Commentary

Baseball, Arizona and immigration

The game aims to keep the players in the Arizona Rookie League safe from the new law

Originally Published: June 22, 2010
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

About 150 young men from Latin America, most from the Dominican Republic, have been quietly drawn into the immigration fray this week. They're participating in Major League Baseball's Arizona Rookie League, one of several showcases for young talent staged around the nation each year.

This year, however, the coaching and instruction they'll receive extends well beyond the diamond. Last week, The Associated Press reported that Latino players scheduled to appear in the league were given IDs and paperwork verifying their status as ballplayers, and were being told to carry both with them at all times.

[+] EnlargeWrigley Field
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhEverywhere the Diamondbacks go -- such as Wrigley Field in late April -- protests against Arizona's tough new immigration law are sure to follow.

The cards issued by the Milwaukee Brewers, it was reported, contain the player's photo and contact numbers for Brewers officials, just in case. Players also were reportedly told not to wander too far from their hotels.

Although the Brewers say they've issued such IDs for years ("pre-emptively," one executive says), it's also a clear response to Arizona's so-inappropriately-named Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, which allows -- no, requires -- cops to ask for proof of legal status for anyone they stop for a crime, no matter how trivial, "where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States." It is scheduled to go into effect at the end of July.

Baseball has been here before. During the late '40s and into the '50s, the years just after Jackie Robinson broke the sport's color barrier, black players -- some well known, others anonymous today to all but baseball historians -- were told the same things: Don't wander too far from the hotel (which often was in the black part of town) or the stadium. This was especially emphasized in cities in the South, but it really was the standard set for every city.

Too bad baseball (and the nation) has to go through it again like this. But once again, the sport has an opportunity to change us, or at least to help show us how we might reach a day when we can have a civil discourse about immigration, which is as much a part of the fabric of our nation as the materials Betsy Ross used to sew the first flag. Major League Baseball could lead the way to a time when we'll all be able to talk about the challenges our nation faces in education, health care and in other areas due to the swelling number of immigrants (legal and illegal) in our nation -- and how best to handle them.

If they need "handling" at all.

Until then, we have Arizona.

As Charles Barkley often says, no matter how bad things are in his home state of Alabama, folks there can always say, "Thank God for Mississippi."

Well, the rest of us can now say, "Thank God for 'Zona." At least we can walk down our streets without fear of being deemed "reasonably suspicious" for being in the U.S. illegally if we happen to jaywalk or have a busted tail light and look like we might be Latino.

Not so in 'Zona.

Arizona has immigration issues, no doubt, with a reported 50,000 illegal immigrants living in the state. The influx has strained the state's resources and, clearly, its nerves. The new law was a desperate move by a desperate state, now demanding federal action to deal with its issues.

Before BP became fodder for late-night comics over the past month or so, Arizona was fertile ground for kicks and giggles. But the law also spawned as much rancor and rage as the oil gushing in the Gulf (and the insipid comments of BP execs, not to mention Congressman Joe Barton) has. President Barack Obama condemned the law, saying it "undermine[s] basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe …

"Now suddenly if you don't have your papers and you took your kid out to get ice cream, you are going to be harassed; that's something that could potentially happen."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the U.S. will sue the state. Emotions on both sides of the issue are still high.

[+] EnlargeImmigration
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeThe effort to convince baseball to pull next year's All-Star Game out of Phoenix reached Sun Life Stadium in Florida in mid-May.

Not surprisingly, sports is at the eye of the storm, as it should be. For generations, sports and sports figures have changed America, even as the nation kicked and screamed in protest. Robinson, Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and other superstars are among the most noteworthy athletes who, by word or deed, changed our way of life, or at least our way of thinking.

They helped improve life for all of us by protesting injustices against many of us.

There have been thousands of others, too -- players, sports executives, managers and coaches who righted wrongs in their own way, sometimes subtly, often not.

As the Arizona Diamondbacks make their way through this season, they're being greeted at nearly every port by demonstrations against the new law.

"It's been happening everywhere we go," the D-Backs' Miguel Montero, a catcher from Venezuela, told The Boston Globe as protesters marched outside Fenway during an interleague series last week. "We don't talk about it."

Nearly one in three major leaguers is Latin. MLB has long gone to great lengths to help players from other nations be comfortable in our game. Cultural programs that help them with our language and customs are as much a part of the instruction at MLB's academies in the Dominican Republic as drills to keep your butt down on a ground ball. Some clubs employ "cultural" ambassadors for Latin and Asian players, and make accommodations as simple as providing familiar cuisine as part of the postgame meal.

But it's only a start. For baseball to be the change force it can be, and has been in the past, it must be proactive rather than passive in the face of the immigration issue. The great issue before commissioner Bud Selig right now is whether baseball should change the venue for the 2011 All-Star Game, which is slated to be played in Arizona.

It's easy to argue that boycotts cause collateral damage, and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer made that case to ESPN.com when the possibility of moving the game first arose. For example, there's no doubt many Latino businesses will earn their share of the millions generated by the game if it is played in Phoenix. And many Latino citizens will gain work.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
AP Photo/Mary AltafferSo far, Bud Selig has ignored the calls to use baseball as a force of change and move the game.

During the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that began in late 1955, many African-Americans lost their jobs because they refused to ride the bus rather than be forced to sit in the back. Olympic boycotts, staged in 1980 and again in 1984 to protest international political injustices, cost numerous young athletes around the world their single shot at lifelong dreams.

Yet boycotts are effective. They point out the wrong and allow those who are trying to right it to make it clear they will not be a party to its existence. In 1993, the NFL chose to move the Super Bowl from Phoenix (yep, that state again!) after Arizona voters rejected a ballot initiative to recognize Martin Luther King's birthday as a national holiday. A later vote righted that wrong.

As the NFL did, baseball should seek another venue for its showcase game next summer, perhaps moving it to a region with a similar ethnic composition to ensure broad participation by Latino vendors and citizens.

We'd still have Arizona; but baseball would have shown it, by deed, that there are better ways to handle its immigration challenges.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com

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