Immigration is as American as Apple Pie, Baseball, and Pudge Rodriguez

An Essay by Andrew Kaufmann, Digital Editor of The Catalyst

Like baseball, immigrants are an important part of the American fabric.  Major League Baseball teams embrace this diversity, helping their players make an impact on the field as well as in their communities. What can we learn from baseball and its approach to players born outside the United States?

Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus shares a moment with a young fan at Texas Rangers Fan Fest, January 20, 2018. (via Twitter @TexasRangers)

Baseball courses through the veins of America and her history. U.S. Presidents throw out first pitches to celebrate times of prosperity and to galvanize a nation during trying times. Its players are icons of Americana, from the slugging Hank Aaron to the tough-as-nails-Texan Nolan Ryan. And the issues it faces are the same challenges we face as Americans: from race relations in the Jackie Robinson era to cultural diversity debates today.

The heated debate we are having over Immigration policy is no exception. While immigrants no longer funnel through New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty, there are citizens who would beg to differ with Lady Liberty: Do we really want your tired, your poor, your huddled masses?

Economic and security concerns are generally cited as the top reasons for strict limitations on immigration: We're told that immigrants take our jobs, burden our infrastructure, and threaten our safety. But cultural uneasiness simmers below the surface. A study from the Public Religion Research Institute reports that 41 percent of Americans feel that things have changed so much they feel like a stranger in their own country, while 55 percent of Americans believe that our way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence.

But Major League Baseball(MLB) teams haven’t shied away from cultural diversity. Rather, they’ve embraced it.

A Major League Baseball clubhouse is the epitome of a melting pot (or stew pot, if you prefer that analogy). In fact, a MLB clubhouse is more diverse than the U.S. population at large. Thirty percent of major leaguers on 2017 opening day rosters were born outside of the 50 United States. Those 259 players are mostly immigrants, with the exception of the 17 players from the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

If you played on the Texas Rangers in 2017, you could have enjoyed a conversation in English, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Dutch, or even Papiamentu.

With such diversity, how do teams stay a cohesive unit?  How do they help the foreign-born players thrive in their new environments?

A Major League Baseball clubhouse is the epitome of a melting pot (or stew pot, if you prefer that analogy). In fact, a MLB clubhouse is more diverse than the U.S. population at large.

Ivan Rodriguez: catcher, Latino, community member, Hall of Famer

I had a chance to sit down with former Texas Ranger catcher and Baseball Hall of Famer Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, who shared his experiences as a Latin baseball player.  Since he was born in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, Rodriguez enjoyed the benefits of being a U.S. citizen and could travel to and from the mainland without a passport. Culturally, however, he was a Latino who faced the same challenges of acclimating to a foreign land that an immigrant would.

Ivan Rodriguez with his Baseball Hall of Fame plaque, July 30, 2017. (via Texas Rangers Facebook)

“I came from Puerto Rico, and obviously we are part of the U.S.," Rodriguez said. "We have a mandatory English class at school. But even with that, we still have some difficulties speaking the language and we come to a country that we don’t know much about. I didn’t know much about it.”

As a club, the Rangers clearly felt that learning the English language was an important step in a player’s development.

“At the time there were a lot of Latin players on the big league club and in the minor leagues. We had coaches who spoke Spanish and they taught us to speak English really quick. We had a coach named Orlando Gomez, and his wife Nilsa gave us classes every day in the hotel for an hour. Mandatory.

“You know you have to be a team, and you have to communicate with your teammates.  As the catcher I have to communicate with every single guy, no matter where they come from.”

But Rodriguez also realized that the opportunity before him was about more than winning pennants – it was about being an influential part of the American culture and a Texas icon, even as a Latino.

“We have an opportunity to come to America and become a big league baseball player, and if you ask me, or if you ask anybody else, that was everybody’s dream. Just to be here and play baseball. To try to be the best person, the best guy that you can to help in the community,” Rodriguez said.

“We have an opportunity to come to America and become a big league baseball player, and if you ask me, or if you ask anybody else, that was everybody’s dream. Just to be here and play baseball. To try to be the best person, the best guy that you can to help in the community.”
-- Ivan Rodriguez

The Hall of Famer believes strongly in the American dream. As a Latino, he recognizes the good fortune he’s had.

Ivan Rodriguez signs an autograph at Texas Rangers Fan Fast, January 20, 2017. (via Texas Rangers Facebook)

“I think there’s nothing better than being here [in the U.S.], to be honest with you. Everything that we have, the life that we live here, and all these opportunities that we have here.  Just being here… everything that this country did for me and my family, I really appreciate.

“It’s an honor knowing that I came from a very small island, and I came here and established my life here. I have three kids born here in America, and I mean, it’s just great.”

How we can learn from 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. But once they are here, like other cultural outsiders, they have to adjust to a new world.

Fair or not, [professional baseball players'] athletic skills open doors that most immigrants must kick down. But once they are here, like other cultural outsiders, they have to adjust to a new world.

Cliques famously exist within baseball clubhouses, often drawn along cultural lines. These cultural lines disappear on the field, however. The Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series with a star second baseman who honed his game playing in the street in Venezuela and a star pitcher from rural Virginia.

Justin Verlander and Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros with the Commissioner's Trophy after winning the World Series, November 1, 2017. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

On the field, players find a common language: baseball. They find a common purpose: winning championships. Off the field, teams educate players and train them for success.

Baseball teams today evaluate their players based on their ability to help the team  no matter where they are from.  Every time a new player joins a roster, he brings a little bit of a new flavor into the mix. Successful teams embrace that new flavor, and make it a part of the family.

At the same time, that new player learns the traditions of the team he has joined.  During their American League Championship runs, for example, the Texas Rangers celebrated with "claw and antler" hand signals to symbolize strength and speed; Venezuelan Elvis Andrus and Mississippian Mitch Moreland are as culturally diverse as possible, but both happily celebrated using the common team language and tradition.

As Americans, we too are historically stronger when we embrace the multitude of cultures in our midst.  We learn lessons from each other while our music, art, and food pick up flavors from each other.  America’s culture is influential worldwide – strengthened, not weakened, by its hodgepodge nature.

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