Living

Three Amigos

by

Beisbol been berry, berry good to me.”

–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-Cuban–Puerto 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.”