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Team Mexico, including Giants star Sergio Romo, feels hostility amid Arizona's immigration battle

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

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Team Mexico's first game in the World Baseball Classic is Thursday against Italy. (Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – A team full of Mexican citizens and Mexican-Americans played a baseball game here Wednesday. This would be of little note in 49 other states. In Arizona, where immigration has been politicized to the point of dystopian fiction, this was a recipe for jokes about how many of the team's players were asked for their papers on the way to the stadium. It might've been funny if not for the fact that a police officer really had stopped one.

"I actually got pulled over today on the way to the field," said Marco Estrada, a Milwaukee Brewers pitcher who has lived in the United States for 24 years, whose wife and children are American citizens and who is representing Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. At a stop sign, he said he looked both ways and thought he stopped. A police officer disagreed. At least Estrada was spared the indignity of being asked for documentation.

Estrada was lucky.

"I've been pulled over numerous times, driving a nice car," said Sergio Romo, the closer for the San Francisco Giants as well as the Mexican WBC outfit. "The first question is: What's your citizenship? The second question: Is this your car? And then: What do you do for a living? And it's like, 'Bro, you're Mexican just like me.' 'Ah, but I was born here.' And I say, 'So was I.' "

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Sergio Romo, Team Mexico's closer, isn't shy about making political statements. (Getty Images)

Welcome to Arizona, where the only thing worse than the fear and propaganda perpetuated by a government gone wild is what people with the temerity to have been born with dark skin must endure accordingly.

Arizona has thrown itself into the teeth of an immigration debate that divides and angers as much as any in the country. Between the controversial SB 1070 law, which encouraged racial profiling, and its continued offshoots – the latest is trying to criminalize blocking traffic to pick up a day laborer, which might as well be saying, "We don't want people to work" – politicians have stigmatized immigrants, lumping those who want to earn an honest living in with those committing crimes that actually are harmful to society.

Baseball finds its way into the debate because of its significant proportion of Latin players, almost 30 percent in the major leagues and closer to 40 in the minor leagues. Half of organized baseball spends its springs in the Phoenix area, and because of that, both Romo and Estrada have settled their families here in the offseasons.

The dichotomy isn't lost on them: In the state where the dislike of Mexicans may be greater than any, a group of them will try to upend Team USA on Friday night at Chase Field.

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And a great irony will shroud it all: Sergio Romo is the American Dream. He is 5-foot-9. He doesn't throw hard. Guys like him don't make the major leagues. Except Romo did, and he thrived, and in October last year, the game's best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, told Romo he was going to hit his slider, so Romo threw him five straight sliders, none of which he got, and then threw the ballsiest pitch possible, an 89-mph fastball over the heart of the plate, which left Cabrera looking like a fly in amber and won the Giants the World Series.

A beautiful part of the American Dream, too, is that the United States not only allows but encourages its citizens to acknowledge and appreciate their ancestry. Whether you're Italian or Irish or Korean or Indian or from anywhere else in the world, you can wear your past with pride. Romo grew up in Brawley, Calif., about 22 miles north of the Mexican border. He worked the lettuce fields as a teenager and almost joined the Navy.

Over the next four years, he played baseball at four colleges. He lasted until the 852nd pick of the 2005 draft, worked his way up the minor leagues and in the last three seasons has a 1.85 ERA and two World Series rings. At the championship parade last season, underneath a black-and-white-striped hoodie, he wore a T-shirt with four words in all capitals.

I JUST LOOK ILLEGAL

"That was a way to put out a statement," Romo said. "I've been humbly put on a stage, a platform, and it was more of a statement to prove it doesn't matter who you are, what you've done in your life, the color of your skin. Everyone should get treated the same."

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Marco Estrada is the American Dream, too. He was born in Sonora, Mexico. It was just him and his mom, Silvia, and they crossed the border when he was 5. She nannied and cleaned houses. He graduated high school, went to college, was drafted by the Washington Nationals and ended up with the Brewers, who were rewarded with 143 strikeouts in 138 1/3 innings last year after finally allowing him to start.

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Brewers starter Marco Estrada says he has two years before he gets a shot at American citizenship. (Getty)

Because Estrada did not enlist for the selective service at 18 – he said he didn't know it was a requirement – he was denied citizenship five years ago and told to return when he's 31. That's two years from now, and he's excited to become an American officially, even though he has felt like one forever already.

At the same time, he wants to honor Mexico and was thrilled to have established himself enough with the Brewers that leaving their camp would not endanger his rotation slot. Wearing his green jersey Saturday night and starting for Team Mexico against Canada may be the apex of a career gaining traction later than most.

"We're very proud people," Estrada said. "I know myself: I'm very proud to be Mexican. I've wanted to play on this for a long time. It means the world to me to be a part of this team."

When the Mexicans play the Americans on Friday, the stands will be a mish-mash of red, white and blue interlocked with red, white and green. It's the sort of game that should be appreciated more for the underdog-vs.-favorite bent than any sociopolitical issues, and yet it can't be, not when Arizona finds itself in the news on seemingly a daily basis, the latest coming when federal officials less than a week ago released more than 300 of the nearly 2,600 people at Arizona immigration detention centers, more governmental saber-rattling in a battle that filters down in unfortunate ways.

"It's just life in general," Romo said. "There are rules and laws we all have to abide by, and certain that we won't always accept or agree with. With due time, I think certain things will fly straight – or straighter.

"I honestly believe a smile goes a long way. I think if you're courteous and smile and respectful, eventually things will smooth out."

Even if Romo's optimism is more refreshing than realistic, he knows his role – whether wearing a T-shirt or speaking out – is important. The debate is not going away. More cars will be stopped, more good people unfairly questioned, more incidents propagating Arizona's reputation. Until then, Sergio Romo and Marco Estrada and millions of others will simply keep smiling, hoping some day Arizona does change and a team of Mexicans playing here doesn't seem so out of place.

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