Hundreds of teenage ballplayers arrive every year in the United States trying to make a better life. They come from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and Mexico and elsewhere, all to play the most American of games. Most grew up in poverty. Few know English. The game welcomes them anyway.
In less than two months, the Arizona Rookie League begins its season. Nearly 140 young players born and raised in Spanish-speaking countries will congregate in Phoenix and its suburbs for their first taste of professional baseball. They may do so as the nation's most controversial law – the one that says some people who look like them are most certainly not welcome – goes into effect in late July.
Baseball's entanglement in Arizona's new immigration measure, Senate Bill 1070, goes well beyond the small swath of protesters demanding Major League Baseball pull the 2011 All-Star Game out of Phoenix and boycott Arizona Diamondbacks games. More than 1,000 players, and hundreds more executives, coaches, trainers and business staff, spend about eight weeks of spring training in the Phoenix area. Latin Americans represent 25-plus percent of major league players, and the percentage in the minor leagues is even higher. The sweeping reform, which critics say invites racial profiling, is almost certain to hit baseball if the federal government doesn't intervene.
Royals DH Jose Guillen worries about rookies being targeted.
Take, for example, this scenario: An 18-year-old from Venezuela playing in the rookie league jumps in a friend's car to head to the grocery store. The friend rolls through a stop sign. A police officer witnesses the infraction. The law, signed last week by Gov. Jan Brewer, requires that "where reasonable suspicion exists … a reasonable attempt shall be made … to determine the immigration status of the person." The Venezuelan player, accordingly, is asked to furnish paperwork proving his legal residence, a new burden of proof under SB 1070. If he happens to have forgotten his passport and work visa at home, his friend would get a traffic ticket and the player would get significantly more.
"Under that scenario," said Mike Philipsen, the communications advisor for the Arizona Senate Republicans, who drew up the bill, "he could be detained."
In other words, hauled off to jail, even though he is in the United States legally.
"I've never seen anything like that in the United States, and Arizona is part of the United States," Kansas City Royals designated hitter Jose Guillen(notes) said. "I hope police aren't going to stop every dark-skinned person. It's kind of like, wow, what's going on.
"I was 17, 18. I'd forget things. Kids do."
Guillen arrived in the United States at 17. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed him for $2,000 and sent him to their rookie-league affiliate in Florida. He grew up poor in the Dominican Republic. He didn't know English. A law as murky as SB 1070 would've made no sense to him, and Guillen worries about this summer's crop of rookie league players being targeted.
"There's no distinguishing characteristic between an undocumented alien and someone who's here legally," said Glen Wasserstein, a partner with the Immigration Law Group in Washington. "How do you possibly have reasonable suspicion? Everybody of Hispanic orientation will be scrutinized.
"Why would you bring your passport and visa with you?"
Currently, players don't. One major league executive said his team's director of minor league operations collects the passports of foreign players and keeps them in a safe at the team's minor league facility. The policy is in place so the teenage players don't lose the paperwork, which includes a P Visa that the government issues to "internationally recognized entertainers or athletes."
Seattle pitcher Felix Hernandez dismisses fear of new immigration laws.
The 12 teams participating in the Arizona Rookie League each have at least six players from Spanish-speaking countries on their rosters. Latin Americans comprise more than 40 percent of the 317 players currently assigned to the league. Of the 28 players on the Oakland Athletics' AZL team, 20 are from foreign countries, including 11 of 13 pitchers, eight of whom are Dominican and three of whom are Venezuelan.
The proliferation of Latinos in the game is why SB 1070 so frightens MLB and the MLB Players Association. Both groups are investigating how the law will affect players old and young, rich and poor, and how the sport can reconcile infusing hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy through spring training and the All-Star Game when more than a quarter of its constituents can be legally profiled. The players' union issued a statement Friday stating it opposes the new law.
The bill gained traction following the death of Robert Krentz, a respected farmer near the Mexican border who police suspect was shot to death by a smuggler. The roads from Mexico to Arizona are rife with drug and human smuggling, and experts believe the impetus behind SB 1070 was as much to force federal intervention into the immigration issue – which has always been under federal domain – as to enact a law that President Obama said "carries a great amount of risk that core values that we all care about are breached."
The president denounced the bill, as did Attorney General Eric Holder. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) called for a boycott of his home state. Russell Pearce, the Arizona State senator who sponsored the legislation, and Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff whose anti-immigration efforts have sparked controversy, stand by SB 1070. Outspoken opponents have wrangled MLB into the fray, hoping for a similar effect as the NFL had 20 years ago.
The league gave Arizona a provisional bid to host the Super Bowl in 1993 with one stipulation: Make Martin Luther King Jr. Day an official state holiday. Voters, put off by the request, rejected the plan. The NFL yanked the Super Bowl and didn't return until 1996 – by which time the King vote had passed.
One source said MLB is unlikely to change the All-Star Game only 14 months before it is scheduled, though officials have discussed the potential ramifications.
The scrutiny is even greater on the Diamondbacks. Ken Kendrick, the team's managing partner, is a significant donor to the Republican Party, which SB 1070 opponents say railroaded the measure into law. The Diamondbacks released a statement that said Kendrick opposes the bill. Still, 40 protestors stood outside the Diamondbacks' game in Chicago on Thursday, and more are expected at future games.
"It's a real issue, and we wear Arizona on our chest, so we do represent the state," Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes said. "We're insulated to some degree, but things that affect society at large affect us. We take a lot of pride in our representation from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Rodrigo Lopez(notes) from Mexico, Augie Ojeda(notes) growing up in California of Mexican descent. That's what's great about baseball. Every team has such great diversity."
For now, at least. If Holder doesn't join the others filing suit against SB 1070 and it goes into effect, Latin American players almost certainly will avoid the Diamondbacks. Whether that aversion stretches to the other 14 teams with spring training in the Phoenix area is another question altogether.
Teams in touch with MLB to discuss SB 1070 have proposed a similar idea to Hernandez's: In lieu of passports and visas, a baseball-issued identification card that shows a player's legal status.The baseball-issued identification card proposed by MLB and several teams would help. Even the non-English speakers would know: This is your ID. Never, ever forget it.
"It's just crazy we're even talking about this," Guillen said. "If you don't have your passport, what does that mean? You're going to jail? I don't know what to say to that."
He tried to come up with something. Though Guillen speaks fluent English these days, he couldn't find the right words. It took SB 1070 to render him the same as he was 16 years ago when he arrived in the U.S. hoping to make a life for himself: speechless.