Commentary

Immigration law looms over 2011 game

Civil rights groups push for MLB to move All-Star game from Arizona

Updated: July 13, 2010, 7:12 AM ET
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

All-Star Game boycottAP Photo/Nick WassA banner protesting the 2011 All-Star game in Arizona hangs from the stands during a game between the Washington Nationals and Chicago White Sox on June 18 in Washington.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- As Major League Baseball fetes the game this week by showcasing its best players, it faces a looming question just a state and a year away: Should it move the 2011 All-Star Game from Arizona, where a new immigration law has become a flashpoint in the nation's long-standing immigration debate?

Civil rights groups, some politicians and even the Major League Baseball Players Association have, to varying degrees, publicly denounced the law, which can be enforced beginning July 29 unless an injunction by the federal government is granted. Groups organizing protests at this week's All-Star Game in Anaheim promise to increase public pressure on baseball for next year's game, which is set for the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"We don't hold MLB as a party of this unfair law, but we do see the game of baseball as upholding diversity. The law flies in the face of what baseball represents," said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, the country's largest Hispanic civil rights organization. "This is about civil rights."

Unlike the politicians and civil rights groups, the players' union has not pressured MLB -- whose Opening Day rosters included 27.7 percent of its players born outside the U.S. -- or commissioner Bud Selig to move the game. That hasn't stopped others from urging Selig to follow the path of the NFL, which moved the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona after the state failed to officially recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday.

"It would be a very strong statement that professional sports do not tolerate racism and discrimination," said the Rev. Eric Lee, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the first president of which was Dr. King. "I'm hopeful he would [move the game]. Bud Selig seems to be a just man."

[+] EnlargeJan Brewer
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinArizona Gov. Jan Brewer signs immigration bill S.B. 1070 into law April 23 in Phoenix.

Selig declined comment to ESPN.com through a spokesman. He has said very little publicly about the issue except that his sport's record on civil rights stands for itself.

Since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed S.B. 1070 into law April 23, opponents have been successful in urging some businesses, visitors and even high-profile musicians not to conduct business in the state in the hope that creating economic pressure could lead to changes or an outright repeal of the law. Getting the All-Star Game moved would be a high-profile coup.

"With the ownership there, it puts Bud in a very difficult position," said a former MLB executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he no longer is part of the decision-making process. "You have X amount of people for it, X amount of people against it; it's just a tough position. I think it would be very early for Bud to make a decision."

Players, teams mull options

The Arizona law would make it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally. If police are investigating a crime, responding to a complaint or making a lawful stop, they can question a person's legal status.

Any person could be asked for proof of legal status; the person need not be charged with a crime, said UCLA law professor and immigration expert Hiroshi Motomura. Presenting an Arizona driver's license would suffice but not "necessarily" one from another state, he said.

"There are a lot of uncertainties about how this will be applied," said Motomura, who has testified in front of Congress and worked as a consultant to lawyers who handle U.S. Supreme Court cases on immigration issues. "The fear that the police won't [check for proof] for everybody is a fear about how it will be applied."

Motomura said determining immigration clearance could be more difficult for players in the country on temporary visas. Running a name through the federal database could take time, which could lead to prolonged detention. Errors in the database also could cause delays.

Washington Nationals reliever Miguel Batista is among those who worry about how the law will be applied. Batista is a published poet, players union board member, Arizona resident. He won a World Series with the Diamondbacks, and still has a home and many friends in Arizona. The law deeply concerns him, and he wonders when the law takes effect whether players will understand that its enforcement could vary widely.

"We need to all get informed; what is the basic basis of this law?" said Batista, a Dominican Republic native. "Because I have an accent, you have a right to ask me for my papers? Because I'm not blonde with blue eyes? What do you actually base the stereotype on to have to ask me for my papers?"

When it comes to whether the All-Star Game should be moved, Batista is unsure. He wants to wait and see how enforcement goes -- whether there is ample evidence that minorities are being targeted. He also is conflicted about whether he'd participate, if selected.

"You have to look at the consequences of that action," Batista said, "how it harms baseball … what damage that could do to baseball. That's one thing we need to take into consideration."

[+] EnlargeAll-Star Boycott
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDemonstrators hold a sign as they protest at Wrigley Field on April 29 before the Arizona Diamondbacks-Chicago Cubs game.

Yorvit Torrealba runs scenarios though his mind. A native of Venezuela, Torrealba has played in this country for 15 years, and worries that if he's sitting in a restaurant being loud with his family, talking in Spanish, and someone registers a noise complaint, he'll be asked for proof that he is here legally, which Motomura said it possible under S.B. 1070.

