Just as Roger Clemens can be counted on to fire heat, our national pastime inevitably waves the flag in times of national stress. After 9/11, Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, decided that the traditional pregame singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” did not reflect sufficient patriotic fervor and decreed that “God Bless America” also be sung at each game. At the outset, almost all teams complied, usually during the seventh-inning stretch, with players due to bat giving voice while standing on the dugout steps.
For many months now, Carlos Delgado, the star first baseman of the Toronto Blue Jays, has protested the US invasion of Iraq by quietly refusing to appear in chorus with his teammates. “I think it’s the stupidest war ever,” he told the Toronto Star not long ago. “Who are you fighting against? You’re just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now after the war [was officially declared over], than during the war. You’ve been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at? Can’t find them…. It’s just stupid.”
Delgado’s antiwar anger is rooted in his native Puerto Rico, where for six decades the US Navy tested myriad weapons by bombing the small island of Vieques off the country’s eastern coast. Large portions of the island are now off-limits because of unexploded shells, and the bombing’s widespread contamination is suspected of causing abnormally high cancer rates among the local population. In 1999 an errant bomb killed a civilian on Vieques, and Delgado, then in his sixth year as a Blue Jay, got involved, along with many other outraged Puerto Ricans. He has since donated some $100,000 to communities and activists on Vieques and, in April 2001, together with singer Ricky Martin and boxer Felix Trinidad, took out full-page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post protesting the bombing. “Sometimes you’ve just got to break the mold,” Delgado says. “You’ve got to push it a little bit or else you can’t get anything done.” In May of last year, the Navy finally ended its sixty-year bombing run.
Delgado’s unobtrusive, dignified protest against the war in Iraq has drawn predictable howls from right-wing sports fans, like former NFL lineman Bill Maas, who on his Kansas City radio show labeled the first baseman “un-American” and hypocritical because he refuses to stand and sing but remains willing to accept his $18 million-plus annual salary. On one baseball forum, a fan wrote that Delgado’s protest “makes [him] a terrorist and he should be jailed.” Happily, these seem to be minority views, and it may indicate progress of a sort that, so far at least, the 32-year-old Delgado doesn’t appear to face the kind of treatment sports stars of the past have encountered when they dared march out of step: See Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his heavyweight title in the 1960s for refusing to serve in Vietnam; see Craig Hodges, who was banished from the National Basketball Association after he protested Gulf War I when he and his Chicago Bulls teammates visited the White House in 1991; see Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets, who suffered a similar fate at the hands of the NBA after refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1996.
There are some 750 players on Major League Baseball’s thirty teams, and scores more managers, coaches, umpires and front-office executives. It is fair to assume that a significant number of them also think the war in Iraq is stupid, or at the very least a dubious enterprise. Yet they remain silent, as members of the professional sports establishment almost always do once they’re told by the commish or team owners to fall into line [see Kelly Candaele and Peter Dreier, “Where Are the Jocks for Justice?” June 28]. The Blue Jays and a few others teams have stopped playing “God Bless America,” and most other teams now play the song only on Sundays, holidays and on special event days like the All-Star Game. George Steinbrenner, though, has ordered that the song be sung during the seventh-inning stretch at all games at Yankee Stadium, where Delgado was greeted by a smattering of boos when the Blue Jays came to town recently.
No less an American than Irving Berlin has a message for such “patriots.” In 1938 he dusted off “God Bless America,” which he had found wanting when he composed it two decades before. With Hitler on the march in Europe, he thought it somehow might now serve as a plea for peace. One of his original lines went: “Make her victorious on land and foam, God bless America, my home sweet home.” He didn’t want the tune to be a war song, so he altered the melody and changed the line to “From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam…” Carlos Delgado seems to understand what Berlin had in mind.