|Saturday, August 25
Updated: September 4, 5:33 PM ET
What's in a flag?
By Stephen D. Mosher
Special to ESPN.com
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- I've spent three of the past five days walking the grounds and moving among the crowd at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. I saw Danny Almonte's perfect game on Aug. 18 and 12 more games before the semifinal game between the boys from the Bronx, N.Y. and Oceanside, Calif.
Instead of simply grumbling under their breath about "those foreigners" from the Bronx, spectators and fans are casually saying in full voice, "If that kid's 12, then I'm Randy Johnson." And, "If they can't speak English then they should go back to where they came from." The ignorance of people making such comments extends even so far as calling the Puerto Rican flag "that communist Cuban flag!"
All of this overt racism springs from the continued amazing success of the Baby Bronx Bombers, their star pitcher, Danny Almonte, and the fact that they are all brown-skinned children. Never mind that nine of them were born in the Bronx and have lived here all their lives. The problem is that they just don't look like "us."
Lance Van Auken, media relations director for Little League Baseball, has repeatedly addressed the issue over the past week about the alleged violations by the Rolando Paulino Little League. He even went on ESPN's radio show Friday morning to discuss the matter.
Van Auken continues to assert that the records of this particular Little League teams may be the most heavily scrutinized in Little League's history. He has even reported that Little League has received many emails from around the country that, in his words, are nothing more than "thinly veiled racism."
Nevertheless, the rumors keep flying.
The Orlando Sentinel reported Friday that among the Apopka contingent at Williamsport, "parents and other supporters say they want Little League to provide all of the other teams an official answer to their concerns." Well, Little League has.
Thursday night in the fog, as the New York faithful marched out of Lamade Stadium with whistles and drums blaring, flags waving and joyful signing, I saw two children with their flags bravely displayed, looking down on the field as ESPN interviewed the managers and players. In the quiet of the night, it was clear just how much being of Dominican heritage matters to them.
The photographs I took of them also show how tired they are of the whole thing.
Most Latino immigrants living in the United States would rather be back home; but in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti, poverty rules the lives of generations. So they make their way to the land of opportunity -- legally or not. These immigrants are the ones who pick our vegetables, clean our houses, work in the garment factories and in fast food restaurants, struggling just to get by and send some money back to the families left behind.
These immigrants are the ones who are routinely subjected to racial profiling by the police. These immigrants are the ones who are ridiculed in the public schools because they need a little extra help in English as a Second Language programs that are intended to help them assimilate into "our" society. When they get confused and speak to each other in Spanish or Creole, they are labeled as troublemakers.
These are the people who cram together in the Bronx and Washington Heights. And they struggle to rise from desperate circumstances in the valleys of central California and in the farmland of Texas. And, yes, these are the migrant farm workers of Apopka and Belle Glade Florida.
The Little League World Series is always about baseball and kids and fun and celebration. But for some it is also a rare chance to stand up and proclaim their identities to the world.
International sporting events are almost always marked by flag-waving and politics. Just last year Kathy Freeman attained hero status for Australia by winning the women's 400-meter run. After her victory she ran around the track in Sydney with both the Australian and the Aboriginal flags held high. In that glorious moment, it was difficult to remember the way many white Australians reacted to the first time she waved the Aboriginal flag in the 1995 Commonwealth Games. A few days later, the United States 4 x 100 men's relay team showed what many perceived to be a callous disregard for the significance of the Stars and Stripes. Many viewed their apology as insincere.
So what about the flags at Williamsport?
The situation is very complicated this year. All the players from Guam are United States citizens, even though they will not be allowed to vote in elections. At Williamsport their national anthem was "The Star Spangled Banner." The players from Saudi Arabia are United States citizens living abroad. At Williamsport their national anthem was "The Star Spangled Banner." The team from Mexico comes from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas. In fact, several of the players go to school in Brownville. The team from Panama comes from a country, a portion of which -- the Canal Zone -- was governed by the United States for most of the 20th century. And that's just the so-called International Bracket.
In addition to the team from the Bronx, the United States bracket shows just how complicated national identity has become. The team from Oceanside, Calif., a truly diverse group, reflects the fact that Mexico is just a few miles to the south and that an enormous influx of immigrants from Asia have chosen the United States as their new home.
Even the team from Apopka hails from a rural community in central Florida with a large population of migrant farm workers from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin countries.
But out in the open, on the fairgrounds and in Howard J. Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums, the "official" flags are the Stars and Stripes. The school children of Williamsport have decorated most of the trashcans on the Little League grounds to celebrate those countries that have Little League programs. I counted at least 24, but there a probably more. They are charming and usually quite informative, but how many of us ever take the time to inspect or read the trashcan?
The true celebration of diversity comes from the people themselves. The contingent from Curacao has been so persistently enthusiastic and noisy that children can't resist flocking around them, joining in the fun. And people are learning about baseball playing boys all of whom want to be Andruw Jones, but can also speak about their hopes in five languages. Who among traditional white Americans can make that claim? Who among us even knew Papiamento was something one spoke?
The boys from Japan once again showed a wonderful sense of humor, generosity, discipline and respect. They even made the effort to introduce themselves on ESPN speaking English, reading their lines phonetically as a sign of respect for their hosts at Williamsport.
And so might we wish to reconsider the marvelous teams from all over the world, including the team from the Bronx? Can't we be generous too and try to understand that to these young men and their parents and supporters, the Little League World Series is more than just fun and games?
The team from Oceanside -- players as well as coaches -- understood. In spite of cell phone technology alerting them to the fact that a runner missed second that led to their appeal, when they lost the appeal and the game, they were truly ambassadors of sportsmanship.
It's been a little over a decade since Chris Drury led the Trumbull, Conn., team to the Little League title. It's been only eight years since Sean Burroughs towered over the opposition and hurled Long Beach, Calif., to back-to-back victories. I don't recall these young men being suspected as over-age cheats. I do know they were celebrated as American heroes. I also know they were white.
Danny Almonte deserves the same kind of admiration. This painfully shy boy from the poor mountain community of Moca, Dominican Republic, has woven magic these past two weeks. His teammates support him with a work ethic and a pride in what they do that is exceptional. They are the living embodiment of the Little League motto: Character, Courage, Loyalty. They and their parents and aunts and uncles and neighbors have endured the long bus ride from the Bronx and through half of Pennsylvania to have just one moment in the sun. They are basking in their heritage. They are reveling in being Latino. They are celebrating with a spirit seldom seen at sporting events in the United States.
Instead of questioning who they are, we should take the time to understand that they are helping all of us in redefining what it means to be American.
But we should also do more than just learn from them or respect them. We should love them for that.
Stephen D. Mosher is chairman of the Sport Studies department at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.