Sunday 25 February 2018

Eamon Sweeney: Americas honour home-run heroics

Eamonn Sweeney

Big Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants achieved something truly remarkable when he hit his third home run of the night against the Detroit Tigers in the first game of the World Series on Tuesday.

Baseball's grand finale has been on the go since 1903 and in all that time only three players had hit three homers in a game before Sandoval let rip. Babe Ruth did it for the New York Yankees in 1926 and 1928, Reggie Jackson for the same team in 1977 and Albert Pujols for the St Louis Cardinals last year.

It's like scoring a hat-trick in a World Cup final and what made it even more extraordinary is that the first two were hit off the pitching of the fearsome Justin Verlander who'd just won the American League Most Valuable Player award and the Cy Young Award for the best pitcher in baseball. Sandoval's feat inspired the Giants to an 8-3 win on the night and at the time of writing they lead the best-of-seven series 2-0.

After the match, the man whose 5' 11", 17-stone frame has earned him the nickname Kung Fu Panda excitedly revealed that the president had tweeted his congratulations. But he wasn't talking about Barack Obama, he was talking about the President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez. Sandoval is just one of nine Venezuelans in a World Series whose 20 foreigners out of 50 rostered players is a new record.

And while the recently re-elected Chavez may have replaced Fidel Castro in the demonology of the American right wing, his distaste for the US doesn't extend to its greatest game. He's said that he'd prefer to have been an MLB star than a president. "It was my dream. I would have personally preferred to do that . . . I went to the army because I wanted to be a baseball player. I became a soldier, then Venezuela just shattered -- but I am still the young player who wanted to play in Yankee Stadium."

The president's love of baseball is shared by the population of Venezuela who've seen the number of major leaguers from the country soar from 19 in 1994 to the current total of 66. Perhaps that improvement has something to do with Chavez, who's been a notably sports-friendly president since being elected in 1999, setting up a sports ministry which has built 2,000 new sports facilities, building nine new stadiums so the country could host the Copa America in soccer, requiring all companies to give their employees 30 minutes of exercise three times a week and making large companies put one per cent of their profits into a national sports fund.

The results have been startling. The traditionally terrible national soccer team, the only one in South America never to qualify for the World Cup, currently lies in an automatic qualifying spot for the tournament in Brazil. And Venezuela's Pan American Games medal tally soared from 40 in 1999 to 71 last year.

Mind you, the Dominican Republic, which also has nine players in the World Series, is an even more remarkable success story baseball-wise. With a population of just ten million to Venezuela's 29 million, the country has 95 Major League players, including last year's home run hero Pujols. There are another 46 Central and South American players in the league who hail from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia and the little island of Curacao which has four major leaguers from a population slightly smaller than that of Wexford.

The distinct Latin tinge to both the Series and the league in general comes at a time when the Republican Party have attempted to use the levels of Hispanic immigration into the USA as a political football and used much hateful rhetoric in doing so.

Here's hoping that, as Muhammad Ali once gave courage to those involved in the Civil Rights struggle, the deeds of Sandoval and the other Hispanic heroes will give a boost to those who have made the arduous journey north in search of a better life for themselves and their children.

It's the kind of journey we know plenty about in this country.

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