Carlos Delgado’s Homecoming

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As a rule, sportswriters aren’t known for their burning desire to talk politics. Yet when the Mets new first-baseman Carlos Delgado was introduced at a press conference last Monday at Shea Stadium, the assembled baseball beat reporters and columnists seemed to have little else on their minds. For nearly two hours, the power-hitting first baseman gracefully and eloquently fielded almost as many queries about his opposition to the war in Iraq—he has refused, on principle, to stand during the playing of “God Bless America�—as he did about baseball. By the end, the media were willing to grant him absolution, but only after he appeared to renounce further protest. Whether he actually did so is a matter of ongoing debate.

After 9/11, in many baseball cities, “God Bless America� replaced “Take Me Out to the Ballgame� as the anthem played during the seventh-inning stretch. But what began as a gesture of sympathy for the victims of the terrorist attacks slowly morphed into an expression of support for the US invasion of Iraq. By the start of the 2004 baseball season, Delgado, then a player with the Toronto Blue Jays, had had enough. “I think it’s the stupidest war ever,� he told the Toronto Star, and as to why he chose not to stand, he added, “I don’t because I don’t think it’s right. I don’t believe in the war.� A native of Aguadilla, a busy fishing port on Puerto Rico’s rugged northwest coast, Delgado was for years a passionate critic of the US Navy’s use of the tiny island of Vieques for target practice. It was a logical journey for the all-star slugger, whose father is a politically engaged newspaper columnist and former ballplayer himself, to extend his opposition to the worsening debacle in Iraq.

Once upon a time, New York was the kind of town where an athlete could  speak his mind on sensitive matters and be praised for his guts and integrity, if not necessarily for his good judgment. Not so anymore. Delgado’s quiet, dignified form of dissent soon attracted the attention of the self-appointed super-patriots of sports radio and a small contingent of perpetually angry fans. When Delgado appeared in New York for a series against the Yankees in the July of 2004, callers weighed in heavily and viciously against Delgado’s stand. Although the boos directed at Delgado at Yankee Stadium were scattered and muted, the idea was planted in the minds of sports journalists that the slugger would have to atone for his indiscretion.

“The press definitely made it a bigger issue than it would have been,â€? says Julio Pabon, a veteran journalist and founder of the Bronx-based foundation Latino Sports, referring to the New York media. “He’d been doing it all year long. I find it curious that the media only latched onto it when he was playing in New York. The press made it look like here’s a Black Puerto Rican who disrespects America. They said he should be grateful for the big salary he gets by standing up for the flag.â€? 

Former Baseball Players Association chief Marvin Miller agrees. “The fans are that way because the sporting press is that way,� Miller told BSN. “The fans get their opinions from what is in fact a very right-wing press.�

Historically, baseball players who took positions on social issues clustered at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, were overt racists. In more recent years, the San Diego Padres at one point boasted three starting pitchers who were members of the far-right John Birch Society. None of these players was forced to retract his position. When Mets catcher Mike Piazza likened a chance encounter with his hero—race-baiting radio demagogue Rush Limbaugh—to an audience with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or the Pope, the press corps laughed it off as an endearing eccentricity.

But at Monday’s press conference for Delgado, the media arrived ready to pounce. At length, Delgado was interrogated about how he would handle the inevitable boos from the Shea faithful, as well as whether he’d promised Mets owner Fred Wilpon that he would stand for the playing of “God Bless America.� Delgado’s stock response—“I will not put myself in front of the team�; “I won’t be a distraction to the ballclub�—convinced most observers that he was backing down and could now officially be embraced by the city and its sports fans as the salvation for the Mets lackluster starting lineup.

But the actual transcript of the proceedings leaves ample room for doubt. Statements on the issue from Mets officials and from Delgado himself sound evasive and rehearsed, as if their responses had been prepared for them by the team’s attorneys. “Carlos will do what’s right for Carlos Delgado and for the Mets,� team spokesman Jay Horwitz told BSN. “We’re not censoring Carlos’ beliefs in any way.�

The team’s stated policy is that players on the field must stand while “God Bless America� is played. However, during the seventh-inning stretch, the visiting team is on the field, as the home team prepares to bat. When the song is played at Shea Stadium, which is done only on Sundays and national holidays, Delgado and his teammates will still be in the dugout, and nothing would prevent him from retreating to the clubhouse for the two minutes or so it take for the song to run its course. Many other stadiums have given up playing the song entirely, so the issue will only arise in those parks where the song is still played, usually on Sundays. Friends of Delgado are confident that he will not suppress his beliefs in deference to the demands of the New York sports press corps.

“Carlos is not going to abandon his ideas when he comes to New York,� says Ismail Guadalupe, a Vieques activist and longtime friend of the Delgado family. “He is not afraid. Carlos always tries to be a good player. But more than that he strives to be a good person.�

By bringing larger social issues onto the baseball diamond, Delgado joins  an elite group of professional athletes who have used their fame to denounce injustice. Placed alongside as iconic moments such as the raised fists of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, or Muhammad Ali’s very public refusal to be inducted into the army in 1967, Delgado’s “God Bless Americaâ€? boycott comes across as a private, individual gesture. But such principled acts—whether public or private—are rare indeed in the annals of professional baseball. The closest analogy may be the moment in October of 1969 when Mets ace Tom Seaver declared that “If the Mets can win the World Series, the US can get out of Vietnam.â€? Any backlash against Seaver was lost in the mass euphoria arising from the Mets first World Championship.

But is it really true that Mets fans are going to despise the messenger, even as they appreciate his ability to drive fastballs over the right-field wall at Shea Stadium? Many observers believe that Delgado’s eloquence on the Iraq war is more likely to attract supporters in New York than repel them. After all, a majority of New Yorkers oppose Bush’s adventure in Iraq. And the city’s substantial Puerto Rican population is likely to share his sentiments on Vieques. “I’m sure there will be a few ignoramuses who will boo him at Shea,� says Assemblyman Jose Rivera of the Bronx, a longtime civil rights activist. “But there will be thousands more who will support him for daring to take a stand. Among Puerto Ricans, he’s a great hero for all the work he’s done to stop the navy bombing and to help the people of Vieques.�

Assemblyman Rivera sees added significance in the fact the first baseball star in New York since Reggie Jackson to speak out forcefully on a matter of conscience is an Afro-Puerto Rican: “In Puerto Rico it has always been the AfroBorinquens who have forced issues of civil rights onto the agenda. They have been the main forces for change.�

Only time will tell if Delgado’s arrival in New York proves as momentous an event as many of his admirers hope it will be. But it was impossible not to feel on Monday that something more significant than the mere acquisition of a new slugger was taking place. “Here’s a guy who should become an icon in our community,� says Julio Pabon. “He’s come to the right place.�

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