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|| News Item: Posted 1999-05-17

Away Games: Latin Baseball Odyssey
By Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by
Along with my partner Marcos Breton, a reporter at the Sacramento Bee, we just published a book on immigration from Latin America to the US.

We document the recruitment of young Dominican men by Major League Baseball. While at first our project sounds like a sports book, it really isn't. Using baseball as a metaphor, our book is more about the Latino search for identity in the United States. Our book: "Away Games" takes the reader to where it all begins -- the impoverished barrios of Latin America to show lifestyles and cultures not normally associated with America's pastime.

Baseball in Latin America transcends the "pastime'' status it enjoys in the U.S. and is more about putting food on your mother's table, paying for your father's funeral, repairing the family home or putting a younger sibling through school.

If one photo sums up this segment and all that will follow, it is the lone image of a tiny, barefoot and shirtless Dominican boy striking a ball with a bat fashioned from a tree branch. His feet are dirty, his ribs are showing and yet the intensity on his face as he makes contact is a moving prelude to the subsequent segments because the men that make up the Latin story in American baseball were all once this boy.

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas
He will be in the explosive intensity of Miguel Tejada as he rounds second on his way to third, in the vulnerability of the eyes of Hall of Famer Juan Marichal and in the haunted expression of the late Zoilo Versalles. The first Latin to ever win the MVP award, Versalles was forced to sell all his trophies once his career was over and he died penniless and alone in 1995. He once said: "I am different. We, the Latins, are different. If an (American) boy cannot make a play or throw he can go to his daddy, perhaps, and sell cars for him. But if I miss too many, where can I go when they say goodbye? I have no father, no business, no education...I must, therefore, make the play."

The book begins in the present and shows how Tejada is part of a growing Latin wave in baseball. Tejada's impoverished background and meteoric rise to the verge of super stardom will tell of the present Latin boom in baseball. Virtually every team is scouring the Caribbean for explosive and cheap talent like Tejada.

One team -- the Los Angeles Dodgers -- has done so well that 45 percent of its major and minor league players are from Latin America. The numbers leave no doubt that the makeup of the game is changing drastically.

But at what cost?

Statistics show that 98 percent of all Latin players are released before they reach the Double A level -- the next to highest rung in baseball's minor league system. That means of the 700 Latins imported every year, all but a small handful will end up living illegally in the US. or scratching out a living somehow in the sugar cane fields and nickel mines of the Third World.

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas
For the countless thousands discarded in the search for the next superstar, there is only the briefest glimmer of hopes -- the fleeting satisfaction of providing medicine for your family, of buying toys for your children. A yet unfinished segment illustrates baseball's Latin rejects, this segment of the book shows the underside of baseball's million dollar dreams -- desperate young men who become illegal immigrants and run to the barrios of New York City where their lives often lead down a path of minimum wage jobs, jail or worse. This is one of the great untold stories in sports today and is one of the many groundbreaking chapters of this book.

The pressure is on Tejada to succeed and what could happen to him if he had a career ending injury before he reached the major leagues and made big money. Miguel Tejada's amazing journey of his impoverished youth as a shoe shine boy, a motherless orphan who dropped out of high school for $2,000 and an opportunity to lift himself and his family from poverty.

Their forgotten history is exemplified in one simple twist of fate: In 1945, when the Brooklyn Dodgers were looking for a black player to break baseball's color barrier, they considered an amazing Cuban shortstop named Silvio Garcia. Imagine the history? The first black player in the major leagues, a fiery, colorful Cuban star from the streets of Havana. Primarily because he couldn't speak English, Garcia was dropped from consideration.

The Dodgers knew the first black in baseball would face a firestorm of racial hatred so they looked for a someone as articulate as he was talented -- a man who could describe his ordeal and, thereby, win public support. A graduate of UCLA, Jackie Robinson was that man and he deservedly became a hero.

Poor, uneducated and unable to express himself in English, Garcia today isn't even a footnote in the record books of time. Like Garcia, Latins in American baseball have been bystanders to US. history; present but in the background, one step from greatness, a translator away from notoriety, a heartbeat from poverty and a world away from home. They have risen above Third World slums, mind-numbing hunger, violence, ignorance, exploitation and fear before ever setting foot in America.

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas
And yet their story has barely registered in newsprint or in the American consciousness, has been told in bits and pieces bogged down by fractured translations, or hasn't been told at all. Lover of the colorful quote, America has missed a deeper story. For nearly half a century before Robinson's arrival in 1947, 45 dusky-skinned Latins, some barely passing for white, provided the first real challenge to baseball's rigid color line -- but who remembers them?

