MLB's silence on immigration law puzzling and disappointing

Publish date:

All it took was three little letters: L-O-S. With that change to the front of their jerseys during the NBA playoffs this week, the Phoenix Suns became "Los Suns" and Arizona's basketball franchise let the world know where it stands on its state's controversial immigration law.

The law -- Arizona Senate Bill 1070 -- requires law enforcement in the state with a "reasonable suspicion" to question and arrest anyone who can't immediately prove they're in the country legally.

In the weeks since its passage, we've heard from a United States Congressman (Jose Serrano, D-NY) who called the law "unjust, wrongheaded, mean-spirited and unconstitutional."

We've heard from Major League Players executive director Michael Weiner who last Friday said the law "could have a negative impact on hundreds of Major League players who are citizens of countries other than the United States," and from the NBAPA, which deemed it "incompatible with basic notions of fairness and equal protection" and "a law that unfairly targets one group is ultimately a threat to all."

We've heard from baseball players who stand to be the professional athletes most prominently and regularly impacted by the law. Among them is a quiet Cuban exile, White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, who grew up learning to eschew political talk in a communist state but raised his voice in this country to say "I'm against it."

We've heard from Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba, a native Venezuelan who called the law "racist" and said, "I come from a crazy country. Now Arizona seems a little bit more crazy."

And we've heard from another Venezuelan, loquacious White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who says, "I don't think it's fair to anybody from any country."

In the midst of all those voices of dissent, we have yet to hear from Major League Baseball, which has still not made a public comment. A league spokesman recently declined comment on the issue.

It's a deafening silence from a league that not only supported civil rights in the last century, it also pioneered them. Jackie Robinson took his place at first base in Brooklyn eight years before Rosa Parks kept her place on a bus in Montgomery. Now, that same league is sitting silently as it watches some of the same rights it helped bestow to blacks now be stripped from -- primarily -- Hispanics.

Those who argue Major League Baseball has no place in politics are right. It doesn't. But speaking out against Arizona's legislation isn't a political stance; it's a moral one. Robinson himself once said that "Life is not a spectator sport. If you're going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you're wasting your life."

Every year, major league baseball honors Robinson, making it all the more surprising that it would be wasting a historic opportunity to again be on the right side of a divisive issue in the civil rights struggle.

The Arizona law is targeted at Hispanics, a demographic that makes up more than a quarter of all major league players and roughly 40 percent of its minor leaguers. Given those numbers, as well as the fact that MLB's fingerprints are all over the Grand Canyon State -- it is home to not only the Diamondbacks but 15 of the 30 major league teams' spring training camps and the Arizona Fall League -- no sport has as much at stake in the matter as the national pastime.

Every year, Major league Baseball brings hundreds of millions of dollars to Arizona's struggling economy. Asking MLB to uproot and abandon all of its investments in the state would be unreasonable. However, asking the league to move the 2011 All-Star Game from Chase Field is not. It would be a sign of solidarity for the players who come from far and wide to play its game and offer some financial incentive to Arizona legislators to eliminate discriminatory provisions to SB 1070.

Arizona needs the All-Star Game in the state more than MLB does. According to an MLB fact sheet promoting this year's All-Star Game, last year's All-Star festivities brought an estimated $60 million to St. Louis. In most years and most places, $60 million would leave quite the economic footprint, but in current day Arizona, it would be more like a crater. The state is mired in economic crisis. It has a foreclosure rate three times the national average, and if MLB threatened to strip the state of the Midsummer Classic, state legislators would have 60 million reasons (or so) to change the bill.

Baseball's imperative to fight this measure goes beyond economics to this simple matter: it is the right thing to do. If and when a major or minor league player is detained unjustly, MLB and/or its member clubs will be forced to respond. Why wait?

Whenever it does finally break its silence, MLB won't have to say much to fight the bill and send a message to Arizona lawmakers who want to keep both its discriminatory law and the All-Star Game. In fact, it can do so in fewer letters than the Suns did. These two would do just fine: N-O.