There had never been a night like this before in Miami. The past and present of Latino baseball, coming together neatly in Marlins Park to sum up a half-century of pelota in Major League Baseball.
Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Canó — the pride of San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic — provided the extra-inning blast that made the difference.
Atanasio “Tony” Pérez — a vital cog in Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the 70s, a Hall of Famer born in Central Violeta, a sugarcane mill town outside Ciego de Ávila, Cuba — was there to witness it all. In his adoptive hometown, no less.
The final score: 2-1. A game once again decided by a Latino. In 10 innings.
It was all so familiar to Pérez, a 2017 All-Star Game Ambassador.
Ironically or perhaps all too fitting, none other than Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, mentioned to me during our pre-game chat: “Today is the 50th anniversary of Tony Pérez’s 15th-inning home run that gave the National League a 2-1 win.”
And for many of the Latino contingent gathered in Miami, Robbie’s blast that closed the scoring in the top half of the 10th inning drew an arc that connected Pérez’s first All-Star game with Robinson’s eighth. That connected one of the greatest run-producers in history with one of the best second basemen of his era.
Mini-World Baseball Classic
While five Latinos represented the National League, the American League doubled down on the buzz, showing up at the 88th edition of the Midsummer Classic with another 18 Latinos. This game was #PlátanoPower and #ArepaPower all the way, played in the city that is considered the Latino capital of the United States.
“This is like a mini-World Baseball Classic,” said Puerto Rico’s Francisco Lindor, who plays shortstop for the Cleveland Indians.
To round out the diversity on the field, MLB included two Latinos in the six-man umpiring crew — Ángel Hernández, of Havana, Cuba, and Manny González, the first Venezuelan to call balls and strikes in the bigs.
As for the game, los caribeños provided all the offense. Remember, you can be from Latin America without necessarily being Latino, meaning from a Spanish-speaking country or island. But irrespective of your first language, chances are that you’re sharing common history with your neighbors across the water.
Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop — from Curacao, a Dutch island that is just north of Venezuela and includes Spanish among one of its languages — doubled to left field and then scored on Dominican Miguel Sanó’s single to right field to open the scoring in the fifth inning.
Puerto Rico’s Yadier Molina, once again sporting his rubio hair, blasted a solo home run to right field in the bottom of the sixth off the Dominican righty Ervin Santana to tie the game 1-1.
Did the night mean something to Yadi? You bet. Behind the plate he wore a brilliant gold-plated chest protector and helmet. He colored his hair blond, just like #LosNuestros did during the recent World Baseball Classic. And as he circled the bases after his jonrón, he pumped his fist.
If not everyone watching understood what the moment meant to Molina and other Latinos, Lindor reminded all by giving Yadi a friendly shove as he motored past second base during his home run trot. They knew tonight was their night, that they were performing in front of Latino baseball royalty. Los magníficos were in the house.
So, it was up to Canó, the kid who grew up around the baseball diamond and was named after Jackie Robinson by his papi José Canó, to cement the line between the past and the present. He put his name alongside that of Pérez’s by hitting a slider to right field off Chicago Cubs’ closer Wade Davis with nobody on, only the fourth home run in extra innings in All-Star history.
The blast earned Canó the Ted Williams MVP Award, 52 years after countryman Juan Marichal became the first Latino to be voted All-Star MVP and 50 years to the day after Pérez’s home run got him the same honor.
“It means a lot,” said Canó, referring to Marichal, Pérez and the other Latino Hall of Famers. “Those guys are really, I want to say, started this game for the Latin American players. Guys that really made this game so fun and exciting, made fans come and watch, and opened the doors for us.”
Celebrating Latino Legends
Miami was the right spot. The town exudes sabor Latino. Sándwiches cubanos and cortaditos. Calle Ocho and Little Havana. A cityscape dominated by Spanish stucco architecture alongside Art Deco style buildings gives Miami a distinct estilo latino americano.
Hosting the All-Star Game for the first time, MLB recognized Miami was the most fitting place to honor Latino Legends, starting with the 13 players and executives in the Hall of Fame: Pérez, Marichal, Roberto Clemente, Martín Dihigo, Cristobal Torriente, José Méndez, Álex Pompez, Orlando Cepeda, Rod Carew, Luis Aparicio, Roberto Alomar, Pedro Martínez and Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, who will be officially inducted at the end of July.
