SPORTS OF THE TIMES
Published: July 21, 2004
Delgado Makes a Stand by Taking a Seat
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
BEGINNING tonight, the Yankees will see a lot of the Toronto Blue Jays. The two teams will play 19 times in the final three months of the season. The Yankees will also see a lot of the Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado; they just won't see him in the middle of the seventh inning.
Though Delgado is having an off year, he remains one of the most respected players in Major League Baseball. Last March when the United States invaded Iraq, Delgado, in his own quiet way, said that for him, enough was enough. He had stood for "God Bless America" through the 2003 season but vowed not to do so this season. In an act of a simple, mostly unnoticed, protest against the war, Delgado, a 32-year-old first baseman, has chosen to remain in the dugout while "God Bless America" is played.
I'm curious to see the reaction to Delgado at Yankee Stadium, which George Steinbrenner has turned into a paean to patriotism. Some teams, including Toronto, have stopped playing "God Bless America," which was inserted into games after the attacks of Sept. 11. Most teams now play the song only on weekends or holidays.
The Yankees play it during the seventh-inning stretch at every home game. That includes tonight, when they begin a two-game series with Toronto. Delgado will probably not be standing on the field.
"I'm not trying to get anyone mad," he said Monday in Oakland, where the Blue Jays were playing the Athletics. "This is my personal feeling. I don't want to draw attention to myself or go out of my way to protest. If I make the last out of the seventh inning, I'll stand there. But I'd rather be in the dugout."
Good for him. In the world of mainstream professional sports, where cookie-cutter athletes rarely take a stand on any issue, let alone one as highly charged as a war, Delgado is a rarity. He is unafraid to question a ritual that he does not agree with. Delgado's protest this season has been so quiet, so subtle that Bud Selig, the baseball commissioner, didn't know about it until I called him to talk about it on Monday.
"When you called me today you actually startled me," he said from his office in Milwaukee. Selig later read a statement that he had prepared on Delgado's action.
"I'm in the process of getting more information, but eventually I would like to sit down and discuss it with Carlos," Selig said. "I am very sensitive to this kind of issue, both as a matter of respect for our country and for one's right to express his opinion."
I'll be watching to see how Selig handles this.
It was Selig, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, who ordered all teams to play "God Bless America," injecting a political statement into the games.
"I don't honestly think that politicizes the issue," Selig said, calling the playing of the anthem a matter of respect. "After all, we do have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."
With all due respect to Selig, once "God Bless America" became a political statement, a player like Delgado became free to express his own political views.
His well-thought-out opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is just one part of a larger issue for him. Delgado, a native of Puerto Rico, sees his protest as consistent with his earlier opposition to the Navy's use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a weapons testing ground. In many ways, the United States military waged a form of war for 60 years on the tiny island, using a 900-acre site for bombing exercises.
Delgado, who grew up on the mainland, remembers older residents telling stories about bomb explosions.
"They lived in that target practice area for 60 years," he said. "They tell you stories of how, in the middle the night, a bomb blew up. I never experienced it, but I can imagine it. I can see why you might be a little hostile from time to time."
Delgado, who was signed by Toronto when he was 16, spent two years involved in the movement to force the Navy to stop using Vieques as a testing site. The military ended the exercises on May 1, 2003. Now, Delgado and others want the United States government to help clean up the economic, psychological and health messes it left behind. He has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars toward that effort and solicited other Puerto Rican celebrities to join the campaign against the aftereffects.
"It's still in the environment, it's still in the ground, it's still in the water." he said. "That's why we've got the highest cancer rate of any place in Puerto Rico."
Delgado doesn't feel the troops should be in Iraq, much as he felt the United States should not have been in Vieques. He won't stand in support of movements he does not believe in.
Delgado's decision to ignore "God Bless America" has the support of the Toronto organization, even after he said last week that he would not agree to a trade in this, the final year of his contract. Paul Godfrey, the team's president and chief executive, supports Delgado even though he disagrees with his antiwar position. Godfrey criticized the Canadian government for not sending troops to Iraq and was the force behind the team's decision in 2003 to play "God Bless America'' at the Skydome, which the team has now stopped.
"I have no problem with what Carlos did," he said in a telephone interview from Toronto. "Carlos didn't hold a placard and stop traffic. He didn't impede the game because he's not that kind of guy. He's been total class in the community almost from the day he arrived."
Even Blue Jays catcher Gregg Zaun, who strongly supports the war effort (he vowed never to buy another record by the Dixie Chicks after they criticized President Bush), supports Delgado.
"He's a pretty quiet guy and it's been quiet," Zaun said. Delgado has never raised the issue with teammates, Zaun said.
"He has his opinion and he's decided to use that as his platform," Zaun said. "Whether or not I agree with him, I salute him."
Even as he talked about his silent protest this week, Delgado emphasized that he didn't want the demonstration to become a distraction. At the same time, Delgado said he was not backing down from any criticism that comes his way. "It takes a man to stand up for what he believes," Delgado said Monday.
"Especially in a society where everything is supposed to be politically correct."
"I am not pro-war; I'm antiwar," he said. "I'm for peace."
Take that out to the ballgame.