroit Tiger Aurelio Lopez). Older profiles of peloteros frequently used code words such as "passionate," "eccentric" and "proud"; modern-day television segments still feature frenetic tropical music or flourishing Spanish guitar. And there's the obligatory mention of how the player learned to hit by smacking pebbles with a broomstick. Such banalities reduce Latino players to century-old stereotypes, thus making them easier for U.S. fans to digest.

Of course, Latino ballers rarely help matters much. Many veterans still rely on translators to communicate with the media; those who do speak English, such as Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen or Boston Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez, tend to act like stock characters from a Carlos Mencia bit. I still cringe at the memory of an All-Star Game home run derby a couple of years ago when the game's brightest Latino stars kept goading each other with sexist lingo and curses in Spanish -- this while miked and uncensored for a national ESPN audience.

I get it: This is baseball we're talking about, a sport in which smack-talk is universal and racism is enshrined in Cooperstown in the form of such notorious figures as Cap Anson. But the Lyons incident shows that change is overdue. It's time for Latino baseball players to realize they're the nation's most acceptable Latinos -- multimillionaires with a stake in bettering their adopted communities -- and to grow into that role. Players such as Nomar Garciaparra and David Ortiz get this, but unfortunately they are few and far between.

Hot-hitting Latinos already own the fans, whose prejudices disappear with a shutout or a two-run, ninth-inning homer in Game 7; now they should work on the game's mythmakers, who, fearful of scrutiny or having to attend more diversity training, are ripe for dropping the skewed coverage of Latinos and instead treating them like the overpriced divas they are. If this happens, Lyons' insult might be the most valuable Latino slur since the Taco Bell Chihuahua.

Besides, Psycho got it all wrong. All real baseball fans know Latinos steal Derek Jeter's glove, not wallets. Just ask Ruben Rivera.

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