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Dawn of a Dream: Common bond

Published September 5, 2005 1:40 am

Baseball gives Jason Mooneyham opportunity to forge new friendships by breaking down cultural, racial barriers
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Fourth in an occasional series looking at life for a first-year professional baseball player



ABOUT THE SERIES

Jason Mooneyham is a 40th-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Trying to succeed in his first year of professional baseball, he is playing first base for the Ogden Raptors in the Pioneer League. In the first installment of the series, Mooneyham told how he is living his dream if playing pro ball despite the long odds. The second explored how Mooneyham and his teammates enjoyed the comforts of home with host families. The third looked at the tiring travel schedule he and his teammates endure.

Jason Mooneyham swung through a pitch, then popped the next one into the netting of the Ogden Raptors' batting cage.

Mooneyham then stepped out of the box, shook his arms as if freeing them from a restraint, stepped back in against pitching coach Bob Welch and lined a pitch into left field. The next was a rope to center before the rookie first baseman sent a pitch crashing into the right field wall.

"Hey Mooney," gently chided Ogden hitting coach Jose Mejia. Across the way, someone in a group of Ogden's Latino ballplayers said something that produced a ripple of laughter.

"Gordito," said Mejia, echoing what he heard, with a laugh. Gordito means "little fat one," and is usually used with affection. The plumpish Mooneyham, who, ironically, has lost 11 pounds since the start of the season, blushed amid the laughter and continued to lash line drives.

"Mooney, he's a good guy," Mejia said later. "I like him very much."

Afterward, behind the batting cage, Mooneyham and Ogden's Dominican catcher, Rotsen Gil, shared a laugh.

COMMON LANGUAGE

Baseball is the common denominator among the Anglo-Americans, African-Americans, Venezuelans, Australian, Dominicans, Cuban and Samoan who make up the Ogden Raptors. The game breaks down barriers, be they cultural or racial.

The language of baseball can stop tensions from exploding into something ugly, though not always, as proved by Los Angeles Dodgers Milton Bradley and Jeff Kent.

Embracing variety is easier for some than for others.

Mooneyham's childhood while growing up in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., lacked diversity.

"Lily white," Friedlander said. "But he's the kind of kid, if you came from the moon, he'd be friends with you. They're all baseball players, and that's the only way to look at it."

Ryan Mooneyham shrugged matter-of-factly when informed of the chiding around the batting cage.

"Everybody likes Jason," he said.

In his first professional summer of baseball and one of his first experiences in such a diverse community, Mooneyham's only concern is being a good teammate.

"[Race] doesn't matter to me," he said.

If actions mean anything, then Mooneyham's words are true. Like everyone else, he hangs with his core group of friends, but his interaction with others is constant.

"I must be a cool guy or something; you have to ask them because I don't have a clue. I treat everyone the same. Some people won't talk because they don't want to. Me, I talk with everybody."

For some, though, the intermingling of races, creeds and colors - even Americans from different regions - remains an ongoing education.

Rick Taloa, a first baseman from Anaheim, can joke about being the only Samoan in professional baseball.

"I don't know of any," he said, laughing at the notion of being called a pioneer.

TALK THE TALK

Communication.

It is, in a word, necessary. Season by season, the Latino in American professional baseball is wielding more and more influence.

The ability to express oneself in English aids not only in communication with teammates, but also with the media.

"It is very important for us to speak English," Mejia said. "Very, very, very important."

Los Angeles has long had a world presence, drafting players from Japan and Korea, as well as the Caribbean region.

Mejia, a product of the Dominican Republic, played professionally for four years and has been a coach in the Dodgers organization since 1998. He and Ogden manager Juan Bustabad speak English as well as Spanish.

"What has changed is the American guys trying to learn Spanish," Mejia said. "In the dugout, when I hear the Latin guys trying to speak English and the Americans trying to speak Spanish, it's funny."

That sort of playfulness appears to keep the cultural waters calm.

