Op-Ed: Embracing And Appreciating Puerto Rican Culture and Baseball



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Bill Sarno/CTLatinoNews.com
The inspiration for making a rush hour trip into downtown Hartford on a unbelievably muggy Friday night was to witness the birthday tribute the Yard Goats baseball organization was staging for one of the most respected and idolized figures in modern Puerto Rican culture and among true baseball enthusiasts: the late Roberto Clemente.
We also wanted to experience first-hand the city’s new baseball stadium.
By the time we left Dunkin’ Donuts Park, thoroughly drenched by the oppressive humidity and steady rainfall, we had acquired a greater appreciation of the local Hispanic community’s reverence for the Puerto Rico born Clemente as a role model and an inspiration, nearly 45 years after his tragic death.
There was no way to get an exact figure of how many Puerto Ricans were among the several thousand people who showed up for the ceremony and baseball game. But it must be said that there were a lot of men, women and children  throughout the stadium wearing baseball shirts bearing Clemente’s No. 21 and his name. We sort of expected this.
What my wife and I did not anticipate was that every member of the Yard Goats organization we met made a difficult evening due to heat pleasurable. Their courtesy was off the chart.  For example, they did not just point out where the elevator was, they escorted us there.
This hospitality started with the Hispanic woman who seemed to run the parking lot and made sure we got to the right area to shorten our cane-supported trek to the stadium, and was capped by the Hartford police officer who walked us across Main Street, holding up traffic for two exhausted oldies. (The 16-second count down is no longer enough for this former marathon runner to get across a four-lane avenue.)
Maybe we were treated well because we looked like somebody’s abuelos (not yet) or were impressed that I was from CTLatinoNews.com. But I really think the staff consists of real “people-people.”
We also did not expect that when my wife hesitantly sat on the bench in the home team’s dugout during the pre-game ceremonies, that rather than drawing “this is not your place” stares, she was greeted with a friendly “hello” by players and members of the Yard Goats staff. The ball players especially impressed Ellen with their courtesy and youthful good looks.
Any misgivings that were intrusive were swept away when manager Jerry Weinstein, who is more our age, arrived, greeted us warmly and sat next to us filling out his lineup card.
Overall, Dunkin’ Donuts Park is a big leap up from any big-time stadium I have visited, although my last major league football or baseball game was more than 30 years ago. The total environment, for sure, is much more fan-friendly and cleaner than Shea Stadium, where the Mets played years ago, or the original Meadowlands stadium, the former home of the football Giants. I will not compare this venue  to the old Yankee Stadium or Fenway, which are baseball shrines, although less comfortable than the Hartford minor league park.
Before the Yard Goats game started, I had chatted about Clemente Night with Maria Lino of The Latino Way, a local public relations company that works on Latino outreach for the Yard Goats. This event, celebrating what would have been Clemente’s 83rd birthday, was a follow up to a pre-season dedication unveiling of a large No. 21, his uniform number, on an outfield wall and the team’s announcement that no Yard Goat would ever wear that number.
Despite  local meteorologists  warning that nasty thunderstorms were approaching and reports of traffic jams due to a nearby concert, I was determined to get to Dunkin’ Donuts Park, a place we had never been, but heard  good things.
 Maria Lino, who was one busy Latina that night, helped us get to the club area and then other stadium staffers directed us to the media room. I admit, compared to the rest of the stadium, this area seemed kind of cramped.
We were looking to check in with Jeff Dooley, media relations director. He was not there, but a Hispanic man who saw my CTLatinoNews.com press credentials started giving me instructions in Spanish. My wife quickly advised him that I was Italian. I don’t speak that language either. So this gentlemen scurried to the field with us trailing badly to look for Dooley. We begged off going down the stairs.
Eventually, we met Dooley back in the press area. He greeted us warmly and had a young man to bring us down to the field so we could be near the pre-game ceremony.
Funny thing, when I asked our guide where he lived, the Avon-Old Farms student said he was from Simsbury and explained where that town is in relation to Hartford. Maybe he thought we were from Latin America, not Farmington.
We had to go through the locker room area with my wife jokingly covering her eyes. She missed checking out the giant washing machines used to keep the players uniforms bright.
