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America’s Favorite Pastime, Part 2 of 3: Immigration in Baseball – Rewriting the Rulebook

 
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Baseball Isn’t Dangerous, Right?

Would you raft through shark-infested waters to play baseball? Would you risk being kidnapped? Would you subject another person to the possibility of death threats for the sake of allowing you to keep playing the sport? Well, for Cuban baseball players, the answer to those types of questions has overwhelmingly been “Yes!” Jose Fernandez, a star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, did indeed brave the shark-filled waters of the Straits of Florida. Can you blame him for having a huge smile on his face when he became a U.S. citizen in April? No more sharks!

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In an attempt to reach the U.S. Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin, meanwhile, was kidnapped and held for ransom during his own immigration ordeal. Most recently, 16-year-old Cuban player Lazaro “Lazarito” Armenteros saw his agents subjected to death threats over disagreements about Lazarito’s future.

 

U.S.-Cuba Relations: Not So Friendly

The common thread among most Cuban MLB players is that they experienced extremely difficult conditions at some point in their journeys to the U.S. Because of the contentious relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, for many years immigration was especially difficult for Cuban players. Except in special cases, Americans and Cubans were not permitted to travel between the two countries, so Cubans had to illegally escape (defect) in order to reach the U.S. As a result, Cuban players often faced much greater obstacles than players who emigrated from more distant countries.

 

Is Peace Around the Corner?

However, the relationship between the governments of Cuba and the U.S. has improved in recent years. In late 2014, President Obama announced that the two countries would begin to take steps toward normal diplomatic relations with each other, a drastic shift from the hostility between the two countries for over 50 years. In March, Obama even traveled to Cuba to watch an exhibition game in which the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Cuban National Team by a score of 4-1. US-cuba-handshake Many people believe that this progress between the American and Cuban governments could drastically improve conditions for Cuban players traveling to play in MLB. Let’s all hope so - the only time an immigrant should be subjected to sharks, kidnappings, or death threats is in a Hollywood film.

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Learning from The Greatest: Muhammad Ali and Athlete Activism

 

We Remember His Words More Than His Punches

In many of the obituaries written after Muhammad Ali’s death on June 3, very little was said about his most famous boxing matches. Dozens of magazines, newspapers, and Websites that usually feature very little sports content nonetheless published tributes to Ali. That’s because Ali was much more than a boxer, much more than just an athlete.

After rising to prominence as an 18-year-old Olympic gold medalist, Ali fought in some of the most important boxing matches in history, including “The Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier and “The Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman. Ali won 56 professional matches and captured the heavyweight championship three times, during a time period when boxing was still one of the most popular American sports.

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But his actions outside the ring allowed Ali to transcend sports. Ali stood up for African-American rights during the turbulent 1960s. He changed his given name from Cassius Clay, calling it a “slave name.” He also befriended Malcolm X and made frequent statements about black equality.

 

A Boxer Who Refuses To Fight?

Ali’s most important political stand, though, was his refusal to fight in the controversial Vietnam War. As a converted Muslim, Ali claimed that his religion forbade him from fighting in the war. However, the United States government found him guilty of evading his military duty and sentenced him to time in prison. As a result, Ali was stripped of his boxing titles and was unable to fight for the next three years. Because of his willingness to stand up for his beliefs, Ali likely lost several of the most successful years of his career.

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Later on in his life, after the Supreme Court had voted unanimously that Ali had been wrongfully convicted, Ali continued to stand up for his political beliefs. He also became an inspiration to millions of people. After Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, he continued to appear publicly and perform missionary work. Even at the end of his life, when he could barely speak, he showed courage in the face of his debilitating illness.

 

Courting Controversy

However, that’s not to say that Ali steered clear of controversy. On the contrary, he welcomed turmoil and conflict many times in his life. For instance, many people criticized his unwillingness to fight in Vietnam, calling him a “draft dodger.” Ali responded by saying, “I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger.” Critics also disagreed with Ali’s cockiness and tendency to insult opponents. Some civil rights activists accused Ali of preventing racial progress, pointing out that Ali often made segregationist comments.

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Even those who disagreed with Ali would have to admit that the man who many called “The Greatest” changed the way Americans viewed sports. Athletes were no longer expected to keep quiet in the face of political issues.

 

Can Anyone Compare to Him?

Since Ali, no American athlete has had a bigger impact outside of sports. But many have followed his lead in small ways. Recently, Aaron Rodgers condemned religious intolerance, and LeBron James and many other NBA players have spoken out against police brutality.

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But it’s probably safe to say that no athlete will ever have a bigger impact on society than Ali did. Even if we could combine the best traits of multiple athletes, the result still might not reach Ali’s stature. But it’s still interesting to imagine doing just that. What would the ideal modern athlete activist look like?

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Why Are Major League Baseball Players Hitting Fewer and Fewer Home Runs?

