Sometimes sports mirrors politics with such morbid accuracy you don’t know whether to laugh, cry or hide in the basement. Just as the Bush Administration shows its commitment to democracy by operating secret offshore gulags and buying favorable news coverage in Iraq, the New York Mets have made it clear to new player Carlos Delgado that freedom of speech stops once the blue and orange uniform–their brand–is affixed to his body.
For the last two years, Delgado chose to follow the steps of his personal hero, Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates great and the first Latino elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and use his athletic platform to speak out for social justice. Clemente blazed a trail for generations of Latino ball players by standing up for the poor of Latin America and never accepting being treated as anything less than human. Delgado’s contribution to this tradition of pride in the face of conformity was to refuse to stand for the singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch. This was his act of resistance to the war in Iraq. “I think it’s the stupidest war ever. Who are you fighting against? You’re just getting ambushed now,” Delgado told the Toronto Star in 2004. “We have more people dead now, after the war, than during the war. You’ve been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at? You’ve been looking for over a year. Can’t find them. I don’t support that. I don’t support what they do. I think it’s just stupid.”
Delgado’s anti-militarist convictions grew from spending time and money to help clean up the small island of Vieques in his native Puerto Rico. The US Navy had used Vieques for decades as a bombing-practice target, with disastrous results for the people and environment.
When asked by the Star if he was concerned about taking such a public stance, Delgado, then a player for the Toronto Bluejays, responded, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to break the mold. You’ve got to push it a little bit or else you can’t get anything done.”
But now, Mets’ management is pushing Delgado back into the mold. The shame of this is that despite a guaranteed contract and support in the streets, Delgado isn’t pushing back. He said at the November 28 press conference announcing his trade to the Mets from the Florida Marlins, “The Mets have a policy that everybody should stand for ‘God Bless America’ and I will be there. I will not cause any distractions to the ballclub…. Just call me Employee Number 21.” And we saw him grin and bear it when Jeff Wilpon, son of Mets CEO and owner Fred Wilpon, said, “He’s going to have his own personal views, which he’s going to keep to himself.”
If opposition to the war were a stock, Delgado bought high and is selling low. There couldn’t be a better time than now, a better place than New York City, or a better team than the Mets for Delgado to make his stand. Instead, he has to hear baby-boy Wilpon say to reporters, “Fred has asked and I’ve asked him to respect what the country wants to do.” One has to wonder what country the Wilpons are talking about. The latest polls show Bush and his war meeting with subterranean levels of support. Delgado could be an important voice in the effort to end it once and for all.
He also might have received significant organizational support from Mets General Manager Omar Minaya, the first Latino GM in Major League history, and from Willie Randolph, the first African-American manager of the Mets. Randolph even told reporters, “I’d rather have a man who’s going to stand up and say what he believes. We have a right as Americans to voice that opinion.” But Minaya merely commented curtly, with an artic chill, “This is from ownership.” But Delgado still caved.
The frustrating fallout of all this is evident in media attacks on Delgado for refusing to continue his act of protest. At first glance, it would be welcome to see, for example, Newsday‘s Wallace Matthews’s writing, “Even if you disagree with his politics, Delgado’s willingness to break out of the mold corporate America loves to jam us in set him apart from the thousands of interchangeable young men who thrive athletically and financially in our sports-crazed culture…But no. One of the few pro athletes who had the guts to say no is now a yes man. And the silencing of his voice, whether you agree with it or not, is not a victory for democracy but a defeat.”
But where were the critics when the then-protesting Delgado was being booed as a visiting player in New York? And where were they when radio commentators suggested he “just shut up and play”? For those of us who amplified his views, and used his stance to speak not only about the war but also the plight of Vieques, his silence is bursting our eardrums.
Ironically, one of the parts of the press conference that was genuinely touching was Delgado’s thrill at finally being able to wear a jersey with the number 21 of his hero, the great Roberto Clemente. When it came to political principle, Clemente was a giant who never backed down in the face of bigotry: He lost his life in a 1972 plane crash as he was delivering aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. To Clemente, the Wilpons of the world were little more than mosquitos buzzing in his ears. Delgado could have been our Clemente. Instead, to use his own words, he is just Employee Number 21.