The World In One Game

The New York Times

April 17, 2009

Doug Glanville

When people ask me what I miss the most about playing professional baseball, …….

Only 60 years ago, Jackie Robinson broke through a glass ceiling for African-American ballplayers, but since then there’s been a quiet inflow of many other cultures that has also changed the game dramatically. The powerful impact of Latino players is clear, and they now represent roughly 30 percent of all major leaguers. But in the last decade you can also find icons like Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki (who has a type of sushi named after him at Safeco Field in Seattle) and Hideki Matsui, who became a one-man movement in Japan after signing with the Yankees (I witnessed the paparazzi following him around firsthand in 2005).

The game has truly gone global, in the process bringing in tremendous new talent. Just recently, a player named Gift Ngoepe became the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract. Soon baseball scouts will have to cover the entire planet or risk missing a superstar who might not only help an organization win games, but also open up a new market for the business of the game. These international players are not just fillers. The fact that we can now watch teams like the Netherlands make a great run at the World Baseball Classic title — which Japan has won two years in a row — makes it clear that the game has grown in ways that once seemed unimaginable.

(Watching the W.B.C. was also a great reminder that players we admire, who’ve carried the banner of the game, were not always born in the United States. Pedro, Jeter and Pudge are all names that in five letters apiece evoke something powerful about baseball, yet in the W.B.C. they played for three different countries.)

The game also grows and changes when its doors open up to the world. Each culture adds its own flavor — just as when Jackie Robinson arrived with elbows flying and spikes high, something unheard of in 1947. It challenges everyone to see the game through new eyes; it improves baseball.

In this country, in many areas, baseball has often led the way. The longtime battles between the players’ union and the owners, for instance, resulted ultimately in refinements in employment law nationwide. Integration of the game sparked our entire country to rethink its attitudes toward race, ultimately expanding diversity beyond just black and white.

When I played, I was always inspired by the fact that my teammates of nearly all walks of life prayed together, won together, lived together, traveled together, cried together, rose above together — and we did it every single day. If you want to survive as a unit, you have to figure out how to work in harmony. Once you taste the power of pooling global, cultural and economic diversity (religious diversity needs some work), it is almost impossible not to have a new understanding of how much people really have in common and how much further we can go together when we respect that power.

I have had the pleasure of speaking to many players from the Negro Leagues, like Buck O’Neil and Mahlon Duckett, and without exception they were humbled and thankful for their trials and tribulations — something I found to be amazing. They maintained faith in a better day for all of America — one in which the game of baseball did not exclude.

Part of the reason this experience is so moving to me is that I hail from a small town (Teaneck, N.J.) and this particular tone — people from all walks of life working together — was set for me from the time I went to kindergarten. Teaneck is known for having the first high school in the United States to voluntarily integrate its student body, in 1965. But more importantly, they took that fact and improved on it.

So I grew up in a community committed to learning how to communicate across cultural and religious lines. Cottage parties would fill up a neighbor’s basement to discuss Jewish and African-American relations, meet-up groups would form to decide how to celebrate various cultures at the high school, dialogues and community sessions were constantly challenging people to learn outside the box. The town decided that it was stronger as a cohesive unit than as a scapegoating machine that fell upon the ease and comfort of stereotyping. It took control of its destiny and found a way.

My baseball team in high school was ethnically diverse. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon for us, when traveling to some nearby towns, to hear from opposing fans exactly how uncomfortable our smorgasbord of cultures made them feel. Once, one of my teammates got tired of verbal abuse from a spectator who had gone on for an entire game, and yelled back at the offender. After the game, this fan’s husband (who happened to be dressed in business attire) waited near our bus and kicked one of our players in the chest. He capped that off with some racially inappropriate comments.

But the entire team banded together and stood firmly behind our teammate in support. It wasn’t because he was black, or our captain for that matter — he was our teammate. That moment demonstrated how it’s possible to avoid making decisions based on the side of the tracks you live on or what box you check to describe your race in a questionnaire.
After I left Teaneck High School, I didn’t see quite that kind of commitment — people working together to make diversity a strength — until I put on that major league uniform. I still believe it is the best lesson baseball can give us.

Because baseball’s power is unique. No game reflects the cultural diversity of our country on a day-to-day, team-by-team level as well as baseball. (Soccer has global popularity, but lacks that every-single-day presence here.) Baseball has the ability to unite and transcend and, most importantly, share with young people the importance of understanding and inclusion. This is what opens up our world, this is what allows us to see how much more potential there is in cooperation.

New York Times 04/17/2009


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