- Associated Press - Monday, June 27, 2011

Bud Selig likes to call himself a student of history.

If so, he’s headed for an “F” on this assignment, and he’s not alone. Rarely passing up a chance to laud baseball as a force for driving social change, the commissioner and players’ union have been quiet far too long about the biggest opportunity looming on the horizon.

That would be MLB’s plan to stage the All-Star game, two weeks from now, in Phoenix, where a tough local immigration law means that nearly a third of the players _ like many Latinos who call Arizona home _ worry that a routine traffic stop could escalate into a humiliating “papers, please” confrontation.

Selig’s silence _ he didn’t return a call for comment Monday _ could be the result of several things. To cite the most recent, he’s probably spending more time closeted with lawyers these days because of the tug-of-war over the Los Angeles Dodgers and their wily, and increasingly desperate owner, Frank McCourt.

And like just about every politician and civic figure scorched by the white-hot debate over Arizona’s SB1070, Selig and the union simply may be laying low in hopes the courts will make it a moot issue before they have to take a stand. They may get their wish, but perhaps not soon enough.

The law requires immigrants to carry their registration documents and police who are enforcing other laws to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. A judge blocked enforcement of the law’s most controversial requirements, but allowed other parts to take effect, such as a ban on obstructing traffic while seeking or offering day-labor services on streets.

A federal court already has blocked the most onerous portions of the law from being enforced _ the so-called “papers, please” provision _ while it considers the measure’s constitutionality. Final say on the matter will almost certainly come down from the Supreme Court, long after MLB’s All-Star circus packs up and moves on.

Already, a coalition of pro-immigration groups calling itself “Unite AZ” has announced plans to call attention to the year-old law, beginning with a news conference Tuesday outside Chase Park in Phoenix, and a call for baseball fans and players to wear white ribbons.

“We’ve asked MLB and the unions for cooperation, but we always knew we had an uphill battle,” said Luis Avila, a spokesman for Unite AZ. “We have some players interested, but we can’t give the names yet. Hopefully, we will be able to announce those within the next week.”

MLBPA spokesman Greg Bouris said in a telephone interview that the union had not seen a request from Unite AZ and had no plans to respond to such requests.

“Our position on the law hasn’t changed. We oppose it as written and that won’t change until the courts decide what the law is,” he said. “But we think the All-Star game is a chance to celebrate the contribution of all baseball players _ including our international players.”

Selig, too, has been challenged on the issue several times before, most notably when the Arizona legislature approved SB1070 some 16 months ago, and then a month later at a news conference after an owners’ meeting in New York.

His response was to cite the “A” grade that MLB was given in the annual report from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. He also managed to mention a lifetime achievement award he received from the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

“Apparently all the people around and in minority communities think we’re doing OK. That’s the issue, and that’s the answer,” he said. “I told the clubs today: ‘Be proud of what we’ve done.’ They are. We should. And that’s our answer. We control our own fate, and we’ve done very well.”

By some measures, absolutely.

Baseball’s on-the-field work force is about 30 percent Latino and the diversity in front offices matches or betters what its rival sports leagues can boast. Under Selig’s stewardship, MLB has also made significant outreach efforts, from funding youth baseball efforts in the inner cities to an annual celebration of Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking major league debut.

To be sure, this is not just Selig’s fight. It’s the union’s fight, too, but unfortunately it’s too late for big gestures along the lines of what the NFL and its players did when confronted with a similar situation nearly two decades ago.

When Arizona refused to honor Martin Luther King Day, the league voted to take the 1993 Super Bowl out of the state and moved it to the Rose Bowl. When voters in the state began toting up the loss of millions of dollars, they reversed course and backed the holiday in plenty of time for the NFL to bring the 1996 Super Bowl to Tempe.

“Asking people to wear white ribbons is a small step,” Avila said. “We know that. We thought holding the game here was a bad decision from the start. Now that it’s here, we hope it will provide a platform to discuss the overheated rhetoric and the real harm it’s causing, like the separation of families.

“It would be nice,” he said finally, “to get some help.”

Don’t count on it.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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