By JONATHAN TILOVE
March 22, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
NEW YORK _ By day Julio Ferreras works across the street from Shea Stadium, home to his beloved New York Mets, keeping the Number 7 subway trains in good working order.
By night and weekend, he runs the Dominican youth baseball league he founded here in Queens.
And, in the weeks before opening day, Ferreras has also been scouting Dominican talent for the Mets _ not ballplayers, mind you, but merengue musicians who can perform at Shea when Pedro Martinez, the team’s newly acquired Dominican superstar, is on the mound.
“Every time Pedro is going to pitch there are going to be Dominican bands playing live outside Shea,” Ferreras says.
Race, ethnicity, national origin and religion have always been a part of how fans identify with sports heroes and how teams, in turn, market themselves to fans. It is natural, especially for immigrants and minorities still establishing themselves in America, to root not just for the home team, but for the homeboy, and for teams to meld one with the other.
Case in point: the “Pedro Pack” _ a six-pack of Mets tickets for games including the Dodgers on Merengue Night, the Cubs on Pedro Martinez Bobblehead Day and the Washington Nationals followed by a Hispanic Night concert.
“They have a night for everybody,” Ferreras says. “A Dominican night, Latin night, Colombian night, Irish night, Italian night. They even have a Jewish night.”
The Mets came of age as the darlings of the white folks who once dominated the landscape of Queens and the Long Island suburbs beyond. It’s a challenge for the team to keep pace with the demographic upheaval that places Shea at the epicenter of the most chockablock diversity on the planet.
But there is a long and storied history of playing the ethnic card in Major League Baseball.
In the 1920s, when Babe Ruth held sway at Yankee Stadium, New York Giants manager John McGraw sought a “rabbi of swat” to draw Jews to the Polo Grounds.
Blacks everywhere were indebted to the Brooklyn Dodgers for playing Jackie Robinson. And when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and needed the voters to go along with giving them land for a new stadium, it was blacks who provided the narrow margin of victory.
It is hardly happenstance that when Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese-born major leaguer, debuted in 1964, it was with the San Francisco Giants, or that Seattle Mariners’ fans 40 years later could watch superstar Ichiro Suzuki while snacking on spicy tuna sushi rolls that bear his name.
And, from Southern California to Texas to Florida, baseball franchises along America’s southern tier have rallied the allegiance of Hispanic fans with Latino stars.
The Mets struggle in the shadow of the New York Yankees and, since their defeat in the Subway Series of 2000, have eaten the dust of their division, with three consecutive last-place finishes.
But remarkably this winter, baseball’s only Hispanic general manager transformed the image of the Mets from a failing franchise into what a recent New York magazine cover story called “Los Mets _ a new Latin dream team.”
Joseph Dorinson, a historian at Long Island University who writes frequently on baseball, describes it as a very New York story:
Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who is Jewish, named Omar Minaya (who as the Dominican scout for the Texas Rangers discovered Sammy Sosa) the Mets’ new general manager. Minaya tapped Willie Randolph, a former Yankee and Met, as New York’s first black manager. Then Minaya, with a flourish of shuttle diplomacy that took him to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, signed both Martinez and Carlos Beltran, the outstanding Houston Astros center fielder. That Martinez and Beltran also had special appeal to the two largest Latino communities in New York was, simply, win-win.
In fact, the Mets are no more distinctively Latino than most major league baseball teams in 2005. Minaya himself slapped down talk of “Los Mets” as “racist.” But the New Mets, as Beltran dubbed them, are drawing attention and applause.
“I’m really happy that the Mets are really diversifying and Latinizing their staff,” says New York City Council Member Hiram Monserrate, a Puerto Rican and the first Hispanic ever elected to public office in Queens. “It’s a really smart move on the part of the Mets to tap into all the locals who are natural fans.”
Of course, for the Mets to tap into all the locals is beyond the ken of even the best baseball minds. To reflect the true diversity of Queens there would need to be a Patel behind the plate, a Singh at second and a Hu on first.
China and the Indian subcontinent, however, are not baseball country. The Dominican Republic is. Right now, more than a quarter of all major league players were born outside the 50 states, and more than a third of those hail from the Dominican Republic.
Minaya grew up in the Corona seciton of Queens and was an all-star catcher at Newtown High School in nearby Elmhurst back when Newtown was mostly white. Today, Newtown is located in what National Geographic a few years ago identified as the most ethnically diverse zip code in America _ 11373. The student body of more than 4,000 is 60 percent Hispanic and 26 percent Asian.
Newtown’s ball team, however, is not a showcase of diversity. All the players are Dominican, except for one Puerto Rican and one Colombian. “That’s who comes out,” says their coach, history teacher Neil Rosenblatt.
Not that he is complaining. To watch the team play is to witness a joyous intensity that seems a throwback to the days when baseball was still indisputably the national pastime, only with a distinctively Dominican rhythm.
In its first practice game, against Forest Hills High School, the team is already a team, punctuating the game with pulsating Spanish chants, rapid-fire and infectious, and erupting in unison when Steven Rodriguez sends the ball soaring over the high right field fence at Jackie Robinson Field and into the tennis courts _ a ground-rule double because the fence is only 200 feet away.
“I prefer our home field, where you can hit a car,” says Rodriguez, whose hero is Alex Rodriguez, the Yankee superstar who was born in New York but grew up in the Dominican Republic and Miami.
That said, this Rodriguez, like most of his teammates, is a Mets fan.
Abel Taveras, the team captain, explains: “It’s a five-minute walk to Shea, I can see it from my window. I grew up on the Mets.”
And now, with Pedro Martinez, “Hispanic night this year is going to be better than ever,” Taveras says. “To have a guy who was born and raised over there, `I’m from the Dominican this and I’m from the Republic that,’ that is important. We respect that a lot.”
This sort of ethnocentrism is nothing new. Rudolph Giuliani grew up in Brooklyn, but it was the Yankees who won his heart with the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti, Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra. Coach Rosenblatt grew up in Queens but is a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, an inheritance from his father, who worshipped Sandy Koufax. In Seattle, Carol Vu, editor of Northwest Asian Weekly, says that even though she is Vietnamese, “I see a little bit of myself in Ichiro. Here’s this guy who has dark hair like me and isn’t all that tall or built like the other major league baseball players but he’s still breaking records.”
But over at Who’s on First, a sports memorabilia store in Flushing, 12-year-old Jordan Cohen, the store’s after-school baseball scholar in residence, is not looking for stars who share his faith, heritage, neighborhood, hair color or skin tone.
“White guys suck at sports,” Jordan opines. “There’s Peyton Manning in football, and Derek Jeter, but he’s off-white,” he says of the Yankees star whose father is black, mother is white and whose appeal seems to cross all lines.
What he’s looking for is a winner, a team with history and prestige. He is a Yankees fan.
The Mets, he predicts, will do better this year. “Pedro will get his fair share of wins,” he says; Beltran will hit and steal. The Mets can win a wild card spot, but their pitching rotation and bullpen are too shallow to get them through the playoffs.
The Yankees remain the team to watch.