With the World Series in full swing this week, it’s impossible to not think about the numerous Latino players that have become legends and made the sport great. It’s sadly ironic that amid this backdrop, a groundswell of hatred continues to be spewed against immigrants. The popularity of anti-immigrant rhetoric points to a frustrated segment of the nation that just doesn’t understand “these foreigners” or their “different ways,” who simply want to see America “be great again.” Perhaps those critics need to spend a little time with former All-Star catcher and World Series champion Bengie Molina, who paints a pretty good picture of what life as an immigrant is really like in his recent memoir, Molina.
Molina takes readers on a journey that starts on the rock filled fields of Dorado, Puerto Rico where his father taught him and his brothers to play to catching Cy Young winners and earning World Series rings. It’s a familiar story that is worth repeating as he, and others like him struggle to not only adjust to the game at every level, but to living and working in the United States. While the sport is baseball, it could easily be any field of work – the experience of navigating a new culture, the struggle of learning a new language, the trials in communicating with teammates and the initial joys and pressures that success brings to families and relationships.
The book also tries to address the historical erasure that we often see with immigrants, where your own history and value is masked behind an accent that some either can’t or don’t want to understand. In that way, the book artfully introduces readers to the lasting legacy of Puerto Rican baseball.
“On Puerto Rican winter teams, you saw All Star combinations of players you never could in the United States. In the 1954-55 season, the New York Giants’ twenty-three year old superstar Willie Mays played for the Santurce Crabbers alongside a twenty-year old Pittsburg Pirate prospect named Roberto Clemente. The third outfielder for Santurce that season was a thirty-seven-year old Bob Thurman, a Negro league slugger from Oklahoma who would hit more career home runs in winter than any other player in history….And on the mound was El Divino Loco himself, New York Giants pitcher Rueben Gomez, who was fresh from his triumph as the first Puerto Rican to pitch in the World Series.”
Some of the book’s most lasting descriptions are those where Molina describes the island and the barrio he calls home. “The same hard rains that rut the roads and rust the chain-link fences turn every dropped seed into some beautiful living thing….” His block could easily be in any Latin America country or the world that is drawing major league talent like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Japan, Taiwan or Curacao. But it could also easily be located in Chicago’s South Side, East LA, Harlem or U.S. urban landscape. Or those tiny Midwest and Southern towns, where in like Dorado “you give directions by landmarks – the ball field, the market, the church, the bar.”
Baseball, like so many areas, isn’t played in a perfect field of play. The wistful love for some aspects of the past almost inevitably conflicts with modern innovations. But ask these players about the greatness of America. Ask them how hard they’ve worked to just get a shot at opportunity, while others hoist their complaints from the perch on their crystal staircases. Ask them if they see their hopes and the aspirations of their children as any different from those who settled in this nation before them.
Players like Molina don’t see the legacy of their fathers different than any other parent, born in the States or not. A local batting legend who went as far as Double A ball in the U.S., the elder Molina was recognized in the Puerto Rican Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame for setting an example as both a player and a Little League coach on the island. The younger Molina realized only after his papa’s death, that his greatest dreams laid outside of the lines of the ball field.
“I thought that his dream was to reach the Major Leagues,” Molina told the staff of LatinoSportsTalk.com this past summer. “But his dream was another thing altogether different. [It] was to raise good children…to treat his wife well./.to help his brothers and sisters [achieve] a better life, to help lots of kids in baseball – in Little League and the Minor Leagues. That was his dream and he achieved it. And that is what I think that all people should do.”
The faces may be different, but today’s players are following in the same tradition that hundreds did before them. Are they putting their own mark on the game? Inevitably. But if those critics think that this evolution is disrespectful to past greats, then maybe they don’t know the game – or America – as quite as well as they think.