At All-Star Week, the FanFest Clubhouse is where you go to hear stories. I was one of the MCs last week in Miami, and here I am, chatting up José Cardenal and Bobby Ramos, two former major leaguers from Cuba who had the crowd spellbound as they recounted the hiccups and misadventures that occurred due to the differences in language and culture back in the 60s and 70s.
Cardenal, who debuted with the San Francisco Giants in 1963, said that as a young player, one of the first words he learned in English was “Yes.” He understood very little else then, but he knew how to say, “Yes.”
“One day they asked me whether I was a clown. And I proudly said, ‘Yes,’” Cardenal remembered with a chuckle.
As I turned to Ramos, I noticed a man in a wheelchair entering the Clubhouse. The man pushing the wheelchair parked it directly in front of the stage.
When I finally realized that it was former major leaguer José Tartabull who was doing the pushing, one of the players on stage shouted, “¡Casanova!”
Next thing I knew, all four men were hugging and chatting as if the fans and I weren’t even there.
All-Star FanFest was certainly a family affair. Just not in the way I expected.
During the five-day event held at the Miami Beach Convention Center as part of All-Star Week, I expected to meet stars past and present, players from Major League Baseball, the Negro Leagues, and even from A League of Their Own, the real-life characters from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, as well as Olympic softball heroes Lisa Fernández and Jennie Finch, all who drew fans and their families, sometimes three generations deep.
What I didn’t expect was that FanFest would become literally a Latino ballplayers’ family reunion.
Which gets us back to Casanova. Who was this guy in the wheelchair that commanded such respect and was unafraid to break decorum?
The Latino quartet was totally engrossed in greeting each other and exchanging friendly banter — it was like they were back on the ballfield standing around the batting cage. Ramos finally tried to get the session back to order, telling his baseball brothers in Spanish: “Hey guys, this man is trying to conduct a panel here.”
It dawned on me to explain to fans what they and I were witnessing: Latino ballplayers renewing bonds and telling stories.
Many might think that since ballplayers earn decent to good money during their careers, they are able to regularly travel and visit with their baseball brethren. That typically is not the case, especially with players from earlier generations, before free agency and big contracts.
I explained to the audience that reunions are rare — and this holds particularly true when it comes to Latinos. After their playing careers, some return to their native countries while others establish new homes in the United States. They become separated and miss out on their fellowship at the diamond, in the clubhouse and from traveling together.
Separation is particularly poignant among Cubans whose careers coincided with Fidel Castro’s rise to power. The closing of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations in 1961 meant players had to make heart-wrenching decisions, mainly whether to leave family and friends behind in Cuba to play in the States, as Hall of Famer Atanasio “Tony” Pérez, Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva recounted.
Others decided to remain in Cuba and not pursue professional opportunities in the United States. Still others chose to return to Cuba after their careers, like Edmundo “Sandy” Amoros and Gonzalo “Cholly” Naranjo, before changing their minds and returning to the States.
Their unabashed joy in seeing each other was therefore genuine. They weren’t being rude to the fans or me as the MC. They were letting us share a part of their lives. The happiness expressed was just how they greeted each other as ballplayers back then. This even when they were fined by MLB for breaking the fraternization rule.
The lineup for the FanFest Clubhouse was impressive.
Pérez — an All-Star Game Ambassador along with Jeff Conine — joined us in the midst of a busy week as the 75-year-old participated in events at FanFest and Marlins Park.
Fellow Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Rollie Fingers, Dave Winfield and Tim Raines, who will be inducted at the end of July, took their turns on the stage, along with two other enshrined Latinos, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal.
Yes, Latino legends streamed in and out of the clubhouse.
The family of Roberto Clemente made a splash. I shared the stage with his widow, Vera Clemente, three different times. Each was a special occasion.
The first included her second of three sons, Luis Roberto, as they talked about keeping alive the legacy of number 21.
The second instance was during the induction of Bernie Williams, former New York Yankees center fielder, into the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Hall of Fame. And then it was seeing Panamanian Manny Sanguillén and Vera tell stories of the special bond Roberto and Manny shared, a relationship the family and former catcher continue today.
Tiant, or “El Tiante,” a three-time All-Star who won 229 games and struck out 2,416 batters, stopped by several times. As did Oliva, a fellow Cuban and eight-time All-Star known for his sweet stroke and smoking line drives that enabled him to compile a .304 batting average over 15 seasons.
Marlins fans were not disappointed. Their All-Stars and heroes from the 1997 and 2003 World Series champions flowed in and out of the clubhouse. Catcher Benito Santiago — 1987 Rookie of the Year, five-time All-Star and winner of three Gold Gloves — told how he hit the Marlins’ first-ever home run and how he honed his unique style of throwing out runners from one knee. He learned as a teenager, practicing by using a barrel as a target.
Fellow Marlins Plácido Pólanco, Martín Prado and Liván Hernández — representing the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba, respectively — regaled fans with stories about big wins, superstitious habits and learning how to order food in English.
“For the first three months in States, I ate just fried chicken,” Hernández said.
But as much as these stars were the main attraction, witnessing who the ballplayers were eager to greet mesmerized me.
The sight of Paulino “Paul” Casanova, a catcher who enjoyed a 10-year career with the Washington Senators and Atlanta Braves, moved them.
Just like it happened with Cardenal and Ramos, when Casanova appeared during his Clubhouse session, Cepeda turned and bellowed in his deep baritone voice: “¡Casanova!”
Ramos explained why Casanova was so special to them and other Latino players. For years, Casanova owned the restaurant La Pelota in the Venezuelan port city of La Guaira. The restaurant was a happening place. The spot not only for good food, but also for players to gather.
Casanova was always bringing them together; FanFest was no exception.
Reunited Once Again
Sharing stories not just of a critical pitch or timely hit, but of their migration from Latin America to the Major Leagues made the Latino players’ visit to the Clubhouse quite different than their typical interactions with the press. This is what the ballplayers told me afterwards as we greeted each other in the stands before the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game.
Orlando González’s story particularly captured my attention as a historian. Hearing him explain how he arrived in the States at age six along with his nine-year old brother as unaccompanied minors through Operation Pedro Pan reminded me how much their individual stories are so intimately connected to the broader Latino history.
As I thanked Orlando for sharing his story, I noticed another familiar face — but not one I had interviewed in the Clubhouse — walking up the aisle. It was Dennis Martínez, El Presidente, the first Nicaraguan to play in the majors, the first Latino to throw a perfect game and the all-time leader in wins among Latin Americans with 245.
I asked Orlando did he know who was behind him. He immediately turned to Dennis: “Do you remember me? We first met in the 1973 Amateur World Series held in [Managua], Nicaragua.”
Martínez’s face went to amazed recognition, as González continued: “The U.S. team finished 10-0 and Nicaragua 8-2. We faced each other in the final. If Nicaragua had won, we would have played an extra game. You were the starting pitcher.”
“Orlando Gonzalez?” Martinez blurted out as the two embraced.
Players reunited once again, bonded through a brotherhood forged through their shared experience as Latino ballplayers in the Americas’ game. The opportunity to witness these reunions was what made my All-Star Week special.
Featured Image: Sean Magner / La Vida Baseball
Inset Images: Michael Pancier Photography