There is a power outage in Major League Baseball.

Since the late 1990s, professional players have hit fewer and fewer home runs. In 2014, there were a total of just 4,186 home runs in MLB, down from 5,692 dingers across the league in 2000.

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There are many reasons for the recent league-wide decline in power. Many people cite the league’s steroid testing, which now forces players to strengthen themselves naturally, without the aid of illegal substances. In 1998, sluggers Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire each hit over 60 home runs. Both were later discovered to be steroid cheats, as were many other hitters from their era.

However, better drug testing is only one of the causes of the drop in home runs. Other factors — including better relief pitching, new pitcher-friendly ballparks, rising strikeout totals, and increased pitcher velocity — have all played a part in dampening hitters’ power totals.

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While MLB players did manage more home runs in 2015 than they had the previous season, many fans still miss the days of prodigious power hitters like Ken Griffey, Jr., and Barry Bonds.

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Movin’ On Up: Salaries in Professional Sports

 

Ever since the dawn of professional sports in America, a few things have remained constant. For instance, fans have always filled stadiums and arenas to see their favorite teams. Additionally, outstanding players have consistently amazed their loyal fans throughout the years. And championships have always been a big deal.

The most consistent trend in professional sports is that players have constantly earned more money than the ones that came before them. Way back in the 1930s, many Americans complained when baseball superstar Babe Ruth earned $80,000 per season, more than President Hoover made at the time. Looking back, Ruth’s salary would seem like pocket change to many modern athletes.

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This year, NBA player LeBron James will earn a $24 million salary, many times more than Ruth earned in his entire career. And that doesn’t even include endorsements that will make James tens of millions of dollars more. The same is true of the top players in all the other major sports, as well. In baseball, pitcher Zack Greinke will earn over $34 million in the upcoming season. In the NFL, meanwhile, top players like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Cam Newton make more than $20 million each year.

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In the hundred years since the start of Ruth’s career, player salaries have displayed a consistently increasing rate of change. Future professional athletes should be happy to know that they’ll almost certainly make more than today’s players.

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Stronger, Faster, Better: Is There A Limit to Achievement?

 

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One hundred years ago, certain athletic feats were deemed impossible. Run a mile in less than four minutes? Sprint 100 meters in less than 10 seconds? You’d have to be crazy to think either of those feats were feasible. What about clearing a bar eight feet in the air or swimming across the entire Atlantic Ocean? No chance.

However, many athletes have since surpassed all of those feats. Many runners have broken the four-minute and 10-second marks, the high jump world record is more than eight feet, and multiple “iron-men” have swum across the ocean.

Many of these previously unthinkable achievements have been made possible by the changing physiques of athletes. Compared to a modern Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, athletes from past decades would look like runts.

The same is true in team sports, where men like LeBron James, Cam Newton, and Bryce Harper are redefining what an athlete should look like. As the NFL’s own Website says, the average player has changed “from ‘everyman’ to ‘superman.’” The median weight of an NFL guard now stands at more than 310 pounds, and those players are expected to nimbly move their feet and protect the quarterbacks behind them.

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However, despite the growth of most athletes, the optimum size to compete in other sports has caused those athletes to decrease in size. The average gymnast, for example, has shrunk from 5’3″ to just 4’9″ over the past 30 years.

Either way, whether they’re getting bigger or smaller, athletes have continually approached the sizes that will allow them to best master their disciplines. Along with other factors like advancing technology, specialized training techniques, and increased mental strength, athlete size has helped pushed the envelope of the types of feats fans can reasonably expect.

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So what will the world’s best athletes look like in 30 years? How about in 100 years? If their physiques continue to change at this rate, those athletes will bear little resemblance to the ones we watch today.

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America’s Favorite Pastime, Part 1 of 3: Immigration in Baseball – How Far Have We Come?

 

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The spring is upon us, and that means it’s time for baseball. Or, for Spanish speakers, beisbol. If you hail from Japan, it’s yakyū. Chinese-speaking players say bàngqiú, while Koreans call it yagu.  No matter what language they speak, though, people all over the world love baseball.

Long known as the “national pastime” in the United States, the sport’s global popularity has grown so much that Major League Baseball now features players from over 20 different countries. Even though kids all around the world love baseball just as much – or more – than many Americans, the best players still all strive to play in the top league in the United States. More than a quarter of the players in MLB now hail from foreign countries. Some of the game’s biggest stars – like the Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig and Japanese pitching aces Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka – have traveled thousands of miles to compete against the world’s best players.

However, life in the majors is not as easy as immigrant players like Puig, Darvish, and Tanaka sometimes make it look. In addition to getting used to the extreme difficulty of professional baseball in America, most foreign-born players must overcome language and cultural barriers in order to succeed.

For American fans, it’s important to remember that some of their favorite players are young men working hard to fulfill the same dream as millions of American immigrants before them.