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Sports: Latin America's Game

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It’s a breezy Wednesday evening at Nelson W. Wolff Stadium as the San Antonio Missions get set to square off against the Corpus Christi Hooks. The somewhat subdued crowd is typical for a minor-league baseball game, and consists primarily of families both young and old, with sprinkles of gruff national pastime aficionados mixed in. The manicured field and clean façade of the stadium help it live up to its designation as the “crown jewel of the Texas league” and the “Shea Stadium of the minors.” As the players take the diamond, the atmosphere is much more country than hip-hop, although PA announcer Stan Kelly isn’t nearly as annoying as he is during Spurs games.

When the Missions eventually come up to bat, each to a personally selected bit of “theme music,” it quickly becomes apparent that a handful of their players are into reggaeton, an aural sign of the young, Latino presence in the game. After Jason Bourgeois walks, Venezuela native Guillermo Quiroz brings him in with a double to put the Alamo City on the board 1-0. The Missions score again on a single from Bourgeois in the bottom of the 7th, before blowing the game open in the 8th with 5 runs for a final score of 7-1. Top Missions prospect Wladimir Balentien kicked off the final scoring barrage by crossing home, and, after the game, reflected on his journey to the States via baseball.

A native of Curacao, an island off the coast of Venezuela, the 22-year-old Balentien began playing the game as a young boy. In 2000, at the age of 16, he was signed by Seattle Mariners scout Karel Williams and was soon ushered into their farm system. “I think it’s a blessing that you find so many Latinos in the game today, because everywhere you look they are doing a good job,” shares Balentien in his native tongue. “Now people are searching out Latino players because they know they can help their team.”

Standing at 6 feet 2 inches and weighing 190 pounds (with plenty of pop in his bat), Balentien is one of six Latin American players on the Missions roster. He admits to having an affinity for reggaeton (“Me encanta,” he says), and lists Boston Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez as his favorite player. “He’s a tremendous batter,” Balentien says, “and I’m always trying to analyze his swing.” Our chat soon turns towards Detroit Tigers first-base coach Andy Van Slyke, who earlier in the day was chastised by the national sports media for some questionable comments he directed towards Ozzie Guillen, the often-controversial manager of the MLB-champion Chicago White Sox.  

“`Guillen’s` a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve,” said Van Slyke on Sporting News Radio. “He is, if you want to call it, `a` typical Latin baseball player. I don’t believe that it’s true for all Latinos, but a lot of people’s perception is that Latinos are hot-headed. He has certainly shown that he gets a little upset and a little excited about the littlest, silliest things.”  Latinos in the major leagues have weathered these types of descriptions since the 1950s, when pioneers like Minnie Minoso, Orlando Cepeda, and Roberto Clemente battled prejudice on and off the field.

For Balentien, Van Slyke’s comments were not necessarily offensive, considering the impoverished beginnings of many Latin American players and what they have on the line. “First off, Latino players come to this country to try to bring their families forward `socially and economically` and then themselves forward,” says Balentien. “I imagine that’s where the spirit and energy comes from, to get here, show the desire and will to work hard and bring their families forward.”

As Latinos continue to become a stronger force in the majors, both fans and the league sometimes struggle to adjust. Alex Rodriguez is still the highest-paid player in the game, yet most Latin American prospects are economically preyed upon with a “boatload” mentality; teams are being forced to learn Spanish or slowly hire staff who specifically handle “Latino Affairs,” and even Jose Canseco gets props for revealing the steroid era. What you see in the Missions, at least after the first few glances, is a young team that blends Atlanta rap, Texas-centric country, and Caribbean reggaeton whenever it comes up to bat, and somehow, it all makes sense. l

Next up for San Antonio is a three-game series against the Tulsa Drillers. Visit Samissions.com for more information.

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