Death in America’s Pastime
By George Goldstein
We all know there is no crying in baseball and if somehow you don’t know that saying please do yourself a favor and go watch A League of Their Own right now. On a late July day in 2015 that unwritten rule of baseball was broken in a way that no one could have expected. Wilmer Flores was born in Venezuela and the day of his 16th birthday he signed a contract with the New York Mets as an international free agent. He learned English by watching Friends while he was working his way through the Mets minor league system. He made stops in Kingsport, Brooklyn, Savannah, Port St. Lucie, Binghamton and finally he played at Triple-A with the Las Vegas 51s before being called up to the big club after five and a half years in the minor leagues. By 2015 Wilmer was an established part of the Mets roster, he would make starts at shortstop and around the infield as well as being a useful bench bat when not in the starting lineup. As the trading deadline began to roll around at the end of July that year the Mets were searching for a big bat to help them chase down the division leading Washington Nationals. Many names were floated around and on July 29th it was leaked that the Mets had agreed to a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers to exchange Wilmer and Zack Wheeler for star outfielder Carlos Gómez. The events that followed had never been seen before on a baseball field. The media leaked that a deal had been completed shortly after the Mets game began that night and by the middle of the game the entire stadium knew that Flores was no longer a Met. The fans gave Wilmer a standing ovation after his at bat in the 7th and then he went out to the field to play defense in the 8th and he was in tears. Wilmer did not think he could get traded, feeling like he would never leave the organization that he had been with for eight years at that point.1 Eventually, Wilmer was removed from the game and after it ended the team scrambled to let everyone know that no trade had happened, a medical issue with Gómez meant that Wilmer was staying in blue and orange. Two nights later would be Wilmer Flores night at Citi Field, Wilmer received standing ovations before each at bat and he drove in both Mets runs. His night was capped by his walk off solo homerun in the 11th and as he rounded third he proudly grabbed at the Mets on his chest showing that he was still with the team he called home. Then Mets manager Terry Collins best explains what went on with Wilmer that night six years ago. “You guys think these guys are stone cold robots, they’re not they are human beings who have emotions.”2 Terry drives home the fact that the players on the field may be far more athletically talented than any ordinary person. However, they are still human beings who have feelings and emotions just like the rest of us. This piece will discuss how the US government ignores that humanity as they exploit Latin America players for their labor.
Throughout the history of the United States of America this country has been exceptionally efficient at using people and their bodies in ways that remove their humanity. This usually tends to show itself in labor exploitation, while another example could be sex trafficking. The focus of this article will be on the numerous ways people have been exploited for their labor in order to achieve economic success in this country. This practice can be done on the large scale by the state or on a smaller scale when done by certain individuals or groups.
The first and most prominent time it happened in the Americas was with the practice of Chattel slavery. Africans were kidnapped from their homes throughout West Africa and transported here to be bought and sold on auction blocks in Latin America and the Colonies. The practice continued in the United States for over one hundred years and up until the end of the Civil War. While this is certainly the most obvious example, since the exploitation is being done so brazenly and out in the open, it is far from the only form of labor exploitation in this country’s history.
Labor laws were enacted in the 1900s. Until that point people were exploited for every bit of labor that they could provide. In an era before child labor laws, maximum hour laws and a number of eventually enacted workers’ rights laws. Workers were worn down to get as much out of them as possible until there were laws to protect them. This was a way of exploiting workers for their labor that was not as obvious as slavery. Yet just as with slavery, workers were being exploited solely for their labor and their humanity was ignored. This article will explore a form of exploitation that is much more similar to this second example.
Many types of people cross the border from Mexico into the United States every year, some looking for work, some are trying to find a new and better life in the US, and some are attempting to recreate their own American dream. While many others are forced here, escaping violence in their own countries or running from oppressive governments, many come to send money back home to take care of their families. People who come here looking for work are generally looked over as random people who just work on farms or in other low paying jobs. They are used for their labor and ignored whether they stay here or not. Eventually many of these people are deported, replaced by a revolving door of illegal immigrants. Since these people are relatively nameless faces they are forgotten once they are gone. They are used for their labor while they are here and then out of sight out of mind once they have been used and deported. What’s missing in this story is death. People die crossing the border because they are forced to cross into deserts and other areas that are purposefully the most dangerous. Instead of being able to cross directly from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso the implementation of prevention through deterrence forced people into the desert where the journey is often deadly. Baseball provides a different way out, with no desert involved unless you happen to be a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Baseball players do not require a trek through the desert to get from Latin America to the United States, their border cross experience usually involves a contract at 16 or 17 years old and a flight to join a minor league team. This experience is not deadly; however, the exploitation of people and labor remains the same. This article will explore why baseball players are treated so differently than other Latin American immigrants when it comes to crossing the border and entering this country. As well as how this issue is filled with the labor exploitation of bodies.