"I don't think it's fair," said the San Diego Padres catcher. "I don't think anyone has the right to approach me or my family just because we're Latino."

Torrealba acknowledged that if he were selected and the game remained in Arizona next year, he'd have a difficult time not attending, because it would be his first All-Star selection. He says right now he's "50-50" about whether he'd attend.

"I think they should move [the game], because it's going to be a lot of Latin players in the All-Star Game," Torrealba said. "I guarantee you they want to take their families. In my mind, I would be like, 'I wonder if my family is all right here?' That's why they should move it; that way nobody has to worry about that stuff."

The Padres' organization is one affected a bit more by this issue, because -- like the Dodgers -- it has a large Latino fan base. And San Diego is on the U.S.-Mexico border. Many players in the Padres clubhouse have discussed this issue.

Infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. is one of them. He and his brother, Scott, an outfielder for the Padres, played for the Mexican team in the World Baseball Classic last year. Their mother, Esperanza, is from Hermosillo, Mexico, and met their father, Jerry Sr., when he played in the winter leagues.

"It reminds me of seeing the old movies with the Nazis when they ask you to show your papers," said Jerry Jr., who added he'd rather let politicians talk about the issue. "It's not right. I can't imagine my mom -- who's been a U.S. citizen longer than I've been alive, who was born and raised in Mexico -- being asked to show her papers. I can't imagine that happening. So it kind of hits home for me."

One Latino player, though, said he doesn't worry about being targeted because he drives an expensive car and lives in a mostly white neighborhood, which he thinks could insulate him from suspicion. He disagrees with the law, and worries about the economic impact it might have on Arizona. He is reluctant to have his name published -- like many players interviewed by ESPN.com -- because he feels it's too risky to align himself with the cause, though he says he's 100 percent against the law.

"I will tell you, as a minority, I'm concerned about the law," said Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico. "But we have to see how it will play out."

Rodriguez's third baseman, Jorge Cantu, was born in Texas and has dual citizenship in the U.S. and in Mexico. Cantu disagrees with the law, and said depending on what happens and how it's applied, he may be willing to work with a civil rights group on a public campaign. But as a free agent after this season, he wouldn't shy away from signing with Arizona just because of the law, and he doesn't think the All-Star Game should be moved.

"No, why would they? No reason to move an All-Star Game," Cantu said. "I'm sure a lot of people would want it [in Arizona]."

Cantu said he would still play in the game, if selected, even if other Latino players urged him not to.

"Everybody's different," he said. "Thank God for that."

Players union monitoring developments

While there are varying opinions among Latino players about how to approach this issue, few opinions have been shared by those who support the law. They haven't been very vocal, most likely because a high percentage of players are against it, and perhaps also because Michael Weiner, executive director of the players' union, issued a statement April 28 on behalf of the union, saying it hopes "that the law is repealed or modified promptly. If the current law goes into effect, the MLBPA will consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members."

Torrealba I think they should move [the game] because it's going to be a lot of Latin players in the All-Star game. I guarantee you they want to take their families. In my mind, I would be like, 'I wonder if my family is all right here?' That's why they should move it, that way nobody has to worry about that stuff.

-- San Diego Padres catcher Yorvit Torrealba

Just what those steps may be is not yet clear, though it could involve political or legal action. That scenario is unlikely because historically the union does not take positions on political matters, and also because it would be hard to reach solidarity with its players on such a controversial political issue. And the thought of trying to get teams to move their spring training complexes out of Arizona seems an impossibility.

"The union doesn't traditionally take a political stance. As you would expect, there's as a wide difference of opinion on the merits of this law within our membership," Weiner told ESPN.com. "What the union is in agreement on is this law has the real potential to cause harm to many of our members and their families. Players understood the reason we were speaking out on taking a position on this particular law."

A potential divide would not be surprising; as one player, who doesn't oppose the law, said, "It's impossible to get all the members in agreement on anything. That's just life."

Also, it is unlikely the union would collectively boycott the All-Star Game, because MLB may consider such action a violation of its collective bargaining agreement. The players won't face a penalty or fine if they elect to bypass the game; it's strictly a personal decision. Weiner said: "Until we see whether the law takes effect, it's too early to take a position on" whether to move the game.

LaRussa I'm actually a supporter of what Arizona is doing. If the national government doesn't fix your problem, you've got a problem. You've got to fix it yourself. That's just part of the American way.