At the same time, scores of talented Latin blacks were barred from the major leagues. Men who often died bitter, poor and without the notoriety of American Negro Leaguers now immortalized in books and films. After Robinson, Latins began to standout on the field because the best players, blacks once banned from the game, were finally allowed to play. This period of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s marked one of the most fascinating and overlooked times in baseball history: The era of the black Latin player.

These were men who were segregated, persecuted, thrown at, spiked, struck from behind, released on a whim and blocked from promotion to the major leagues just like American blacks. And yet these Latin men had the added burden of speaking little English and being from a different world. There has simply never been anything comprehensive written about this experience or the men who lived it. Men who, it can be said, had an even harder road than Robinson and other American blacks.

Their names are familiar: Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and many others. Today, the majority of Latin players are black, young men like Miguel Tejada of the Oakland Athletics. But while American players of color have moved forward in history along with the rest of America since Robinson's day, Latins like Tejada have in, large part, remained stuck in time. Although he is rated as the top prospect in the Oakland Athletics' organization, Tejada was signed for only $2,000 -- a common market value price for Latin players today.

To contrast the huge difference between the Latin experience and that of American players, consider Ben Grieve, a 6-foot-four-inch, 200 pound teammate of Tejada from Arlington, Texas. Acquired out of high school with college offers at the ready, Grieve signed with the Athletics for more than $1 million. This, even though he is rated behind Tejada in both talent and potential by the Athletics.

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas
Both young men are 19 and were born barely three weeks apart in May of 1976. But as an American with talent, an education and the opportunities that go with it, Grieve had bargaining power and used it. As a Latin, Tejada was brought to America under the same rationalization that all Latins have labored under since the first was imported in 1902: That no matter how little he is paid in relation to his talent, he should consider himself lucky just to be in the US.

And so America has a built-in excuse to treat Tejada in ways they would never treat young, African American teenagers. To fully understand that point, one needs only to study the numbers: In 1945, Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for $3,500 -- $1,500 more than Tejada was paid by the Athletics 50 years later. In its May 1, 1996 issue, the San Francisco Examiner profiled Tejada and Grieve as top prospects in an article where the truth behind Tejada's background wasn't even hinted at.

The best the writer could do was print that Tejada missed the "fried plantains'' of his native Dominican Republic, while completely overlooking the amazing journey of his impoverished youth as a shoe shine boy, a motherless orphan who dropped out of high school for $2,000 and an opportunity to lift himself and his family from poverty.

At the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, there are files on every Latin player who ever played the game -- a piecemeal collection of faded clippings containing statistics, a few clichÈs, some fractured English, subtle racism and passing references to life "south of the border.'' This latest article on Tejada fits right in because, like
everything written in the past, it completely misses the story. A testament to this legacy is that the only Latin to become an enduring superstar in America achieved that status only in death -- the late Roberto Clemente.

Others fabulous players have been faintly respected, admired and even enshrined in the Hall of Fame, like Marichal and Luis Aparacio.

Some, like Fernando Valenzuela, made headlines for a few years before fading into obscurity. But most, including some of the most colorful men to ever play the game, passed before America's eyes briefly without ever being known or understood -- strangers who sounded funny. In words and photographs, this book will go beyond Clemente's watery grave off the coast of Puerto Rico to bring his legacy, the legacy of Latin players to life for the first time.

Like the "Boys of Summer'' this book will profile some familiar and amazing players of the past in ways they have never been seen before, lives at once colorful, tragic, funny and life affirming. And, as "Only the Ball was White,'' did for the Negro Leagues, it will define the Latin experience in America's pastime. But unlike those two classics, this book will also be rooted in the present by detailing the coming "Latinization'' of baseball. As Tejada's story shows, this is a history where past and present are inexorably linked like no other story in baseball history.

In a nutshell, this is what the book is all about. A project that Marcos and I began working on in 1993, as an assignment for the Sacramento Bee. I wish I could take credit for the idea, but I can't, it was Marcos's idea. But hey, I have no problem with that. From the start I felt I had an opportunity to produce a very special piece.

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas
This might be my only chance to photograph men whom I followed in my youth. I decided to try and produce two very different pieces. 1st, a piece shot with a documentary look, and 2nd, a series of portraits shot with a medium format camera. It was a pain to carry that much equipment, but a small price to pay for a once in a lifetime opportunity. Well, at least in the eyes of a baseball fan.

We spent a glorious ten days in Puerto Rico, photographing and interviewing some of the best Latin baseball players who ever played: Luis Olmo, JosÈ Pagan, and Willie Hernandez to name a few.

Then, on to the Dominican. A short forty-minute flight. I can remember looking out of the airplane window and saying to Marcos, "Oh My God, look at the shacks." We were so unprepared, we were green. Emotionally it was overwhelming to see the extreme of the country's poverty.