The Little League World Series (LLWS) takes place every year in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Sixteen teams come together to find out who the best little league team in the world is. These games are always on television and the players are usually asked a number of questions about their interests so that fun facts can be displayed when they come to bat or take the mound. A popular question is always who is your favorite player? In 2019, the last year the LLWS was held in its full form prior to COVID, three Latin American Major League Baseball players were voted into the top 5 most popular by the little leaguers. Javier Baez was voted number one followed by Ronald Acuña Jr. and José Altuve came in a tie for 5th place.3 The players at the Little League World Series are the young stars of the future and when they look up to people, they attempt to emulate them. When I was in Little League I looked up to David Wright and José Reyes and I wanted to be just like Tom Seaver. Here I sit, a college pitcher, it is not so crazy to believe that little leaguers want to follow their baseball dreams just as I have. For the Latin American players that requires a journey to the United States. The best baseball league in the world resides here. The championship is called the World Series for a reason; the best players play here, and there is no match elsewhere. Thus, for the little leaguers from Latin America signing with a major league team as an international free agent is the way to pursue a career in baseball. This allows them to follow in the footsteps of their idols.
While admiration of their heroes is a good thing, and the journey can be a relatively easy one if you are talented enough. The turn into exploitation begins once they arrive stateside. “Since the league’s regulations on signing players from abroad are lax, “the cost savings are as appealing as the talent,” says the former General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers academy in the Dominican Republic.4 While international free agency is a way for baseball players to freely arrive in the United States under a work visa instead of a desert journey, the players are still taken advantage of. Major League Baseball is a multi-billion-dollar industry that helps fuel the US economy. Last year MLB signed a tv agreement with ESPN at $550 million per year for 7 years and has deals of $470 million annually with Turner Sports and $730 million per year with Fox Sports.5 Only a handful of international free agents receive signing bonuses over one million dollars every year and minor league pay is abysmal. Players realistically need to make it to the major leagues to reach financial stability. Especially if they want to support their family and not just themselves. They are exploited for their labor whether they make it big or not, since they make very little unless they become extremely successful in baseball. Yet, Major League Baseball is thriving anyway.
Baseball players may have an easier time getting here than a migrant worker, but they are similarly exploited once they do arrive. The skill of being a baseball player is a legitimate way to get into this country without having to cross the border. They are able to avoid risking death in the desert or the ocean. This is the scenario in the pilot episode of the tv show The West Wing. A group from Cuba is floating towards the US on rafts and seeking political asylum. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman makes a quip to another character on the show that shows the point that this article is examining, “C.J., if one of those guys could throw a split-fingered fastball, we’d send in the USS Eisenhower”.6 While the story may be fictional, the premise is very real. Getting here is easier with a talent for baseball, “Most elite baseball players don’t face the same challenges in entering the U.S. that most immigrants face. Fair or not, their athletic skills open doors that most immigrants must kick down.”7 This is true, a player’s baseball talent gets them in the door. This is only because a successful baseball player adds to the revenue of the sport which in turn helps the US economy grow.
Even a player’s family has a more difficult time entering the United States, “There’s a human side to every diplomatic or political decision. For professional athletes who need visas to play in the United States that side can be found here: It’s becoming increasingly harder in the current political climate to bring along their families.”8 Since their family is not adding to the machine of the US economy, they are not a priority. The player gets a work visa easily, but the family members face a challenge to get a visa. The US government has shown they do not care about the humanity of the baseball players with their handling of players coming from Cuba. “The agreement envisions that Cuban players will enter the United States on temporary work visas and maintain their ties with the Cuban Baseball Federation. This means that if they are injured, or if they end their careers prematurely, they will not be able to remain in the United States and would have to return to Cuba.”9 Cuban players can come here under a recent agreement between the US and Cuban governments, however the US only did so much to allow the Cuban players to come freely. They made it so that the players could only be here while they are playing, they even agreed to allow Cuba to tax the players income while being subjected to American taxes as well. The US does not care about the player. Just the labor that they provide which adds to the revenue of the major leagues and helps fuel the US economy.
All of this shows that while it is easier for a baseball player to get to this country when coming from Latin America, the United States does not actually care to have them here. The US government just wants to exploit the labor that they can provide. Migrant workers do not have nearly as much of an effect on the US economy and therefore they are not given a clean path to get into this country. Unfortunately, this country is so good at exploiting people for its labor that it has inadvertently turned America’s pastime into another piece in the deadly puzzle that is the US Mexico border.
1 “Wilmer Flores Changed Baseball History by Crying.”
2 SNY, Terry Collins Talks about Crazy Night at Citi Field.
3 “Little League World Series Players Love Javy Baez, Stranger Things and … Sushi?”
4 Elk and Moreno, “Baseball, Latino America’s Pastime, Faces New Challenges in Age of Trump.”
5 “MLB and ESPN Agree ‘US$550m a Year’ New Rights Deal.”
6 Schlamme, “Pilot.”
7 “Immigration Is as American as Apple Pie, Baseball, and Pudge Rodriguez | Bush Center.”
8 “MLB Players Aided through Visa Process but Families Face Roadblocks.”
9 Tan, “Cuban Baseball Players Showcase Different Need for Immigration Fix.