How 'The Fish' came to mend racial bridges

Phil Davison reports on the baseball triumph that has managed to heal the rifts of a divided state - for now
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The Independent Online
"EVERYBODY'S doing The Fish, yeah, yeah, yeah." The song, and the accompanying Fish Dance - move your arms a-la-breaststroke, backstroke, the crawl, then wiggle - were all you could hear and see on the streets of Florida last week after the fledgling local baseball team, the five- year-old Florida Marlins (nickname: The Fish), won the game's highest honour, the World Series.

It was the Sunshine State's biggest moment since Mickey Mouse sent his twin brother over from California to attract tourists a quarter of a century ago. At least, during the past week, Florida has basked in a rare feel- good factor of brotherly love among whites, Hispanics and blacks, equally represented on the Marlins team.

Gone, for now, was the chronic street crime and gang violence. The worst casualty last week was a young man hit by a metro train while trying to hang a "Go, Marlins!" banner over a parapet. "No matter how well, or poorly, the Marlins do in subsequent years, for now they're the glue that bonds a disparate community," said the Miami Herald, which splashed the World Series results across its front page every day.

Even the Cuban community, split among anti-Castro fanatics, anti-Castro moderates and even the odd, though usually silent, Castro sympathiser, united for the first time beneath the Marlins' teal-coloured flag. That was largely thanks to the 22-year-old pitcher Livan Hernandez, who defected from Cuba two years ago; he was called in to the World Series at the last minute due to another pitcher's injury and ended up winning the coveted Most Valuable Player award.

What is known here as "America's Game" had become "The Game of the Americas". In Cuba, baseball fanatics, including most of Hernandez's family, huddled round beaten-up transistor radios to follow the seven-game series. They were no doubt envying the pounds 200,000 beachfront apartment Livan had bought, or his Mercedes, or the yellow Ferrari, from his $1m a year contract.

In Colombia, Newcastle footballer Faustino Asprilla was out-heroed by the Marlins' 22-year-old Edgar Renteria. The South American nation went as wild as Florida when Renteria, from the coastal city of Barranquilla, drove the hit that clinched the final game. In the Dominican Republic, a breeding ground for baseball players, the nation stayed up to watch local hero Moises Alou help the Marlins to victory.

Older sportswriters recalled how Hispanic players were forced to play in the old "Negro leagues" until the black hero Jackie Robinson broke through the race barrier half a century ago.

As always, of course, behind the brotherly love and euphoria, lurked big money and murky politics. Even before the World Series, the Marlins' owner, Wayne Huizenga, who founded Blockbuster Video, had threatened to sell the Marlins. A pre-season pounds 56m spending spree for top players meant he was losing money, he said. Of course, if the city of Miami would build his team a new downtown stadium - courtesy of taxpayers' money - he might survive, he noted. At present, the Marlins share the Pro Player Stadium, between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, with the Miami Dolphins American football team.

With elections for mayor of Miami due on Tuesday, both candidates are cashing in on the Marlins' success by saying they will push for a new stadium. The incumbent mayor, Joe Carollo, thought he had snared votes by giving the key to the city to pitcher Hernandez, especially after the young player naively praised him during the ceremony. The mayor used the pitcher's comments in a campaign ad, to the fury of Hernandez's agent, who forced it off the air.

And while baseball fans thrilled to the fact that Hernandez's mum Miriam had been allowed in from Cuba on a "humanitarian" visa to see the final World Series game, not everyone saw it that way. A Cuban exile dying of Aids asked why his mother could not come over before he died. And relatives of a little girl with kidney disease asked why her father, her best hope for a transplant, had been denied a visa.