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Opinion: MLB should pressure Arizona on immigration law

League should support Hispanic players in boycotting next year's All-Star Game if it is held in Arizona.

Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen speaks with reporters before their game against the Yankees in New York, April 30, 2010. Guillen, a U.S. citizen who was born in Venezuela recently said he wouldn't attend the All-Star Game in Arizona next year, were he to be invited. He said the state's new immigration legislation is racist against Hispanics. Major League Baseball has since been answering many calls to relocate the game. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

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.