October 22, 2005

The World Series

The New Face of Baseball

With the rise of the White Sox, Latino dominance takes center stage


October 22, 2005; Page P1

The 2005 baseball season will likely be remembered for the sudden manner in which some of the game's biggest sluggers, including

Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, had their images deflated. But it is also the season in which Ozzie Guillen, a 150-pound former shortstop with 28 career home runs, emerged as a giant.

Mr. Guillen, the Stengelesque, wisecracking manager of the Chicago White Sox, is one of only two Latinos managing in the big leagues (along with Felipe Alou of the San Francisco Giants). He is the first Latino manager to reach the World Series. Of the 25 players on his roster this weekend, eight are Latino. When the White Sox march onto the field to face the Houston Astros this weekend, they will put the new face of baseball squarely in the spotlight.

 That Latin Americans have emerged as an important part of Major League Baseball isn't exactly a news flash. But even casual fans surely must have noticed that baseball has reached a sort of ethnic tipping point the likes of which it hasn't seen since the early 1970s, when African-Americans made up more than a quarter of the game's players. Today, one in every four major-league players is Latino. In the minor leagues, the shift is even more pronounced, with Latinos accounting for half of all players -- practically guaranteeing further dominance of baseball in the future.

The question now for baseball is whether it has enough dexterity to seize

on this demographic shift to help re­energize the game and lock in the sport's next generation of fans. It's also a chance to bolster baseball's image after nearly two decades of on-and-off salary disputes, strike threats and scandals, including this spring's congressional comeuppance for steroid-infused home-run hitters. The game's largely successful struggle with integration in the '40s and '50s -- and the goodwill it banked from that -- show what the sport can accomplish.

But the game today has lost some of its standing. Like Barry Bonds, baseball is big and bloated.

Salaries have ballooned. Its tickets are expensive, and as a result, its grandstands are crowded with frat boys and corporate heavyweights, to the exclusion of many working-class fans. That's why some of the most passionate fans for this year's Series will be watching on TVs -- in Mexican bars and restaurants just blocks from the U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.

One big reason Latin fans are not attending ballgames in anywhere near the numbers they ought to be is that teams have paid little attention to them until recently. Even the White Sox, who boast a long line of Spanish-speaking legends, including Minnie Minoso, Chico Carrasquel and Luis Aparicio, dropped their Spanish-language radio broadcasts in 1999 and didn't resume them until this season.

In a game of colorful figures, Mr. Guillen stands out as the most electrifying new manager. A native of Venezuela, the 41-year-old Mr. Guillen is a folk hero in his home country. President Hugo Chávez phones him from time to time, and Mr. Guillen, while saying he doesn't care for all of Mr. Chávez's policies, describes the president as a friend.

Mr. Guillen curses impressively in English and Spanish. At press conferences, he holds forth in both languages, tossing out quotes that the sportswriters love. Asked whether his countrymen are proud of him, he said, "They're proud because they go, 'How can this crazy man be the leader of a team?' " Looking every bit like the player he was until just fiveyears ago, Mr. Guillen often holds court in the clubhouse after games. Still in uniform and sitting on a burgundy-colored sofa, he sips beer and plays cards with other members of the team.

"It's controlled chaos in here," says third baseman Geoff Blum. "He pretty much manages the way he played: loud, boisterous, intense."

Mr. Guillen's managerial skills will be on display this  weekend. On paper, the Astros' Big Three pitching rotation of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt look formidable. But in the American League Championship Series, the White Sox pitchers racked up some impressive numbers of their own, throwing four complete games, a string almost unheard of in the regular season, let alone the playoffs. The White Sox have the  edge in hitting. One factor in favor of the Astros: card teams have won the last three World Series.

For years, the White Sox have played in the city's Bridgeport neighborhood, a thriving blue-collar area once overwhelmingly white. But that fan base has dwindled since 1959, in part because many Bridgeport resident have fled to the suburbs. Over the years, the Sox have talked about following their fans out of the city.