Once we got to the field, we knew what Dante’s Inferno was like. It was so hot and humid that my notebook literally turned to mush as I tried to jot down some notes.
I quickly recognized a few people, such as Univision host Ana Alfaro (El Show de Analeh), state Rep. Angel Arce and Mayor Luke Bronin.
Then there was Rep. Geraldo Reyes of Waterbury, who wore a black authentic looking Pirates shirt with Clemente’s No. 21. I had met him previously at the Borinqueneers monument ground-breaking in New Britain. We chatted briefly and I said you look like a “very big fan of Clemente.” He replied in a decisive tone, “very big.”
I started to ask Reyes  if he ever had seen Clemente play in person, knowing that anyone under 50 most likely had not. A bit older, I did see the Pirate star in action a couple of times during the late 1960s at Shea Stadium against the Mets.
Anyway, before Reyes could reply, he was summoned to the microphone as the ceremony’s first speaker. What briefly surprised me is that the Waterbury legislator referred to the Hall of Famer as Roberto Clemente Walker, respecting his maternal surname. I had never heard him identified this way while following baseball decades ago.
What I do remember is broadcasters identifying him as “Bobby Clemente.” But more than that, I remember distinctly that the Pirates had a guy with the laser arm stationed in right field and woe to opposing base runners who took liberties with the accuracy of his throws.
Arce focused on Clemente, the humanitarian who would ultimately lose his life on New Year’s Eve, 1972, in the tragic crash of an airplane loaded with relief supplies bound for Nicaragua. “He taught us to do things the right way,” said the Puerto Rican legislator.
Other tributes to Clemente were delivered by Hartford Councilman James Sanchez and Mayor Luke Bronin, as well as a young woman, who Maria later identified for me as Abigail Negron. Meanwhile, three young Miss Puerto Ricos stood behind the speakers and I remember the oldest waving a Puerto Rican flag boldly as the mayor spoke.
Then there was a dance performance in the outfield by a large troupe of young Latinas from XDance Studios in Hartford. The girls also were featured in a video, Yard Goats en El Barrio, that had been shown on the scoreboard screen earlier. I give the dancers credit for an energetic and entertaining routine on a hot evening.
By that time, I was soaked and my photo-taking was severely compromised from a combination of perspiration and the increasing rain, so we retreated to the air-conditioned club area, where we moved a bit of furniture to create a comfortable nook for ourselves.
This is when I had to reward Ellen, definitely not a big sports fan, for her patience by providing her requisite game day refreshments, nachos and a large pretzel with lots of mustard. Unfortunately, the game was curtailed early due to the rain and we did not get a chance to sample some of the other food offering, which we have heard people praise.
One thing that was noticed in the club area and on the spacious main level was that this is a very noisy place. The tumult was almost deafening as people of all ages enjoyed themselves. In some areas, like the club level, the volume seemed to be boosted by the ever-present plastic cups of beer that adults were holding, I suppose to keep cool.
The din was so great in the mini-living room we set up inside the enclosed lounge that it was hard to pick up what was taking place on the field.
Suddenly, our respite was interrupted when Ellen saw a young woman (Gabriella Xavier) singing on the field and assumed it was the national anthem. She promptly alerted me to stand up and put my hand over my heart. She said, “We (meaning America) really need this very much now,” referring to a renewed awareness that we all are part of one nation.
Much of the clamor continued from the bar area, where most people did not know what was happening and we struggled to hear what was being sung, and I wondered why some people were more attentive to their beers than what was happening on the infield.
When the song stopped, we sat down, then quickly rose again when a military person, later identified as Sgt. First Class Irving Cortez, began singing  the “Star Spangled Banner.” This time, the crowd grew a bit quieter, and the words were clearer.
It turned out the first song was La Borinquena, the anthem of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
My wife was right, with what is happening on the streets of this nation, this is a good time to honor our real national symbols, as well as to respect what is important to the many cultures that comprise the American tapestry.
And what is more American than baseball. Despite all its past faults, including racism and drug abuse, the game has been a place where people like Roberto Clemente Walker from Puerto Rico can rise to fame and inspire others. And essentially isn’t this ongoing assimilation of diverse populations part of what makes America great?