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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

A Hero for Our Time
By Tom Goldstein

Okay, quick: Tell me where the average baseball superstar stands on poverty in America. Or the plight of the homeless. Or the continued joblessness that many average Americans are facing. Or the cost of health care. How about education? What does your average baseball superstar think of the No Child Left Behind Act and the federal government's failure to fund that mandate? Or the impending insolvency of Social Security? Not to mention the war in Iraq.

For the most part, we'll never know. And perhaps that's how it should be. Because many of us follow baseball for the distraction it provides, for the oasis it offers from everyday strife and tragedy over which we have little control. We can't end world hunger or cure global warming or win the war on terrorism, but we can immerse ourselves in a season-long pennant race (okay, a season-long pre-playoff race) and concentrate on something we can get our hands around—like batting averages and stolen bases, home runs and strikeout records. In our perfect little baseball world, heroes blast home runs and make spectacular catches; hit in the clutch and provide leadership in the dugout; sign autographs for everybody's kid and always act upbeat in public. Sure it's a fantasy we construct for ourselves, but so are most books, movies, TV shows, concerts, and just about every other activity we indulge in for entertainment.

Unfortunately, for many of us who are not in lockstep with the Bush administration on the war in Iraq, baseball as a distraction has become something of a joke. (Of course, this assumes that one hasn't already lost interest in professional baseball amidst the commercial assault that has become part and parcel of the national pastime, but that's a sentiment that has already been expressed many times over in these pages.) Following the tragic loss of life in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, there was a great sense of unity in America, and the frequent outpouring of patriotism, song, and remembrance at the ballpark—especially during baseball's postseason—did not seem inappropriate. America was grieving, and allowing that grief to be played out on a national stage like the World Series seemed a natural part of the healing process. It does not feel that way anymore.

There is no question that there are deep divisions in this country over whether America should be at war in Iraq, whether we should have gone to war, whether we should stay, etc. I, for one, believe the U.S. is stuck in a quagmire for which there is no easy solution: pull out, and Iraq will be plunged into a bloody civil war; send more troops, and America's body count will continue to pile up. But whatever I might believe, I don't necessarily want to talk about it at the ballpark. And I sure don't want Major League Baseball's version of patriotism shoved down my throat.

You can't avoid the drumbeat for war at the ballpark, however, and it's clearly of a partisan nature. Why, for example (at least at the Metrodome), must we hear Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" with its jingoistic appeal every seventh-inning stretch, as if God somehow sanctioned the war in Iraq? I know this is what President Bush may believe, but it's not how I feel. And last time I checked, MLB was not an arm of the Republican Party, in spite of where most major league owners' political loyalties may lie.

Ordinarily, this is where the story ends. Editor of a little baseball fan rag has his rant; blasts the baseball establishment for its small-minded, idiotic ways; then wrings his hands.

But an extraordinary development has been unfolding for the past year among the upper echelons of major league players. Carlos Delgado, the Toronto Blue Jays power-hitting first baseman, has been silently protesting the war in Iraq by refusing to come out on the field for the bottom half of the seventh-inning until the playing of "God Bless America" is completed. Mind you, Delgado said nothing to the media about his quiet activism; there was no in-your-face sign waving or rhetoric. No patriotic fervor. Just a simple gesture that said, "I'm not going to be part of your pro-war campaign at the ballpark."

As might be expected, baseball reporters probably never considered the idea that a major league superstar might oppose the war in Iraq, so it took a while for somebody to finally notice that Delgado was sitting out the patriotic songs during the seventh-inning stretch. But when the Toronto Star interviewed Delgado in early July, he didn't avoid the subject.

 

It's a very terrible thing that happened on September 11. It's (also) a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. . . . I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war.

But I think it's the stupidest war ever. Who are you fighting against? You're just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now after the war than during the war.

 

As might be expected, once Delgado's remarks were published, he became a target for criticism. At Yankee Stadium, where "God Bless America" has been played every game since 9/11, Delgado was greeted with boos and catcalls when the Blue Jays appeared there in late July. And some clown named Scott Springer, who reports for WKRC Cincinnati (a property of Clear Channel Communications), bestowed his "Turkey of the Week" award on Delgado, opining that the Blue Jay "ought to be singing 'God Bless America' at the top of your lungs pal! If not for Americans, you couldn't escape Puerto Rico to make the obnoxious money you do playing a game with a wood stick and a white ball!"

Delgado is, in fact, one of the highest paid players in the game, earning $19.7 million this season. That's what makes his stance all the more remarkable: find another athlete in his tax bracket who's said boo about the war. Heck, find any pro athlete who'd be willing to risk his or her image by displaying a public conscience about a divisive issue like Iraq. In Delgado's case, the reasons go beyond the overseas conflict. As a native Puerto Rican, he's seen firsthand the impact of war at home, owing to the U.S. Navy's use of the island of Vieques for more than half a century as a weapons testing ground for its entire Atlantic fleet. Apart from the devastation of the land, there are also reports of high incidences of cancer caused by uranium-depleted shells used in the tests. "You're dealing with health, with poverty, with the roots of an entire community, both economically and environmentally," Delgado says. "This is way bigger than just a political or military issue. Because the military left last year and they haven't cleaned the place up yet."

According to the Toronto Star article, Delgado was the first high-profile athlete to speak out against the Navy's presence in Vieques, and he joined other celebrities in sponsoring full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post protesting the island's use for weapons testing. He also donated $100,000 to youth sports, schools, and activists on Vieques.

Of course, for a guy making almost $20 million a year, a hundred grand is pretty small potatoes. And staging a quiet protest is hardly much of a stand, given how much more publicity Delgado might generate for the antiwar movement if his activism were better known. But it is something, because if one surveys the player ranks, Delgado's quiet stance is the only voice we hear that doesn't parrot Major League Baseball's party line either by silence or by affirmation.

Last year, Delgado blasted forty-two homers and finished with 145 RBI. Due to injuries this season, his numbers are down, but at age thirty-two the Blue Jays' slugger has already amassed 334 career home runs. Barring a career-ending mishap, Delgado seems a lock for five hundred homers and presumably a place in baseball's Hall of Fame. But whether he gets to Cooperstown or not, his finest hour might have been this season, a time when stepping up to the plate has taken on a whole new kind of meaning.

—EFQ

 

TOM GOLDSTEIN is publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly. He thinks George W. Bush would make a fine commissioner of baseball and hopes that Bud Selig will be sent packing on November 3.

This column first appeared in EFQ 21:4, Fall 2004

© 2004 Tom Goldstein

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