Step up to the plate

Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

For 141 years, baseball has mirrored and propelled America's evolution. It has bridged class divisions, lifted the country's spirits in dark times and, ultimately, helped break down racial barriers. Today, with American values again under attack in Arizona, baseball needs to act.

Born at a time when the country was most divided, the game helped Civil War soldiers stave off fear and boredom. Young men of North and South picked up fence posts and tree branches and swung at balls of cork or knots of rags wrapped around walnuts. At that moment of ultimate American disunity, baseball united: Officers played with enlisted men; prisoners of war played against one another and even their guards. After the war, the game became the physical expression of our founding ideals and the vernacular of our lives, even for those who never rooted for a team or hit a ball with a bat. "Three strikes" describes our limited tolerance for failure; we "pinch hit" for others when necessary and cope with life's "curveballs."

Ebullient Babe Ruth and classy Lou Gehrig captured the nation's attention in the Roaring '20s and then distracted us during the Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt deemed the "recreational asset" of 300 teams so worthwhile that he urged owners to keep the games going through World War II. Ty Cobb, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente - these men left indelible marks on the American soul.

But baseball is entwined with American life, not above it, and sometimes it suffers along with the nation. Decades of exclusion of black athletes from the major leagues gave the lie to the notion that the American dream could be attained by anyone. When Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson broke the "color line" and Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, it became a metric for American progress. Robinson's rookie year is as sure a precursor of Brown v. Board of Education as was any decision of the Supreme Court. It was also one of those moments when the right business decision served the cause of social justice.

This is another such moment.

A new law in Arizona seems almost certain to lead to racial profiling against Latinos, violating the American values so integral to baseball. Many Americans are appalled, and a movement to boycott the state is afoot. Cities from Oakland, Calif., to Boston have forbidden city-funded travel to Arizona. On Wednesday, Los Angeles joined them; the City Council voted to ban most city travel there and to forgo future business contracts with companies headquartered in the state. Conventions are being canceled as well. The 104-year-old Alpha Phi Alpha - the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s fraternity - has moved its July gathering to Las Vegas.

We'd like to see Major League Baseball pull the 2011 All-Star game from Phoenix. There is ample and effective precedent. Pro football moved the 1993 Super Bowl from Arizona to Pasadena after Arizona refused to adopt Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday. In 1947, the Dodgers moved spring training to Cuba, abandoning Florida, to preserve the dignity of its one black player. Can the same game that stood for such principles half a century ago now allow its Latino all-stars to travel to Phoenix, where they could be treated as suspect because of the color of their skin?

On Thursday, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig hinted that he was not inclined to pull the game. And Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, whose cynical approval of the new law codified Arizona's disgrace, is trying to head off what would be a powerful economic and moral blow to the state. She argued on that "economic boycotts are an inappropriate and misguided response." But no one is obligated to do business with a villain. Yes, Arizona is suffering real consequences from federal inertia on immigration reform, but it has responded with a law that violates this country's ideals.

And if the social justice reasons alone are not persuasive, let us state a few home truths. Baseball's leadership today is primarily in the realm of steroid use. That great home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that riveted the nation in 1998? McGwire now acknowledges longtime steroid use. (Sosa later was found to favor a corked bat). Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees' $275-million-man? Steroids. Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro? Steroids. Home-run champ Barry Bonds? Steroid user - and a surly one at that. The game still looks like major league baseball, but it feels like World Wrestling Entertainment. Major League Baseball's tepid response to this subversion of fair play is all the more reason for it to step up now.

Denying Phoenix the privilege of hosting the All-Star game won't erase the scandals that plague the league, but it would remind the country that even after all these years, baseball can help make America worthy of its game.

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