A Day Without a Shortstop

[Amy Bass, Morphizm]
Five years ago, there was a crazy number of Jews playing for the Boston Red Sox. Or, well, three: Gabe Kapler, Kevin Youkilis, and Adam Stern. It wasn’t the most Jews ever to populate a major league lineup; that distinction goes to the 1946 New York Giants, who had five on the roster. It wasn’t the strongest Jewish lineup, either, what with the Los Angeles Dodgers boasting Sandy Koufax and the Sherry brothers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But it was still a notable number of Jews playing baseball in Boston.

It’s rare these days when someone blinks an eye at the ethnic diversity on a baseball team. According to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, led by Richard Lapchick, despite a continued decline in African American players, the MLB has yet again equaled its best grades for racial and gender diversity hiring, an “A” and a “B”, respectively, while the central office received “A”s in both, despite the fact that a woman has never been general manager of a team.

In Lapchick’s findings, twenty-seven percent of players in the majors are Latino. And some of that twenty-seven percent is pretty high profile: Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Mariano Rivera, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz (yes, he’s having a crap year so far, but Papi will always make my list), Miguel Tejada, and Adrian Gonzalez.

Gonzalez recently said that he is considering boycotting the 2011 All-Star Game, scheduled to take place in Phoenix. His announcement came at the heels of the Major League Baseball Players Association’s statement denouncing Arizona’s SB 1070, the law that, in its most basic form, makes not carrying your birth certificate in your wallet a crime, especially if you look “suspicious.” Gonzalez has called the law “immoral,” and in addition to putting the idea of an All-Star boycott on the table, he has asked for teams to consider a spring training boycott as well, as nearly half the league takes advantage of Arizona’s famous dry heat for its own form of March madness.

Other players, such as Mets catcher Rod Barajas, have come forward to condemn the law, as has the Managing Partner of the Diamondbacks, Ken Kendrick. Diamondbacks’ third baseman Mark Reynolds, who considers himself “not a political guy,” thinks the fans might be the key to even his own political awareness at this point, because “If no fans show up at one of our games, I’d better start paying attention.”

Getting fans involved in what is at stake in Arizona, whether under Chase Stadium’s retractable roof or not, is an interesting idea. As is William Rhoden’s call in The New York Times for Bud Selig to come forward and condemn the law. But Stephen A. Smith disagrees, writing that “change doesn’t need to come from MLB or its players…. It’s the job of our politicians to resolve these matters.”

Smith is wrong. Change does need to come from the league and from the players. Perhaps, indeed, particularly from the players. Many have argued, time and time again, that sports are apolitical and that athletes are not politicians. But, as I have written many times, to look at sports as a field of level play, one without social or cultural consequence beyond the pitch, is to look at sports with a naïve eye. Sports are culture. Culture is politics. And politics do not end when one steps onto the court. Culture is how politics function, how they are understood, how they are challenged, how they are maintained. Baseball players are cultural actors with political relevance; if not, then why did few care when Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen announced he would boycott next year’s All-Star game, but questions began to flow when Gonzalez stepped up to the boycott plate?

It is with the players that the most meaning can perhaps be made. Just as Jackie Robinson helped postwar America understand – almost a decade before the Brown decision – what integration might actually look like (and it looked, quite often, like him stealing home), baseball players can help America see what might happen if the lines of who belongs and who does not are drawn in the pattern executed in Arizona.

You shouldn’t participate if they won’t let you belong, the Olympic Project for Human Rights told African American runners in 1968 with its proposal to boycott the Mexico City Olympic Games. And Arizona is telling an awful lot of people, papers or none, that they don’t belong.

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