Carlos Delgado and the Less-Comfortable Legacy
Earlier this season, the Toronto Blue Jays honoured former star player Carlos Delgado by adding his name to the “Level of Excellence” along the rafters of the Skydome, in a fitting tribute to a player who put up consistent all-star numbers over many seasons with the sometimes truly dismal Blue Jays of the 90s and 2000s. But among the many individual accolades that Delgado was remembered for, notably absent was any significant discussion of the fact that Delgado was an outspoken advocate for peace.
To be more precise, Delgado opposed wars of imperialism and injustice. The Puerto Rican athlete was an activist against the U.S. occupation of his homeland, taking particular exception to the fact that the U.S. navy tested conducted bombing practice off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which left the area physically and socially devastated, and which led to the killing of a civilian in 1999 by an errant bomb. After the killing, Delgado connected with Ismael Guadalupe of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and got involved in the demonstrations against the Navy in Puerto Rico and the United States. Under pressure from Delgado and others, the Navy ceased the bombings, but the mess they left remained: “you’re dealing with health, with poverty, with the roots of an entire community, both economically and environmentally,” Delgado said. “This is way bigger than just a political or military issue. Because the military left last year and they haven’t cleaned the place up yet.”
The very fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony is one that is rarely discussed; indeed, the self-proclaimed beacon of world freedom is a direct colonial power in an era where imperialism is typically more carefully concealed as “humanitarian intervention.” Delgado, like the many Puerto Ricans with whom he demonstrated during the Navy-Vieques Protests in the early 2000s, did not consider the occupation benign.
But Delgado’s activism and awareness was even broader than that. Understanding that imperialism was a system, he saw it at work in George Bush’s post-9/11 wars, especially in the occupation of Iraq, which he called “the stupidest war ever.” Delgado quite rightly recognized that, in the early 2000s, professional sports was a key arena for building patriotic consent to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; suddenly, every ballpark in Major League Baseball was directing its fans and players to sing “God Bless America,” and pay tribute to the dead of 9/11 and the soldiers killed in American wars. Delgado refused to participate, staying in the dugout or the dressing room during the singing.
“It’s a terrible thing that happened on 9/11. It is a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever… You’ve been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at? You’ve been looking for over a year. Can’t find them. I don’t support that. I don’t support what they do. I think it’s just stupid… I’m not pro-war. I’m anti-war. I’m for peace.”
He was booed heartily by fans across the league and especially in New York. But as he put it, the simple fact that you are a celebrity athlete does not mean that you cease to be “part of society.” Carlos Delgado, despite intense pressure from the media, the fans, and no doubt some members of the Blue Jays organization, consistently stayed in the dugout during the singing of “God Bless America,” because he understood that it was part of the project to convince people that it was necessary and legitimate for the U.S. to invade, conquer and control Iraq and Afghanistan, just as it had done in Puerto Rico.
Hats off to Carlos Delgado, to be sure. But what is to be said of his legacy in Toronto? Many Canadians agree with Delgado’s assessment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would likely applaud his courage in standing up for his beliefs. This is certainly reflected in the fact that much of the reporting of Delgado’s ceremony this July talked about his refusal to stand for “God Bless America” and typically gave him credit for sticking to his convictions.
But it was often only a brief mention, a sidenote in a story that was really about home runs, hip surgeries and the money he gave to charity. It is hard not to think that this mild discomfort with Delgado’s anti-imperialist legacy stems from the fact that Canada is now delving deeper and deeper into its own imperial wars and is participating in precisely the same patriotic militarism that Delgado stood so firmly against. Indeed, there is a rather twisted irony in the fact that the same writers who commend Delgado for his stand against “God Bless America” have yet to say a word against the Blue Jays’ new “Sunday Salute,” in which a member of the Canadian military is brought onto the field and honoured for their contribution to one or another of Canada’s wars.
Would Carlos Delgado have celebrated Canada’s ongoing occupation of Afghanistan? Would he have paid tribute to Canadian pilots who dropped bombs on Libyans? Would he have stood on ceremony for the General who bragged that the role of the Canadian forces was “to kill people?” Would he have honoured Canadian troops who overthrew the democratic President of Haiti and trained the police to liquidate his supporters? Would he be proud of the Canadians who have facilitated and whitewashed the torture and assassination of social movement activists in Honduras?
The answer, I think, is that Carlos Delgado would not have happily paid tribute to a Canadian military that now behaves in a manner indistinguishable from that of the U.S. military he has opposed consistently throughout his adult life.
Bigger than Baseball
Delgado’s hero, fellow countryman Roberto Clemente, similarly refused to abandon his politics in favour of his celebrity. He insisted that his name remain Roberto – not Americanized to “Bobby” – and he continued playing ball in Puerto Rico while he was a Major Leaguer. He called out racism in the sports media: “you’re trying to create a bad image of me… you do it because I’m black and Puerto Rican, but I’m proud to be Puerto Rican.” He was a leader in the baseball players union. He died in 1972 while trying to directly deliver aid to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua after discovering that the U.S.-supporter Somoza dictatorship was hijacking aid shipments.
Carlos Delgado was inspired not just by Clemente’s ability to play ball. “People thought he was a good player,” said Delgado in 2009, “but the stuff he did off the field goes beyond the 3,000 hits, the Hall of Fame.” As Clemente said, “anytime you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t do it, you are wasting your time on this earth.” That insistence that politics and activism were bigger than baseball is what has set apart athletes like Clemente and Delgado and for that they certainly deserve to be honoured.
But the fact that the Blue Jays used this season to honour both Carlos Delgado and the Canadian military demonstrates the extent to which the organization actually rejects Delgado’s true legacy. Indeed, they even went as far as to celebrate Delgado’s legacy on Sunday, a few innings separated from the “Sunday Salute” itself. They absurdity is patent; not one of Carlos Delgado’s 473 home runs was nearly as significant as his decision to use his role as a Major League star to take a principled stand against imperialism. And yet in the very act of honouring Delgado, the Blue Jays are undermining his legacy, but attempting to dilute it back into being simply about baseball and charity.
Tyler Shipley teaches at York University and is the editor of Left Hook. He is a Blue Jays fan, but he will be outside the Skydome on Sunday, September 15 to protest the “Sunday Salute.” All are invited to join him.