Along with being hustled by the local police for money, we felt very much out of our comfort zone. If you ever take a trip to the Dominican, I suggest you take the airport shuttle into town, don't rent a car...we didn't know any better, didn't know anyone, so we rented a car.

Wow, driving in the Dominican is like driving at the Indy 500. No one obeys the law. Automobiles share the roadway with horses, and wagons pulled by donkeys. It was quite the experience. Not only a growing experience, but most importantly a productive one. We got to see the reasons why major league baseball is in Latin America.

I can't recall any experience more special than sitting down to talk with Juan Marichal, traveling the country side to watch these kids play ball in the parks, street, in any open field. We spent a good deal of time with the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics clubs. It was as this juncture that we decided to follow the Athletics.

They had been training at a stadium that was for one easier to get to than the Giants, and Oakland is that much closer to Sacramento. It was a wonderful experience, even with the mishaps.

The newspaper piece was an overview of Latin Baseball. We felt there was a greater story to tell. We sent out numerous clips and packaged with photographs to several publishing houses. We had some interest into the 94' season, but when Major League Baseball went on strike, that was it.

It wasn't until late in 1995, after all hope of securing a book deal was seemingly gone we were awarded an Alicia Patterson Foundation Grant: a $30,000 stipend that got the project jump-started.

In 1996 we secured an agent in New York, and used the money throughout the year to make a serious dent into the project. In January of 96' Marcos and I spent a week in the archive room of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

There isn't much happening in Cooperstown in January and in zero degree weather. We'd arrive at 8:30 in the morning and leave 5:00 in the afternoon. It was dark when we arrived to the hall in the morning, and dark when we walked back to our hotel. A couple of times during the week, we got out for quick bites, but time was precious, we were bookworms.

It wasn't until the last half-hour of our last day in the hall that we actually had a chance to walk through and see the many exhibits. The following month we took our second trip to the Dominican Republic.

This time we had a driver from the Oakland Athletics pick us up at the airport. The Athletics by this time had built a training facility with dormitories outside of Santo Domingo on the outskirts of town called La Victoria. We were invited to stay at the dormitory.

There we had a chance to meet some of the prospects that would be traveling to Phoenix in the upcoming week. We wanted to document the experience of a prospect to tell the story of their plight to the major leagues. This is where we met Miguel Tejada.

Miguel and another prospect, Mario Encarnacion were two young kids in the organization who the Athletics had high hopes for. We spent some time with Mario, but weren't really sure if he was the one. We didn't get to know Miguel until we got to Phoenix.

He gets called up to play in a split squad game against Major League pitching, and in his second at bat hits a home run. Marocs who was in the press box at the time, looked over at me on the field as I was looking at him, we knew at that point Miguel would be the one.

Miguel was assigned to the Athletics Single-A team in Modesto, California, 90 minutes for Sacramento. We made many, many trips throughout the season to see Miguel and watch him play. It took a while, but over a period of time a friendship was established.

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas
Miguel and a couple of other Latin prospects were given housing in a farm community outside of Modesto, Ceres.... Miguel and the other kids on a farm, without transportation. They passed the time watching Spanish television and missing home.

At seasons end we went back home with Miguel. We spent close to two weeks with him. Miguel lives about 2 hours outside of Santo Domingo in the town of BanÌ. In a neighborhood that borders a dump, Miguel was the first prospect from this area. To say the least he is extremely poor.

During 1996, we were rejected by just about every publishing house in the U.S. It seemed we were the only ones who thought we had a story. Then in January of 1997, our agent called to say there was significant interest by Simon & Schuster, a publishing house who had turned us down twice.

We retooled the proposal, and in July 1st of 1997 we had a deal. The deal came at a time when Miguel was making serious strides through the minor league system. We were out of grant money and had to decide. After a couple of minutes it was done, and we took the offer.

The book would be text driven and the visuals would consist of no more than 20 images, including the cover and back jacket. I've been asked many, many times if I feel cheated: four and a half years of work for twenty images... no, no bitterness at all.

The offer gave us the opportunity to finish our reporting. That was more important than the amount of images that were going to be published.

Could there have been a better offer if we waited? Maybe, maybe not. I'll never know, and it's really not important because I was able to finish the shooting. We used the advance to follow Miguel to the major leagues, and his return to home, a hero.

The project as a whole has been a great experience. It certainly has made me a better photographer, and in a period in my shooting career when I needed a push, this project has done that for me.

(A link to this book on is available below.)

(Jose Luis Villegas is a staff photographer for the Sacramento Bee.)

Related Links:
Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Baseball Player

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