ON SATURDAY, Sept. 13, Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels set major league baseball's single-season saves record. That same day USC quarterback Mark Sanchez threw four touchdown passes as the Trojans crushed Ohio State 35--3. And the next day, the eve of the 20th annual celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month in the U.S., Chicago Cubs righthander Carlos Zambrano threw the second no-hitter of the season. Coincidence? Sure. Aberration? Absolutely not. Rewind the clock to Aug. 4, 2007. On that day the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez became the youngest player to hit 500 home runs and swimmer Dara Torres set the U.S. record in the women's 50-meter freestyle, and on Aug. 5 golfer Lorena Ochoa won the British Open title.
Every morning sports pages and websites tell of the accomplishments of Latino athletes—those who either come from one of the 20 Latin American countries or are U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent. Once a modest presence in U.S. sports, Latinos are now a force, affecting not only the scores and the record books but also the ways games are played, consumed and marketed. And their influence is being felt well beyond their traditional strongholds of baseball, boxing and soccer.
The NBA, which had one Latino player during the 1979--80 season, finished the '07--08 campaign with 14. San Antonio Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili, born and raised in Argentina, edged Phoenix Suns guard Leandro Barbosa, a Brazilian, for the 2007--08 Sixth Man Award, while Al Horford, born in the Dominican Republic, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting after he helped lead the Atlanta Hawks to their first playoff appearance in nine seasons. Horford had been an example of Latino success in college basketball, too, when he and Florida won their second straight NCAA championship in 2007.
Football? In July 1970, when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED called Minnesota Vikings Super Bowl quarterback Joe Kapp THE TOUGHEST CHICANO IN THE NFL, he didn't have much competition. Only three Latinos were drafted into the league from 1968 to '70. Now there are 25 Latinos in the pro game, including stars such as Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez.
In golf, meanwhile, Argentina's Angel Cabrera hoisted the U.S. Open trophy in 2007, while Ochoa began the 2008 season by winning six of her first nine starts and leaving no doubt that a 26-year-old native of Guadalajara is the best women's player on the planet.
Teams in Major League Soccer have improved their quality of play by importing ever more players from Latin America. D.C. United's Luciano Emilio, a Brazilian forward, won the 2007 Golden Boot (top scorer), Newcomer of the Year and MVP awards. And David Beckham aside, it's electrifying Latinos such as Chicago Fire striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco and New York Red Bulls forward Juan Pablo Angel who are bringing fans out of their seats.
In baseball there have never been more Rodriguezes and Garcias on the backs of jerseys and at the tops of All-Star ballots. That should come as no surprise, considering that there are more Garcias and Rodriguezes in the U.S., period. Those two names now rank eighth and ninth, respectively, among the most common surnames in the U.S.—the first time two Hispanic names have broken into the top 10. (Martinez, as in Pedro, nearly topped Wilson for the 10th spot.) In the last two decades the U.S. has had its largest influx of immigrants since the early 1900s, with the majority coming from Spanish-speaking countries. The latest census figures indicate that by 2050 the number of Hispanics in the U.S. will nearly triple, to 133 million, and constitute almost one third of the population.
The Latinization of the U.S. isn't evident just in Los Angeles, where 73.7% of public schoolchildren are Hispanic, or in Miami--Dade County, Fla., where more than half the population speaks Spanish at home. It's a factor in Oklahoma, where many of the state's 250,000 Latinos tuned into Spanish-language broadcasts of Sooners football games last year, and in Birmingham, home to the 65-team adult-recreation Latin American Soccer League.
LATIN AMERICA is far from monolithic. The Venezuela of New York Mets ace Johan Santana differs hugely from soccer superstar Lionel Messi's Argentina, which has little in common with Olympic long-jump champion Irving Saladino's Panama. The Spanish language is the closest thing to a connective tissue that Latinos have—unless we're talking about Brazilians, who speak Portuguese. Or we're using the Spanish word ahorita with a Dominican, to whom it means later, or an Ecuadorean, to whom it means now. Or we're considering U.S.-born Hispanics whose immigrant forefathers were so keen on assimilating that they never taught Spanish to their children.
While major league baseball is wildly popular in, say, the Dominican Republic, it doesn't carry the same cultural weight as soccer and boxing in Mexico, the birthplace of some 65% of Latino immigrants in the U.S. This diversity of interests in turn affects how sports and leagues market themselves to Latinos. According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth in Athens, Ga., the buying power of U.S. Hispanics is $862 billion—more than the economies of all but nine countries in 2007. MLS wouldn't survive without this growing market, which constitutes 35% of its fan base. After soccer, Latino fans give their support most to boxing, baseball and the NBA. The NFL, meanwhile, recognizes that to maintain its hegemony in U.S. sports, it must attract Latino fans. It teamed with Spanish-language TV network Univision earlier this year to launch NFLatino.com, which explains basic football rules and features Hispanic players' diaries. Video game maker EA Sports has released Madden NFL 09 En Español, complete with the first play-by-play and game analysis in Spanish and with Chicago Bears guard Roberto Garza on the cover.