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Baseball's Growth Can Provide Template for American Unity

The nation can learn from a World Series full of immigrant stars and hosted by diverse cities.

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too,” Yogi Berra once quipped.

As the leaves change colors, the air becomes crisp, and the Dodgers and Astros prepare for a critical Game 5, I can’t help but agree with Yogi.

Baseball is pretty good, even if it is as much a work in progress as America’s experiment in democracy.

On the field, the game offers hope. Triumph.

It also reminds us America can break our heart. Like when Bostonians berated Adam Jones. Or, in the case of Yuli Gurriel’s ugly taunt of Yu Darvish, an appropriate punishment, and an apology met with forgiveness.

But in 2017, baseball still symbolizes the very best about America: whether it's watching the sport’s shortest player, a 5’6” second baseman belt a solo shot over the right field wall against the Yankees—launching the Astros to the World Series, or it's enjoying the spectacle of a Dodger hitting .400 through the post-season, with a big smile and his tongue hanging out.

Just think about what kids in Houston don’t see when Jose Altuve rounds third. They don’t see a Venezuelan immigrant. They see a role model giving hope to a community in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. They see an Astro.

When Yaisel Puig dives head first into third and beats the tag, fans in Los Angeles don’t see a Cuban immigrant showing off. They see a Dodger playing with passion, grit, and a whole lot of flare as Los Angeles vies for its first title since 1988.

In the 19th and early 20th Century, team rosters were made up of German and Irish immigrants. Then came the Italian players, including a catcher and outfielder from St. Louis, born to immigrant parents, named Yogi Berra. And Jewish players took the field, including an iconic Dodger named Sandy Koufax, who famously sat out a World Series game during the Yom Kippur holiday. 

And, it’s not just that Jackie Robinson finally broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier seventy years ago. It’s that he broke the color barrier and went on to play 151 games that first season, hit .297, and earn the Rookie of the Year award—and he managed to do all that while contending with death threats and racial taunts.

These days, we care so deeply about the sport not because it represents America’s past, but because it represents the best of who we are today and who we hope to become tomorrow.

And the sport, like our country, is changing. In 1991, 14% of all MLB players were Latino. At the start of the 2017 season, 31.9% were Latino.

That transformation is a positive because America has always thrived on talent, no matter where it comes from. It’s no different on the diamond: we all benefit when the best players—whether from Cuba, Japan, or South Korea—compete here. They become our guys.

It is true that there is a lingering fear and anxiety coursing through American life today, brought on by cultural and demographic changes. It’s the same fear America felt when the Irish, Italians and Jews were new to our nation.

But America has always been changing. Houston and Los Angeles are two world-class metropolitan areas with growing and diverse communities that have enabled economic growth and dynamic cultures—they look very different today than they did only a few decades ago.

By opening our minds and hearts, apologizing for when we are wrong, we can come together and appeal to our best instincts – and multicultural baseball can guide the way for a multicultural America.

When a father watches his child play little league: he does not see children from immigrant families as threats, but as teammates and fellow players. It should be no different when he sees the immigrant family one pew over in church, or in the house across the street.

In the end, we all want the same thing. We want to make sure our children can live to their fullest potential and we want our team to win the World Series. We want our sons and daughters to grow up believing that if they work hard in America, their dreams can be realized.   

Just look at that 5’6” kid from Venezuela.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum and author of the 2017 book “There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration,” available on Amazon here.