“This All-Star Game provides a great opportunity to celebrate the significant contributions that Latin Americans have made to Major League Baseball,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said during the week.
The living Latino Hall of Famers, most of whom spent the weekend participating in FanFest and other MLB activities, also knew how to do this celebration right. For them, the night was for Pudge, the newest member of their HOF family.
The pregame ceremony started with the scoreboard flashing the names and photos of Cuban legends Dihigo, Torriente, and Méndez — who were inducted into the Hall of Fame for their achievements in the Negro Leagues. Attention then turned to those gathered on the field.
Marichal, the “Dominican Dandy” and a right-handed pitcher with a high kick who won 243 games in a stellar career. His ability to move the crowd with his style as a masterful hurler and sharp dresser was evident throughout All-Star week.
“Baby Bull,” the nickname given to Cepeda as the son of Pedro “Peruchín” Cepeda, another Latino legend from the pre-integration era, walked out to cheers, especially among the rubios like Lindor, Molina and Carlos Correa.
The cheers also boomed for Pedro, affectionately called El Grande, while Joe Buck described the heart and fearlessness with which Martínez pitched.
Speaking of heart, there was Carew, a few months following heart and kidney transplants, standing tall and proud while smiling, reunited with his Hall of Fame brothers.
The Miami crowd erupted once more as an Aparicio tribute played on the scoreboard; this on the same day Aparicio announced via social media he could not in good conscience attend the celebration while the youth who are speaking out for democracy are dying at the hands of the Venezuelan government.
Puerto Ricans and Canadians roared as Alomar, who won 10 Gold Gloves, the most ever at second base, was introduced and his fielding brilliance shown on the scoreboard.
After a week as All-Star Game Ambassador, Pérez received a voluminous thank you from the Miami fans. The crowd noise surged with introduction of the Clemente family, the widow Vera accompanied by her three sons — Roberto, Jr., Luis and Enrique — to represent “The Great One,” the first Latino inducted in the Hall of Fame and the patron saint of baseball in Latin America.
But after everyone else was introduced, it became clear that this band of brothers had agreed to give Pudge, the final honoree, a Miami night he will never forget.
Marlins Park erupted for one of their own as Rodríguez — who won the 2003 World Series with the home team — came out on the field. Less than three weeks away from his Cooperstown induction, Pudge was clearly moved by the love cascading from the fans towards the field.
Wiping tears from his eyes, he walked out to join his Hall of Fame brethren.
As Pudge reached the mound, current Latinos rushed into position to receive the ceremonial first pitch. After the Hall of Famers collectively threw their pitches, George Springer, son of a Puerto Rican mother, and who was representing the Latinos born in the United States, hustled onto the field carrying a bouquet for Doña Vera. Molina, who along with Carlos Beltrán has carried the torch for Puerto Rico for the past two decades, crouched to receive the pitch from the Clementes.
Our history and Our Passion
While sportswriters and broadcasters lamented the lack of offensive explosions during the game, many of us Latinos witnessed (once again) something entirely different and deeply meaningful. Recognition on the field and in the stands of our passion and our history.
This continued as the first inning closed and baseball completed the circle. We saw MLB recognize Alejandro “Álex” Pompez on the scoreboard. I say we, because of the diverse group congregated at Marlins Park.
Cubans, Dominicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans represented by their flags, the Hall of Famers on the field and the Latino all-stars. The imprint we have left on the Americas’ game was being celebrated.
For Taylor, now 81, pointed to the scoreboard and said, “That man [Pompez] signed me. And he signed Marichal, Cepeda, the Aloú brothers, Manny Mota and José Cardenal.”
Then he added: “Willie McCovey, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays… Pompez did a lot for all us blacks and Latinos.”
Like it pleased Taylor, it surely must have pleased the Cuban-Americans and other Latinos in the crowd, to see their own recognized. On one magical night, Latinos were celebrated, all together as brothers.
Featured Image: Rob Carr / Getty Images Sport