-- St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa

For many Diamondbacks players, the issue resonates deeper than it does on other teams. They have been greeted by protesters in almost every city they have visited over the past few months. And the team's general managing partner, Ken Kendrick, has contributed thousands of dollars to the Republican Party, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, including donations to S.B. 1070 supporters such as Arizona senators John McCain and Jon Kyl.

The team issued a statement to The Arizona Republic on Kendrick's behalf back in late April, saying, "Although [Kendrick] has donated to Republican political candidates in the past, the organization has communicated to Arizona Boycott 2010 leader Tony Herrera that Kendrick personally opposes" SB 1070.

The Arizona players also know much of their fan base supports the law, so many are caught in a tough situation: disagreeing with the law, but also not wanting to put a target on their backs by publicly expressing their true feelings.

Adrian Gonzalez, a three-time All-Star and the Padres' first baseman, understands the dilemma. The usually reserved Gonzalez made it clear on May 1 when he told reporters he opposed the law and would not attend next year's All-Star Game if selected.

The San Diego native has since declined to publicly speak about the issue, knowing how much wrath his position inspired among some of the law's supporters. He told ESPN.com that when first asked about it by a reporter, he didn't have a full understanding of the law. Revisions to the law have since been made, and some of its supporters have explained it to him better.

"I still don't agree with it," Gonzalez said, "but I understand it a little more."

Gonzalez added he would rather let the politicians handle the law, and he'll see how it plays out before deciding whether he would participate in next year's game.

His teammate, Heath Bell, is a player representative for the union and vehemently opposes the law. He said Selig should move the All-Star Game out of Arizona next year, and says if he were selected, it would be an extremely tough decision about whether to attend.

"If Adrian is voted [in] next year and doesn't go, I wouldn't be surprised if I wouldn't go to stick up for my teammate," said Bell, who'll be in Anaheim this year as an All-Star. "If I'm voted I'm going to have to really think about it, because I have a lot of friends that are not white. Sometimes you need to stick up for your friends and family."

One person who has spoken up in support of the law is Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. He told reporters June 30 that he's "actually a supporter of what Arizona is doing. If the national government doesn't fix your problem, you've got a problem. You've got to fix it yourself. That's just part of the American way."

Groups turning up pressure

The NFL showed with the '93 Super Bowl that moving a signature event isn't impossible, but doing the same with the All-Star Game would be challenging for baseball on a number of fronts, including having to break established hotel, convention center and entertainment contracts. The players think the chances of it happening are remote.

Civil rights groups are working together in the push, though. Presente.org, a Latino political activist group, started a website, www.movethegame.org, and says it has collected more than 100,000 signatures from fans and presented them in a news conference in Anaheim on Monday morning. Last week, about 150 people protested outside MLB's headquarters in Manhattan, and the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights has said it will plead with MLB and fans at the All-Star Game on Tuesday to take a stand against the law.

While most civil rights and community groups have focused on appealing to Selig, a small coalition in Los Angeles has focused on reaching out to the Dodgers -- not only because of the organization's role in civil rights history, as Dodgers player Jackie Robinson was the first to break baseball's color barrier in 1947 -- but also because its fan base includes many immigrant groups.

In anticipation of the Diamondbacks series in Los Angeles the last weekend in May, six groups met with Dodgers executives, including team president Dennis Mannion, on May 25 at Dodger Stadium.

Mike Garcia, president of the Service Employees International Union -- United Service Workers West, asked the Dodgers to publicly take a stand against SB 1070; in return, the groups would not protest the upcoming series with Arizona.

"We tried to use the parallel to Jackie Robinson and how the Dodgers went out on a limb and broke the color barrier," Garcia said. "That it was a beautiful example of courage and boldness and made a bold statement that this was the right thing to do for baseball."

Four of the community leaders at the meeting had varied descriptions of Dodgers officials' responses, but each independently told ESPN.com they left with the strong conclusion that MLB had advised the Dodgers not to engage in the issue publicly.

"They [were] advised or they were told not to take a position," said EunSook Lee, executive director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium. "That was clear."

The Dodgers declined to comment on the meeting MLB officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

Just what Selig might do is unclear. The only time he has addressed the issue of whether he should move the game was May 13, after he emerged from an owners' meeting about various topics. He referenced his sport's record on civil rights.

"Apparently all the people around and in minority communities think we're doing OK. That's the issue, and that's the answer," Selig told reporters. "I told the clubs today: 'Be proud of what we've done.' They are. We should. And that's our answer. We control our own fate, and we've done very well."

He then was asked by MLB.com after the press conference whether the game would stay in Arizona.

"I think I adequately answered that question."

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.