"They're talented and here for a reason," Bustabad said of his Latin players. "Communication is the biggest thing for them. You've got to learn the language."

Not understanding the language can make something as simple as ordering from a vending machine, let alone a restaurant menu, difficult.

"Not knowing the language can be really tough on the Latin guys," Gil said. "It's really tough when you're hungry and you want something to eat and don't know how, it is a problem."

Gil, 21, has been in the Dodgers organization for five years and has a strong grasp of English. He still must concentrate on what is being said, but the Venezuelan has a step up on many of his contemporaries.

"It is a problem when you shop, go to the mall and have to ask what size or bigger or different color," he said. "Big problem, but easier when you play - you can learn 'I got it' or 'Get over.' "

AMERICAN ADJUSTMENT

But it is an adjustment for the American players, too.

"It was weird coming into a clubhouse where three or four languages were being spoken," said Ogden third baseman Russ Mitchell. "They live in a different type of society than we live in. Sometimes there is a clash of differences, but it has been a great experience."

Mitchell was raised in Cartersville, Ga. The self-professed country boy, "born and raised," had known nothing but white society and admitted being scared to death when he walked into his first professional clubhouse.

"People sometimes slip up and say things they really don't mean," he said. "There are misunderstandings. Sometimes the Latin players don't understand our sarcasm and jokes, and it kind of hurts their feelings a bit. But it is nothing personal. It is, I think, because they don't know our culture and the way we think."

It works both ways.

"Relations are not too hard," Gil said. "If you show respect, everything is good. Everyone has different customs."

When he was a player, Ogden owner Dave Baggot remembers that it didn't take long for the novelty of having non-English-speaking teammates to fade away.

"For two days," he said. "Then you're just teammates. The great thing about baseball, no matter who you are, where you're from or what language you speak, they all know the language of baseball.

"Our experience has been, regardless of where a player comes from, there is someone in town who does speak their language, a returned [LDS] missionary, someone."

Bustabad was 3 years old when his family left Cuba for the United States. He has an advantage of knowing the Anglo and Latin cultures. And every year, there is some smoothing over of differences, even over what might be perceived as the simplest of things.

"Every team goes through it," he said. "Music in the clubhouse. The Latins want to hear one thing and maybe Americans something else. You've got to have both sides.

"Here in Ogden, there are a lot of Mexicans. They talk the same language and our Latinos feel at home. They're always going to the Mexican restaurant to eat rice and beans, food they are used to. And our host families are great."

The adjustment, though, is not for those who speak a different language.

"People get on me because I was born in the South," Mitchell said. "That's the way I was born and raised, so it will always be like that. I was raised totally different from someone from California."

Jock humor has an edge that, to the uninitiated, can come across as insulting and harsh. No one and nothing is spared or sacred, even race and culture.

"A lot of it has to do with the tone of voice," pitcher Cory Wade said. "When people start using hand gestures or become loud, they're not kidding around. But you don't see too much of that. Rarely is it taken over the line."

Wade, a product of a biracial marriage, embraces diversity. He attended a high school in Indianapolis with an African-American majority.

"This really opens you up, even with the same race" he said. "We have black guys from the South who have completely different backgrounds. But this opens you up to changes. It's good to see and learn something new."

Wade said he is lucky in that, excluding a couple of instances playing in Georgia, he has not experienced prejudice from fans.

"I've always been around coaches and teammates who are open-minded," he said. "I've never had any serious encounters."

As Mitchell said, stereotypes learned as a kid "don't last long at all."

Still, "in certain situations," he said, "I just keep my mouth shut."

By the Numbers

Jason Mooneyham has had his ups and downs this season, with a slight dip in his production coming over the last two weeks.

* His batting average is .279, down from .295 two weeks ago.

* He has six home runs and 27 RBIs in 172 at-bats.

* His on-base percentage is a sterling .405, among the league's best.

 

 

 

 

 

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