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--Garrett Morris as "Chico Escuela,"Saturday Night Live, late '70s
"Beisbol been berry, berry good to me."
--Sammy Sosa, clowning with Mark McGwire on recent (scripted?) Fox Sports interview and at Sunday's Wrigley Field ceremony to honor his achievement
Sosa's played this whole thing out about as sportingly as possible, but it couldn't hurt to be a little more defiant. On a national scale, the media's homespun favoritism to coverage of the home-run chase has become painfully obvious. ("BIG RED, WHITE & BLUE--Heroic McGwire Just What America Needed," ran the head on a Post story last Sunday.) What we don't need is the noble Sosa reinforcing ethnic stereotypes, even in jest. With the number of Hispanics in the Majors at 25 percent (Elias Sports Bureau) and rising right now, it's pure, simple fact that Latin America has been berry, berry good to baseball--and especially to the current Mets.
Forget for a moment the fanfare of Mike Piazza's arrival and ongoing performance, the elegance of John Olerud's otherworldly hitting, the serviceability of a probably overrated (save for Al Leiter and Turk Wendell) Mets pitching staff. How about this Venezuelan-CubanPuerto Rican middle infield? Hot! Hot! Hot! These guys, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordoñez, and Carlos Baerga, play a very pure form of baseball, one too easily forgotten in this, the Season of the Dinger. And collectively, they just may be serving up a pretty big plate of team spirit--a product of their on-and off-the-field cultural blend, perhaps?
"I'm not sure if it's just that they're Hispanic," says manager Bobby Valentine, in familiar chin-rubbing mode behind the batting cage at Shea last week, "but I guess it helps because of their language and love of the game. If you have three guys who have fun doing everything they do, we're all better for it because they play the game properly."
Valentine goes on about how the "fun" they have contributes to learning about each other, baseballwise, even as they fool around during pregame. As if on cue, Ordoñez, now in the cage, dribbles a ground ball toward Baerga, the previous batter, who's just rounding third after a trot around the bases. In full stride, Baerga fields the ball bare-handed, jumps high in the air, and lets out a war whoop while tossing it back under his legs to Alfonzo at third. Fonzi, the quiet one, forces a smile, Ordoñez a mild snarl--he hits too many dead grounders as it is. "That's what chemistry is all about," concludes Valentine, "being able to mix."
Despite a splendid history, major-league Latinos have traditionally had it rough mixing in El Norte. "It's a lot easier now than 30, 40 years ago," says Luis Mayoral, the Texas Rangers liaison for Latin American players. "Guys like Cepeda and Clemente had a difficult time getting to know the collective mentality of mainstream America. But now it's like, forget the nationalities, we're Latins and we're not alone. And if you hear in the clubhouse not just rock music, but salsa, too, now that's a winning spirit."
In the thick of the wild-card race, the Mets enjoy such a clubhouse. "We play everything--salsa, meringue, everything," laughs Baerga, the reluctant unofficial senior spokesman for Hispanic Mets. "I don't try to be the one to always have to say something, but if I have to help somebody, I step up and do it--like restaurants, shopping, where to buy good clothes."
Alfonzo, who offers that "Latin guys are hungry for baseball," recognizes that this here is special. "We understand each other very good," he says from a cubicle next to Ordoñez. "You got an infield with good hands, good communication." (Valentine earlier: "When Rey dives in the hole, and Edgardo's standing at third to get a force out, it's not by coincidence. It's because they feel each other, they know each other.")
Yeah, but what about the social side? "Much of the time we eat together," says Alfonzo. "We fool around, make a couple of jokes, stuff like that, just be happy." For Ordoñez, speaking through his translator, Rafael Morfi, the group's been a "natural fit--especially for me and the fact that I'm still learning English."
All right, back to the field and some indelible imprints, ingrained repeatedly throughout the season: Ordoñez, deep to the hole with his unique slide into hot grounders, a move that propels him into pin- perfect throwing position ("just something I learned naturally growing up in Cuba"); Alfonzo, the dead-run one-motion-barehand-snag-rocket to first; Baerga, choppy steps to the right-field grass, the force of the ball pulling him into a nifty 360 turn, then deliver. Spectacular becomes routine, especially with Ordoñez, whom Mayoral calls a "Picasso."
As of last week, the group was batting a collective .265 with 170 RBI's and a paltry 25 taters--not great, but, hey, relative. Baerga's stats disappoint next to his salary ($5 mil), but Fonzi drives the ball, and Rey is up to .249, a whopping figure compared to last year's .216. (Dark moment in Mets history, sometime in the '70s: Lee Mazzilli, after going 2-2 in his first two at-bats in the season's final game, gets pulled by his manager [Joe Torre?] so as to protect his final average at .250 .250!) If the Mets don't make this wild thang, don't blame our trio. This is about core identity, not about matching wood with Brosius and Knoblauch. And didn't the Ordoñez (no. 1) and Baerga bats last Tuesday nearly avert the only loss at Houston in yet another game blown by John Franco?
As for the home-run derby, Sosa is, of course, the sentimental favorite among Latino players. But it's a tough root for any Met, what with the Cubs being wild-card rivals. "It's a difficult situation with us, but I really want the best for him," says Baerga. "He's doing something for the Latin community that no Latin player has done before."