On Base: Games Without Borders

Pregame:  The All-American Game

Baseball began in the United States, but it didn’t stay here.

Five years after joining the Troy Haymakers to become the first Latino to play professional baseball, Esteban Bellán returned to his native Cuba in 1873 to help form the first professional team outside the United States, the Habana Baseball Club.   Soon the Rochester Hop Bitters traveled to Havana for a set of transnational games, and by the end of the century, a cross-border exchange of players, managerial expertise and information linked baseball in the U.S., Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.  And that was just the beginning.

During the first half of the 20th century, leagues formed throughout Latin America, and because  teams could not keep players contractually shackled as they could here, a transnational migrant player movement formed, a movement that continues to grow, as players travel from one country to the next, playing games, making what money they can, money, becoming heroes one day and forgotten the next.

For more on the history of Latinos and Baseball, see Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line by Adrian Burgos

Inning One: Giants Lead Off

Pitching for the Giants, the underwhelming Todd Wellmeyer.  Horrible in April, he has settled down this month and has been one of the team’s few bright spots.   Kelly Johnson walks and steals second, but goes no further.

After collecting 16 hits last night, fans wondered if the Giants would have anything left for today.  No worries.  Andres Torres opens the game with a single to center and scores later on Bengie Molina’s long fly.  Now Buster Posey comes to the plate.  In his 2010 debut last night, with men in scoring position, Posey produced a run each time with a sharp, well-hit, well-placed single.  This afternoon, on a 1-2 pitch, a 2-seam fastball from Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy, Posey hits a double and the Giants lead 2-0.

Inning Three:  Bad News Bears

One measure of how much baseball has gone beyond its provincial roots in the United States is to check out the results of the first two World Baseball Classic tournaments.  In 2006, the U.S. team did not make it to the final four even though it included Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Jake Peavy.  In 2009, the U.S. lost in the semi finals to Japan, the winner of both tournaments.  And Japan is not the only prominent team in Asia.  Given their preparation,  training regimes and attention to detail, Asian teams will likely keep winning; while U.S. stars with fat contracts and endorsements need to figure out how to focus on the fundamentals or they will keep losing.

Inning Four:  A Hot Afternoon in the Press Box

Wellmeyer settles down after a shaky first couple innings which included a opposite-field homer by Chris Snyder on a  pitch he had no business swinging at.  After four innings, Wellmeyer has thrown 56 pitches, 37 of them strikes.

In the bottom of the fourth, Posey rips a rope down the third base line for another double and another standing ovation.  “This kid is hot!” exclaims one of  the two women in the Press Box.  “No one ever said that about me,” grouses the guy on my right.  Wonder why.

Inning Six: Watch Out for Flying Busters

“What’s up with Kelly Johnson?” one kid asks another before the game.  “Juice.”

Johnson hits the ball so hard that Buster Posey ricochets off it and goes flying head over heals while juice-boy motors for second.  But Freddy Sanchez who has been everywhere and always during this past week, alertly picks up the caroming baseball and throws out a sliding Johnson.


It’s not Memorial Day (yet) but between the top and bottom of every inning, the Giants have been  flying electronic flags on the jumbo tron and playing video tributes to U.S. soldiers.  In sixth, they ask vets to stand to a prolonged ovation while over the speakers, Louis Armstrong sings “It’s a Wonderful World”.  Really?

Inning Seven:  Takes Two to Tango

Everybody’s hitting Wellmeyer now and he leaves with two on, two out and the score tied two-to-two.  The Giants threaten in the bottom of the seventh, but with two on, two out, score still tied, two-to-two, Pablo Sandoval takes a vicious swing and a miss for strike two; the count two balls, two strikes.  A foul ball gives you time to remember how foul his swing has looked today, just before he whiffs on a fastball.

Inning Eight:  The Republic of Baseball

The MLB now proudly refers to itself as an international organization.  In the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the MLB runs “baseball academies”  for youths with little other hope of breaking out of cycles of grinding poverty.  Though the MLB lauds its beneficence in providing opportunity, others liken it to imperial exploitation of natural resources.  As described in detail by Dave Zirin in Welcome to the Terrordome, the camps are essentially elaborate scouting combines where promising talent can be spotted and nurtured.  Even those who make it into the bigs still lack basic education.  Like all those who don’t make it, after all those years of training, they have nothing to fall back on.

Inning Nine:  True Grit

Behind hits by Travis Ishakawa,  Torres and Sanchez, the Giants rally from two runs down to send the game into extra innings.

Inning Ten:  Curtain

After Brian Wilson shuts down the Snakes throwing pitches in excess of 95 mph, Buster Posey grounds out and Nate Schierholtz strikes out.  Juan Uribe hits a cheap single that gets the crowd going, but things don’t look very promising until Eli Whiteside singles Uribe to third.  Torres takes a changeup for a strike, watches a 94 mph fastball miss the corner of the plate, and hits the next pitch, another changeup, into right field scoring Uribe and winning the game.

Postgame:  The San Francisco Transnationals

The Giants’ clubhouse after the game is filled with Venezuelan and Caribbean Spanish.  Finally Andres Torres shows up for his interview with the media.  It’s the biggest day in his 12-year career.  He’s knocked around, traveled a lot, yo-yoing from majors to minors and back again, shuttling back and forth to to the Caribbean.  He apologizes for his poor English.  No need.  His words are as sharp and clear as his hits.  He says he always tries to give 100 percent.  He did better than that today.

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