They chose to stay, but in recent years it sometimes seemed as if no one in Chicago noticed. In the 15 years since they built their new ballpark (now known as U.S. Cellular Field but referred to by real fans as Sox Park),  attendance has often been sluggish. Sox Park can hold 40,600 people, but the team averaged just 29,000 this year; the Sox were ranked seventh in the American League in home attendance. Their northside rival, the Chicago Cubs, outdrew the Sox by a wide margin despite finishing in fourth place.  

Meanwhile, Latino immigrants were pouring into the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium -- but the Sox didn't seem to notice.

If it weren't for Esteban Loaiza, there's no telling how long it would have taken the Sox to catch on. In 2003, Mr. Loaiza, a journeyman pitcher from Mexico who had never won more than 11 games in a year, suddenly began throwing like a Hall of Famer. He won 21 games and struck out almost twice as many batters as he had in any previous year. Whenever Mr. Loaiza pitched, attendance at Sox Park spiked.

Since then, the team has hired marketing and public-relations firms with expertise in Latino communities to connect with this audience. The marketing experts told the team to go after younger Hispanics. The White Sox sponsored a special night at the park for Hispanic college students, offering discounted tickets, and advertised on college campuses throughout Illinois and Indiana.

The White Sox were able to pick up their starting shortstop, the strong-armed and sweet-natured Juan Uribe, because his former team, the Colorado Rockies, felt Mr. Uribe had been too slow to learn English. (If language skills were a requirement for baseball, Yogi Berra would have been a plumber.)

Now, many teams are looking for ways to attract more Latino fans. In San Diego, the Padres are busing Mexicans from Tijuana. In Milwaukee, the Brewers are advertising special ticket promotions in Mexican grocery stores and printing Spanish-language pamphlets to explain some of their local customs, such as the sausage race that takes place during every game. The Mets general manager Omar Minaya has been among the most aggressive in trying to bring Latin American players and fans to Shea Stadium.

Immigrants, of course, have always kept baseball fresh, introducing new waves of talent and new legions of fans. And they have helped assure that the face of the game reflects the face of the country.

At the same time, baseball itself has had an outsized role in the nation's social history. A full decade before protests throughout the South focused the country on the debate over race, baseball accepted Jackie Robinson without a court order and without serious incident. Mr. Robinson did have to deal with hate mail and threatened boycotts by other players.

Over the decades, team owners have embraced diversity not out of the goodness of their hearts (such goodness was often rumored but not much in evidence) but because it made them money. The New York Giants started attracting more Jewish fans when they inserted Andy Cohen into their lineup in 1928, just as the Yankees drew more Italian fans after signing Joe DiMaggio.

Mr. Robinson's arrival in the league in 1947 opened the door not only to African-American players but also dark-skinned Hispanics. Among the first to come along was Orestes "Minnie" Minoso, who was 28 when he played his first full season with the White Sox in 1951.

"The first time at bat I hit the first pitch into the bullpen, 439 feet, so the fans didn't have a chance to boo me," Mr. Minoso said this week, sitting in a sports bar reminiscing.

Many Latino fans in Chicago will tell you they still prefer soccer to baseball. At La Mexicana, a restaurant roughly six blocks west of Sox Park, Juana Baeza was waiting tables the other night while sneaking glances at the final game between the Astros and Cardinals. The 17-year-old Mexican-American calls herself a big White Sox fan, with a hat, sweatshirt and several T-shirts in her wardrobe, but she has never been to a game.

"Most people around here don't have that kind of money," she says. "It's exciting to see Hispanics in sports being successful, but you've just got to support them from home."

Mr. Guillen dropped out of school at the age of 16 when the San Diego Padres offered him a contract. After a stint in the minors and a trade to the White Sox, he won the American League's Rookie of the Year award in 1985 and was named an All-Star three times before retiring in 2000. He, his wife and their three kids divide their off-season time between Chicago, Miami and Venezuela.

As a manager, Mr. Guillen is known for treating all his players equally. "Sometimes they hate me because I tell the truth. But I respect them and they respect me.... Mucho respect."

For Mr. Uribe, that system works. "It's a good clubhouse," says the shortstop, who is from the Dominican Republic. "Everybody talks, everybody's happy. It helps to have somebody speak your language."

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