employee number 21

When former Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado was signed by the Mets last week, I was sorry to see him stay in the National League (he spent one season with the Florida Marlins). I really like Delgado, as a player and a person. He's one of the very few Major League baseball players - and professional athletes in general - who is politically active. Delgado has spoken publicly about his opposition to the war in Iraq, and played a hands-on role in the campaign to end US bombing exercises in his native Puerto Rico. Delgado's decision not to stand for "God Bless America" or the US national anthem made me proud to sit (figuratively) beside him.

But Delgado's political days are over. His new employers told him to shut up and get in line. And he did.

Dave Zirin, the author of What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States, writes about Delgado in this column in The Nation. I've quoted Zirin several times, because he writes about the intersection of sports and politics, a favourite corner of mine. (Now he's writing a web-only column in The Nation! Am I jealous? You bet!)

Zirin points out the sad, ironic twist in Delgado's decision. With the Mets, Delgado will don a jersey bearing the number 21: the number worn by Delgado's hero, Roberto Clemente. A man who would never be silenced.

Here's Zirin's column, also found here on Common Dreams.
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 Blue Jays, 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 arctic 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.
The pressure of a waning career and the desire to stay in the professional game often lead an athlete to dubious choices. (Just ask Roger Clemens.) And the desire for money causes many people to lose their principles. I hope Delgado feels playing for the Mets is worth his silence. If he's like most people of conscience, it's a decision he'll come to regret.


James Redekop said...

It's definitely disappointing. And while it's understandable that someone would shut up to protect his job, it's less so when that job has been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year -- Delgado should be in no danger of starving if the Mets were to sack him.

allan said...

Once again we see the blatant hypocrisy -- Delgado criticized and booed at the ballpark for speaking out against the invasion and occupation, while the pro-war comments of Curt Schilling are treated as normal conversation.

laura k said...

Delgado should be in no danger of starving if the Mets were to sack him.

Exactly. That's why I figure it's more the desire to keep playing than simple greed. But geez, teachers are threatened with firing for speaking out against the war, and they find the courage to continue!

Delgado criticized and booed at the ballpark for speaking out against the invasion and occupation, while the pro-war comments of Curt Schilling are treated as normal conversation.

Right. This is such a blind spot in US society. Anything that upholds the status quo is not considered political. It just "is". Anything that challenges the status quo: controversy at best, but usually un-patriotic and un-American.

allan said...

Yet when Clinton took military actions, the wingnuts howled -- and they were not seen as unpatriotic. Instead, Clinton was faulted for undertaking a shaky mission with unclear goals, or trying to distract people from his "scandals".



And if Delgado spoke his mind (and it's not like he's out there every day speaking out; he has voiced his opinions quite rarely) and the Mets were annoyed, another team would take him.

laura k said...

And if Delgado spoke his mind (and it's not like he's out there every day speaking out; he has voiced his opinions quite rarely) and the Mets were annoyed, another team would take him.

His agent could have even played up the freedom-of-speech angle. The old "free country" b/s - judge the man by his ball playing and not by his opinions, which he's entitled to - and made the Mets look really bad.

There were many other things Delgado could have done. What a shame he chose this route.

Anonymous said...

Another team probably wouldn't have taken him - there's more to this than meets the eye. He's shutting up most likely because his agent suggested all teams would require such action.

When Delgado was voicing his opinions, he was met with criticism from not just the media, but from the MLB heads also. Baseball represents America, in the eyes of many, after all ... and a united America, or their version of it (seen every 7th inning stretch) does not welcome dissent. Perhaps Toronto would be the one place he could play and keep his voice - being based in Canada and thus further off the US radar could allow for that, and once did - but they can't afford him.

The irony in all of this is the suddenly liberated media are now criticising him for his silence ... wasn't it those same reporters who earlier criticised him for his lack of support? Sometimes you just can't win.

If the guy spoke before, is he thus obligated to keep speaking? Tell me that's not what you're suggesting ... there's a can of worms there you don't want to go near. Perhaps he's comfortable with the order not to speak; perhaps he just wants to focus on baseball and not the distraction of politics. Perhaps he never intended to become a spokesman, or a known advocate when he spoke against the war (I don't remember him leading any rallies; I do remember some post-game interviews), and he's simply tired of that kind of attention. It's his choice, and it's a fair one.

After all, he could be Curt Schilling, which was, btw, an excellent point to be raised in the context of all of this.

laura k said...

It's certainly and obviously his choice. It's simply one I don't admire.

According to all the stories, this is very much Fred Wilpon's order, coming from the Mets. Major League baseball didn't get involved - the players' union would be all over that.

As far as being a leader or being obligated to keep speaking, that's what happens when you open your mouth. Not standing for GBA wasn't the first time Delgado was active. He was very active around Vieques - not just lending his name, but going down to P.R. to get involved. Aligning himself with Clemente is also a statement of pride and outspoken-ness.

Is the media now criticising him for keeping quiet? I haven't seen any of that, but maybe it's out there. Zirin, writing in The Nation, is someone who highly praised Delgado for speaking out. The Nation is alternative, leftist media, not part the sports-talk horde who was bashing him.

Amateur said...

L-girl, in case you missed it Dave Zirin was on the Inside Track on CBC last Sunday. You can listen to the show here as long as it remains the latest show (you have until Monday)!

laura k said...

Thanks Amateur!