Opinion: MLB should pressure Arizona on immigration law

BOSTON — Ozzie Guillen, the manager of the Chicago White Sox, is a decided counterpoint to baseball’s more reticent field generals. Guillen, the first Latin-born manager to win a World Series, is willing to make pronouncements on subjects a little more complex than why he used a pinch hitter or switched pitchers in the sixth inning.

Guillen, a Venezuelan who is now a U.S. citizen, is a relentless communicator, even tweeting in both Spanish and English. When he avoids profane rants and the occasional mangling of his second language, he can make an awful lot of sense. And now Guillen has become the first prominent figure in Major League Baseball to declare that if asked to partake in the 2011 All-Star Game next season, he will decline the prestigious invite.

That may seem a rather distant affair and one might think Guillen, whose ballclub is off to a rocky start in 2010, might have more pressing concerns than an exhibition game that is still 14 months away. But the 2011 game is scheduled for Phoenix and, in the wake of Arizona’s new immigration legislation that many believe is a racist attack on Hispanics, Guillen regards nothing in baseball as quite as pressing. The Arizona law criminalizes the failure to carry immigration documents and grants police broad powers to detain suspected illegal immigrants.

While Guillen’s decision was strictly a personal one, Major League Baseball (MLB) is already fielding calls (and demands) for it to relocate the game, which is a financial bonanza for the host city. Baseball is an entrenched and increasingly large presence in Arizona. A major-league team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, has played in Phoenix since 1998 and half the MLB franchises now have spring-training facilities in the state.

Still, that relationship may be less significant than that between baseball and Hispanics. This season some 30 percent of players on Major League Opening Day rosters were born outside the United States, most of those Hispanics, and they tend to be represented at the All-Star Game in even greater percentages. Having lost its historic claim as the national pastime, baseball has, in recent years, focused tremendous attention on the Hispanic audience, which is MLB’s fastest growing and, arguably, most passionate fan base.

More than 60 years ago, baseball — or at least the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team — struck a daring blow for equality when it summoned Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues to integrate the game. It has been well documented that Robinson’s success on the field had repercussions far beyond baseball and was a critical precursor of the civil rights era that followed. Major League Baseball would ultimately make Robinson’s uniform number — “42” — the sole number retired from its game.

Baseball now has a chance to extend that commitment beyond its lip service to history. It can send a message to Hispanic players and fans that its concerns for them extend beyond the baselines and their contributions to MLB coffers. It can send a message to a divided country that justice is not an expedient to be ditched in complex and fearful times. And it can send a message to the world that our beloved games can be harnessed as a powerful force for communal good.

There is precedent, both in sports and in Arizona, for a sports league confronting a civil rights issue with economic action. Back in 1991, after a long political battle in which Arizona refused to adopt the national holiday that honored Martin Luther King, the National Football League announced it would move the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix to Pasadena.

There had been a long economic boycott campaign against Arizona and the state’s loss of that game and its accompanying week of celebration by America’s highest-rollers was a knockout blow. By 1992, when Arizona voters rescinded their earlier vote and approved the MLK holiday, it was estimated that the boycott had cost the state $300 million in convention and tourist dollars. With Arizona now in such precarious financial condition that it is selling off state buildings, a boycott backed by Major League Baseball might prod the state to embrace a more reasonable approach to its illegal immigration woes.

Baseball is not football or even basketball, with their strong commissioners and centralized power. MLB has 32 teams operating as fiefdoms and a weak commissioner in former Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig. Selig has already announced that he will retire in 2012. And absent any significant action, the most notable legacy of his two-decade reign will be the failure of leadership in baseball’s steroids era.

Selig now has a chance to remedy that and he is in a unique position to fathom what’s at stake. He owns a home in Arizona and has been central in the game’s expansion there. He is also descended from European Jews so the implications of a government “show-us-your-papers” mandate must resonate loudly with him. Moreover, he is beginning to hear an echo in the public clamor. Diamondbacks managing partner Ken Kendrick is a major donor to the state GOP, the architects of the new legislation and protests have already sprung up outside the ballpark. (The team has issued a statement saying Kendrick personally opposes the new law).

This issue isn’t likely to go away. So why for once shouldn’t baseball get out ahead of it — and on the right side. And do that before some Hispanic players show the courage of Jackie Robinson and announce their intention to give next year’s All-Star Game a pass. My suggestion for MLB: put Arizona on baseball’s 60-day disabled list. Two months would coincide with baseball’s 2010 All-Star game in Anaheim. If Arizona won’t bend — if not for principle, then for the almighty buck — baseball should take a very intentional walk.

Better to anger some folks in Arizona than to expose players or fans to unnecessary risk. Just imagine the repercussions if Albert Pujols or Johan Santana or any one of baseball’s innumerable Latin superstars wound up in a jail cell because somebody thought he looked rather suspicious sitting behind the wheel of a fancy car.