Huffpost Chicago
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Billy Weinberg Headshot

Arizona Strikes Out

Posted: Updated:

Anyone watching the Cubs' third home game of the year had to be impressed by the player wearing Number 42 on his jersey. In the bottom of the first, he gave the Cubs the lead by launching a fly ball deep into the center field bleachers. In the top of the ninth, #42 fielded a grounder hit slowly to short and threw home, where #42 put the tag on the runner (the Brewers' number 42). On the mound, #42 recorded seven strikeouts over five innings. Number 42 then emerged from the bullpen to throw four innings of relief.

These otherwise record-breaking (if not physically impossible) feats were the result of April 15th having been declared "Jackie Robinson Day" across Major League Baseball. The commemoration, now an annual fixture on the schedule and the brainchild of Commissioner Bud Selig, calls for all 700-plus Major League players to wear the uniform number that Robinson donned when he broke the game's color barrier in 1947.

Helping enshrine and amplify Robinson's legacy will go down as, perhaps, the high-water mark of Selig's own tenure. The commissioner's overall record will forever be marred by his failure to rein in the excesses of the Steroid Era. On the positive side of the scorecard, however, Selig -- who decreed that the number 42 would be retired into perpetuity across baseball, and who has instituted other traditions such as a yearly "Civil Rights Game" -- has succeeded in ensuring that future generations of fans will grow up learning about Robinson, Branch Rickey, Larry Doby and other pioneers who fought against prejudice within our national pastime. Through these efforts, we are reminded how these individuals helped change baseball, and how baseball helped change America.

Selig and his peers, the owners of the thirty Major League clubs, now have the opportunity to put that lesson into practice. Rather than merely confine itself to celebrating its role in fighting past discrimination, baseball can step up to the plate today.

On April 23, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the nation's harshest anti-immigrant measure. The law requires -- not simply authorizes, but requires -- law enforcement officers to ask for the papers of any person suspected of being an undocumented immigrant. Despite Gov. Brewer's remarks to the contrary, it is the very embodiment of racial profiling and there is no doubt that Latinos and other minorities, whether immigrants or not, will bear the brunt of it.

The law's constitutionality is highly suspect, since the establishment of immigration policy is vested in federal, rather than state, government. For the time being, though, it is poised to take effect this summer, and -- without a reversal -- will remain on the books just as surely as the balk rule or the infield fly rule are codified in baseball's rule book.

Aside from its draconian new law, Arizona stands out among other states in the union for an altogether different reason: its close (let's call it, "hand-in-mitt") relationship with Major League Baseball. Along with Florida, Arizona plays host every year to that annual rite of optimism known as spring training.

To most of us, spring training means the end of winter (in the case of Cub fans, we also foolishly led to believe that each spring training could signal the end of our prolonged Winter of Discontent). To the people of Arizona, meanwhile, the Cactus League means something else: money. Lots of money.

How important is spring training to the economy of Arizona? So much so that -- aside from the immigration bill -- the most heated debate of the past legislative session in Phoenix concerned the so-called "Cubs Tax." This proposal would have set aside state funds to help the team upgrade its training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

The impetus behind the bill was the approximately $130 million sum generated by Cubs' fans each spring-- a prize put at risk due to overtures made by civic leaders in Naples, Florida hoping to woo the club to their locale. Multiply this whopping figure by the 15 big league teams who train in Arizona, and you get a sense of what spring baseball means to the state, even when confined to a mere four or five weeks on the calendar (six, if you begin counting from the time pitchers and catchers report).

Baseball is no longer just a rite of springtime in Arizona. The Diamondbacks, founded in 1998, play 81 regular season games at Chase Field in Phoenix -- and have hosted several playoff series and, I point out with clenched-teeth, even a victorious World Series in just the franchise's fourth season. Each autumn, MLB teams send their rookies and other top prospects to the Arizona Fall League. Recently, Major League Baseball awarded the 2011 All Star game to Phoenix, which is expected to generate $60 million for the city.

Economics have also played a role in the state's immigration debate, albeit riding shotgun to the headline-grabbing "law and order" arguments fed to the public. Among those promoting the bill is the Washington-based advocacy group called (ironically) "FAIR," the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The group estimates that illegal immigrants "cost" Arizona $1.3 billion per year; however, even FAIR's Website concedes that this figures does not take into account the taxes paid by undocumented immigrants -- a noteworthy omission, especially as sales and excise taxes are paid disproportionately by people with lower income levels.

Let's assume, however, that FAIR's (inflated) numbers were accurate. In other words, each spring, Cub fans drop in Arizona's cash registers approximately one-tenth the money that the anti-immigrant forces claim are spent on undocumented immigrants in a year. Again, we are talking about the impact of one team -- in just over a month's time. Multiply that by fifteen clubs. Then, tack on the money generated during the regular season by the D-Backs, by next year's All Star game, by the free advertising for Arizona tourism that baseball provides year round. It is not a leap of faith to imagine how Major League Baseball could, if it so desired, use its economic leverage to help the people of Arizona decide whether it is ultimately worth keeping this law on the books.

(Talk about cosmic forces at work. Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers prior to his elevation to the commissioner's office, has the chance to lobby a Governor named "Brewer." Try convincing me that the baseball gods aren't sending him a signal.)

Since the time that Robinson played, the demographics of baseball have changed. Now, Latinos make up a larger share of players at the Major League level than do African-Americans; as a result, MLB is intent on tapping into the growing Hispanic market (for evidence, please visit yankeesbeisbol.com). Based on this key internal and external constituency, baseball has good reason to be concerned about Arizona's law and how it is likely to be carried out. It brings to mind the stories told by Pee Wee Reese and other Brooklyn players of the late 1940s who were dumbfounded to learn that their new teammate couldn't stay in the same Florida hotel as the rest of the Dodgers.

Let's try this exercise, Cubs fans. Imagine that pitcher Ryan Dempster and catcher Geovany Soto are walking down the street in Mesa. Which of the pair is more likely to be asked to show his papers? Dempster, an immigrant from Canada? Or Soto, who was born in Puerto Rico and, therefore, has been a U.S. citizen since birth? My money's on the police leaving Dempster alone, despite his tell-tale "North of the Border" accent.

Northsiders aren't the only Chicagoans who escape to Arizona each winter; the White Sox now train in Glendale, sharing a facility with the Dodgers (both clubs having been recently lured to the desert from Florida). One of the juiciest stories out of Sox' camp this past spring was manager Ozzie Guillen's new Twitter feed. Can you imagine the "tweet" that Guillen would post after being grilled by an officer about his status? I can assure you that he would not limit his complaint to 140 characters of text.

Of course, in their defense, such officers could claim that they were merely carrying out the duties assigned to them -- and required of them -- under the state's new law. And, sadly, they would be one hundred percent correct.

In recent days, my thoughts have turned to another great player. Roberto Clemente was a U.S. citizen by virtue of being born in Puerto Rico. He was at the forefront of efforts to ensure that Latinos be treated with respect and fairness, and gave no quarter to racism. The "21" that he wore on the back of his Pirates jersey might have been half the number now retired across baseball, but he was a full peer of Robinson and every pioneer who fought for equality on and off the diamond. Like Robinson, who died at 53, Clemente's life was tragically short; he was only 38 when he died in a plane crash while attempting to assist earthquake-stricken Nicaraguans. When leaders die that young, it leaves it up to us to ask how they would have reacted to the challenges that we see in our own time.

I think I know what they would do today. I am hopeful that baseball does, too.