Baseball has come a long way

When I was first signed, life in the minor leagues was extremely difficult for Latin players. I arrived in the minors in 1958, in Tampa, Fla., and there was a really bad racial problem. Coming from the Dominican Republic, we had never experienced anything like that.

It was hard for us (the Latin players) to understand why we and the black players had to live and eat separately from the white players. The only time the guys from the Dominican, Venezuela, Cuba and Puerto Rico were with the white guys was when we were on the field. When the games were over, they would go to the hotels while we would stay with host families -- and they had to be black host families in black neighborhoods.

Once I got to the majors with the Giants in 1960, at least we could stay together as a team: white, black and Latin players. But as far as the general atmosphere, that didn't start to change until at least the mid-'60s.

One episode I remember clearly in the early '60s was when we were in Houston for a series against the Colt .45s, and Orlando Cepeda wanted to go to the movies to see "Cleopatra." I warned him that it might not be so easy; he got a little angry at me and went off by himself. I stayed at the hotel. About 45 minutes later, I heard a knock on the door and thought it was a maid coming to clean the room. I opened the door, and there was Orlando with a tear coming down from each eye. They wouldn't let him into the theater. I couldn't help laughing, and then he got even angrier. I said, "Don't blame me, I told you so."

In baseball, the Giants were one of the first teams active in Latin American scouting. In the D.R. in the '50s, the Giants had what they called a "bird dog" scout named Horacio Martinez, who signed a lot of guys, including the Alou brothers, Elias Sosa and me. He was working for the team's Latin American scouting department, and certainly, the Giants seemed to be ahead of the game on that front, along with the Pirates and Dodgers.

In my case, I'm glad I was signed by the Giants and came up to the big leagues in San Francisco. When I was brought up, the Giants already had guys like Felipe Alou and Orlando Cepeda, and star black players such as Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. That was very important to me because I didn't feel like I was alone as a player of color.

That said, not everything was easy in the San Francisco clubhouse. With the guys I mentioned on the team, there was a clash of cultures so to speak, and this was manifested in 1964 with our manager Alvin Dark, who had gone as far as banning Spanish in the clubhouse, and later told Newsday writer Stan Issacs that "Negro and Spanish players aren't as sharp mentally." I recently read an article in which Dark claims he was misquoted. I really don't know if that's true or not. He denies it. The only thing I can add to that is I know it cost him his job.

I never thought that, 41 years later, something like the Larry Krueger comments about "brain-dead Caribbean hitters" on the radio could happen. I was completely shocked by that. I mean completely shocked. In today's baseball world, I never thought I would hear something like this guy talking about the players and especially about Felipe Alou in those terms. Both Felipe and the players deserve more respect than that.

But aside from isolated incidents like that one, today's players are treated as true superstars, and I would say they're treated equally as the rest -- like human beings. We were not treated as human beings. Now, they're respected by the fans, owners and everyone else.

I'm very happy about being one of the pioneers that paved the way for today's generation. I know that Ozzie Virgil (the first Dominican in the major leagues) is happy about it; I know Roberto Clemente would be happy, and I know the Alou brothers are also proud of it.

As far as the World Baseball Classic is concerned, I think it's a great thing for baseball. My only reservation is whether they'll be in top shape at this point in the year. I'm not sure if the timing is quite right for the event. But that aside, I know it's going to be great. Here in the D.R., people are very excited about it because we know the Dominican team will be one of the favorites. We also know that there are other tough teams in the tournament, particularly the U.S., but we're pretty good and I know our guys will give 100 percent. I just hope no one gets hurt.

I wish there had been something like this when I was playing. I would have participated, and I know a lot of others would have, too. I would have given it my all.

Juan Marichal won 243 games in a 16-year major league career with the Giants, Red Sox and Dodgers, and was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1983. The "Dominican Dandy" is a commentator for ESPN Deportes' television broadcasts of the Dominican Winter League, as well as MLB playoffs starting in 2006. He also will be a color commentator for ESPN's television coverage of the World Baseball Classic.

David Venn is a news editor for ESPNdeportes.com.