Thursday, April 27, 2000

Politics tough turf for baseball

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Eleven Cuban ballplayers stood up for an important principle Tuesday night: the paid vacation.

        They took the day off in observance of the Elian Gonzalez work stoppage, leaving their ballclubs short-handed but their own wallets intact. The Florida Marlins were able to field only 19 players for their game with the San Francisco Giants and consequently were compelled to use one pitcher to pinch hit for another in the 11th inning of a 6-4 loss.

        Take that, Janet Reno.

        If this sounds cynical, it's because it is. As a class, professional athletes are historically apolitical, hysterically uninformed and committed primarily to their own comfort. When any of them takes a political stand — however worthy the cause — the reflex is to regard it with suspicion, like a symptomless child who claims a fever upon sighting a school bus.

        There are exceptions: Muhammad Ali was one. Curt Flood was another. But when Flood died in 1997, having freed ballplayers from the bondage of the reserve clause through his personal sacrifice, not a single active player attended his funeral. They were too busy, presumably, managing their stock portfolios.

Few principles here
        Michael Jordan's vast fortune is founded in large part on his ability to ignore the working conditions in third-world shoe-making sweatshops. John Rocker has maintained a comfortable lifestyle despite the sensitivity of a stone. Athletes have attained astounding wealth through the power of collective bargaining, but they never fail to cross another union's picket line if it means more money in their own pocket.

        Theirs is the politics of pragmatism.

        Rey Ordonez, the New York Mets' Cuban-born shortstop, was among the missing Tuesday night at Shea Stadium. Reds outfielder Alex Ochoa, the son of Cuban immigrants, elected to play. The primary difference between their positions is that Ordonez is a regular and Ochoa is not. Among the privileges of rank is the right to show up on your own schedule.

        “It's an easier decision for an every-day player,” Ochoa said. “I didn't want to let the team down.”

        Baseball's willingness to oblige those players who preferred to stay home reflects both enlightenment and self-interest. Those players with roots in the Cuban-American community could face reprisals if they did not honor the protest. Those teams with strong Hispanic constituencies — particularly those in Florida, New York and the Southwest — had to tread carefully for fear of alienating fans.

Dangerous precedent
        While most Americans believe Elian Gonzalez belongs with his father, it is difficult to discount the level of passion of Cuban-Americans. Viewed as a custody battle, the Gonzalez case is a no-brainer. Viewed as a potential powderkeg, however, it demands diplomacy.

        “I'm not saying what's right and wrong,” Marlins manager John Boles said. “The organization is not making a value judgment; the organization is merely being sensitive to its employees.”

        The problem is that baseball's sensitivity to the Gonzalez case sets a pandering precedent. While players have missed games for religious reasons — Sandy Koufax skipped World Series starts to observe Yom Kippur — politics is new territory. What happens if some player decides he needs a day off to express his solidarity with striking machinists or abortion activists or unsaved whales?

        Baseball's answer is that it will evaluate each case individually. Its consolation is that most players aren't much interested in anyone but themselves.

        E-mail Tim Sullivan at