Santeria Experiences Big League Surge

Los Angeles Times sports reporter Kevin Baxter explains the rise of the Afro-Caribbean religion santeria in major league baseball.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Latin American athletes are stalwarts in Major League Baseball. Many are Afro-Latinos who bring aspects of the Caribbean and Southern American worship practices with them.

This month, as we discuss religion, we want to look at baseball and the African-based faith of Santeria.

Kevin Baxter is a Los Angeles Times sports reporter, who covers Latinos in sports. Kevin, welcome.

Mr. KEVIN BAXTER (Sports Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Hi. How are you?

CHIDEYA: Great. What an interesting topic. So in a nutshell, very briefly, how would you describe Santeria?

Mr. BAXTER: Well, Santeria is based on a lot of the West African religions, the Yoruba religion of West Africa. And they were - it was brought to the New World by slaves who were brought to the Caribbean several hundred years ago to work the sugar plantations and, you know, Cuba, the Dominican, all throughout the Caribbean.

And what they do with the religion in a lot of ways is they kept the basis of the religion but they gussied - I guess the best way to say it, they gussied some of it up with Roman Catholic traditions in sort of a way to throw the Spanish and the colonial peoples off the track of what they were doing. But at heart, it's the very same as the West African religions that they practiced before they were brought to the New World.

CHIDEYA: So, you have - in big cities, many big cities I've been to, you have botanicas, which are places that people go to buy supplies or even hold ceremonies.

And in this article, you basically write about how some of the practitioners in baseball are involved, but because of stereotypes about Santeria worship, they don't ever want to talk about it.

Mr. BAXTER: No, it was really strange because one of the reasons I wanted to do this is because I know some athletes. I've covered some athletes, who were, you know, fervent practitioners of Santeria. And I really sort of understood what it did for them, and how important it was to them, and how it's a legitimate religion. It's not, you now, one of these sort of the cult things.

I mean, Jesus been around for centuries and centuries and - but when you think about it in the States, you think of the character, Pedro Cerrano, from the movie "Major League," who was sort of a buffoonish character in the way he practices religion. And I just really didn't think that was fair, and I wanted to tell people that, you know, this is a serious thing that these athletes, you know, take quite seriously like any other religion. And so, - and you know, as I went to athletes to talk to them about it, I was, even with that attitude, I was surprised to find so many of them didn't want to talk about it.

And I think there were two reasons. One is, you know, as you said, they were afraid of the sort of reputation a religion has here. And they didn't want to be portrayed as, you know, someone who is sort of flighty. But the other part was it's a very secretive religion. As one guy told me, when we go behind the closed door, when we go in and do our religious rituals with the other practitioners of our religion, it's a very private thing, and we don't talk about what happens behind those closed doors. And at one point, I asked one athlete, I said, is it because I'm not Latino, because I'm not Dominican or Cuban or Venezuelan that you don't trust me. And he said if you were Latin, you wouldn't even be dumb enough to ask about this stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAXTER: So it is sort of a secretive thing. But, I mean, it's something that these people hold very deeply just as any Jew would hold their religion very deeply or any Catholic, and anybody else.

CHIDEYA: I had a chance to go to Cuba once on a reporting trip and saw, not only places where there were santeras, but also there are all these other Afro-Latin religions.

But we think about Cuban expatriates when we think about baseball and Santeria, but apparently, there are even more Venezuelan santeras in baseball. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Mr. BAXTER: Well, in Venezuela, there's a number of different religions. There's another one called the religion of Maria Lionza, where they worship this, I think, a 16th or 17th-century woman, who had done some miraculous things in Venezuela. And there's a religion around her that even President Chavez has been known to practice some of the rituals of that religion.

But, yes, Santeria has really come on there. It's been around, you know, forever, but it's really gotten more and more popular. And I asked Ozzie Guillen, the manager of the White Sox, who is probably the most outspoken Santero in baseball in the U.S. And he sort of jokingly suggested that maybe it had something to do with the economy, but maybe that's not such a joke because as the economy has gotten worse and the social situation in Venezuela has gotten more difficult for many people, you know, I think it's common in other societies, too. That people do turn to religions, and this is the oldest religion, you know, in Venezuela. And so I think a lot of people have sort of turned to that, you know, something to hold on to.

And that, too, I think is one of the reason why it's popular in baseball because when these - you know, put yourself in a place of a 16, 17-year-old kid who is leaving his country, his language, his social customs, everything that he knows to come to a strange country like the United States, and at the same time, being expected to perform at the highest levels in their chosen profession, they want to bring something to hold on to. And a lot of them do turn to Santeria, and other conditional practices in their country.

And some scouts have told me that one of the things that they need to do with these players is to teach them your religion is fine, we're not going to take your religion away from you, but you need to know that your religion is not going to get a hit, it's not going get a batter out. When you get between the lines, you need to be serious about the game and not, you know, try - to say your religion is going to save you.

But at the same time, it does give them some comfort and something to hold on to. And another reason, I think, we're seeing more Venezuelans practicing Santeria in the Major League is simply because there's more Venezuelan players. There's been an explosion in Venezuelans coming to professional baseball in the last five or six years. And so you know, if, say 10 percent of the people in Venezuela practice Santeria, and I don't what the number is, but if 10 percent of the people practice Santeria, the number of players increase so that 10 percent, obviously, is just going to be a much larger figure than it was in the past.

CHIDEYA: Kevin, really we've got like 30 seconds, is there a pushback from some managers, though? You say some scouts and managers are supportive, are other ones dismissive?

Mr. BAXTER: No. You know, I don't think so. I think you need to take this seriously, and I think most people, we're all mature enough now, thank God. You know, at this time - most people anyway - mature enough to respect that.

The one problem that a number of people did talk about is with the influx of Asian players and some Asian religions, now the people coming up with Santeria, a lot of the Americans are very strong Roman Catholics, and you have born-again Christians. A lot of clubhouses now have people practicing five or six different religious faiths, and there is some concern that, at some point, there could be a pushback in the clubhouse. Two guys may get into some sort of religious argument, or maybe somebody's religious shrine in their locker is a little bit bigger than somebody else might like it.

CHIDEYA: Kevin, we've got to wrap up, but thank you so much. Very informative, very interesting.

Mr. BAXTER: Thank you very much for the call.

CHIDEYA: Kevin Baxter, staff writer for the L.A. Times covers the Latin American world of sports.

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