Pregame: Fraternization with the Enemy

As I watch the teams take batting practice, I remember the Delphic wisdom from a sportswriter last night: “One of these teams is going to start hitting.” Thanks. Which one?

Los Mets come onto the field for warmups. Players from both teams intermingle, particularly the Latinos; they hang out, they laugh, they speak Spanish. The same thing happens before every game. Fifty years ago this kind of fraternization was forbidden. The San Francisco Giants could not speak Spanish on the field or in the clubhouse — even with other Spanish-speakers.

Inning One: The Strong, Silent Type

Every time I think of tonight’s pitcher, Matt Cain, I catch myself falling into stereotypes of the John Wayne variety. I know next to nothing about Cain. other than his numbers and that he comes from the South, drafted out of high school and “educated” by Giants’ management. They say he is “amazingly mature,” even an “old soul.” How would they know? Cain’s been a “solid” pitcher if boring performer, who has developed one very strange flaw: The team doesn’t score when he’s pitching. He can pitch a complete game, give up one unearned run, and lose. Although the Giants consider it another of baseball’s flukes, fans take it seriously enough to have formed a Facebook group, Get Matt Cain Run Support.

Over the last month, Cain needed life support more than run support. Pitching against rookie phenom Steve Strasburg in Washington, Cain yielded 11 hits and eight runs in 6.2 innings. It was his fourth straight loss. Perhaps John Wayne can come up with something more creative than the old blunderbuss.

Given New York’s reputation as a home for Latino players, it’s mildly surprising to learn Cain’s opposite number would be Japanese rookie Hisanori Takahashi. Surprising but hopeful, as Takahashi’s last four games were worse than Cain’s.

Inning Two: Bilingual Bats

Takahashi has a little hitch in his delivery. He kicks his right leg up, then either bounces the calf or cocks it, waits a beat, then twists the lower leg 90 degrees, pulling his body and arm. It looked disconcerting to Giant hitters the first inning, but he doesn’t do it the same way when he throws an 88-mph fastball to Buster Posey in the second. Now his motion is more fluid. Posey takes Takahashi’s changeup deep to center field for a double. It is the beginning of the end for the Japanese rookie.

A walk and consecutive run-scoring singles by Juan Uribe and Pablo Sandoval set up the big noise of the inning: Andres Torres’ three-run homer, his eighth of the season. You want support, Matt, sing Uribe, Sandoval and Torres as they run across the plate. You got it.

Inning Three: Another Good Idea Gone

The left-handed Takahashi tells the ball to slide in on right-handed Posey’s fists. Posey hates that. But the ball doesn’t get what Takahashi meant so Buster gives it a ride over he right field wall. 6-0.

Inning Four: English Only

Although Latinos who “passed for white” played in the majors prior to integration, the first wave of Latino players, predominantly black Latino players, followed the great Cuban left-fielder Orestes Miñoso’s (aka Minnie Minoso) ground-breaking entry in 1949. Black Latinos not only had to deal with ongoing racism, they were also unprepared for the cultural differences.

“The language barrier back then,” recalls San Francisco Giant Orlando Cepeda, speaking of the ’60s, “was so difficult.” Players could not communicate with the media and the larger culture, nor with their own teammates. “Whenever we spoke Spanish,” said Felipe Alou, recalling when he joined the Giants, “the others thought we were talking about them.” Possibly in an effort to bring the team together, manager Alvin Dark instituted an English-only rule, a policy that demeaned and enraged the Latino players, prompting more discord than harmony and helping to undermine one of the best teams never to win a World Series.

Inning Five: Posey Pacing the Pitchers?

Cain keeps Los Mets back on their heels, walking one and giving up two hits. Though not as commanding as Tim Lincecum or Barry Zito, his fastball zips along and his changeup bows appropriately. But mostly he’s moving the game. It was something I noticed during the last two games: The pitchers were pushing matters; they weren’t waiting “for the game to come to them,” they weren’t trying to make the perfect pitch every time. Instead, they were going after hitters and getting them out. Is this another benefit of having Buster Posey behind the plate?

Inning Six: Dumb Jokes

The problems language poses for a team are dwarfed by those that Latino players have encountered with sportswriters who intently follow their exploits on the field but never learn to communicate with them. Instead, sportswriters find that stereotypes and cheap racist jokes made “good copy.” Even megastars like Roberto Clemente couldn’t escape the meatheads of the sports media who referred to him in print as “the dusky flyer” or the “chocolate-covered islander,” wrote Adrian Burgos in his book “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line.” One season, Burgos wrote, a sportswriter quoted Clemente talking about his slow start: “Me like hot weather, veree hot. I no run fast cold weather. No get warm in cold.”

That was the ’60s or ’70s, right? Could not happen today. But it did happen in 2003, when the Associated Press quoted Sammy Sosa as saying: “You got to stood up and be there for it.”

Inning Seven: Panda Power

Has Cain read any good books lately?  Carlos Beltran opens the inning with a triple and Ike Davis follows with a home run into McCovey Cove; the Mets’ first runs of the series. One Hundred Years of Solitude?

In the bottom half of the inning, the Giants get those two runs back when Pablo Sandoval, with bases loaded, hits a double into center, scoring Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell. Pandas worldwide rejoice!

Inning Eight: No Se Habla Español

Major-league teams claim to provide language training at their “baseball academies” in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Players and educators have criticized these programs as hopelessly inadequate. As more Latino players come into the major leagues in the next decade, maybe it’s time for teams like the Giants to start learning Spanish and providing more Spanish, a lot more Spanish than they do at the ballpark. Vamos Gigantes! Es el futuro del beisbol.

Giants win 8-4, but the Mets have begun to see the ball through layers of fog; anyway, tomorrow is an afternoon game. It could get hot, very hot.