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Politics could alter Arizona sports landscape

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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
   
 

As the Gipper himself might have said, “There you go again, Arizona.”

When Ronald Reagan signed the law making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday in 1983, Arizona wasn’t feeling it.

The state legislature rejected observance of the holiday before then-governor Bruce Babbitt delivered an executive order that Arizona would observe the holiday. Babbitt’s successor Evan Mecham promptly rescinded the holiday, setting in motion a collision of politics and sports that would result in Arizona losing Super Bowl XXVII and the estimated $350 million that would have come with it.

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After seeing the Super Bowl snatched away from them, Arizona voters passed the MLK holiday by ballot initiative in 1992. (Gov. Mecham was long gone at this point, having become the first sitting U.S. governor to be impeached in almost 60 years.)

Arizona hosted the Super Bowl in 1996 and by Feb. 3, 2008, when the Giants stunned the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., the MLK controversy was ancient history.

But now sports and politics are on a collision course once again in the Grand Canyon State.

On April 23, 2010, eight days after baseball celebrated the 63rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law. (According to reports, the signing ceremony occurred 124 years after Gov. Brewer’s great-grandmother arrived from England as a 14-year-old in search of a better life.)

Supporters of the law say it merely empowers state law enforcement officers to do the job the federal government has not been doing, namely curbing illegal immigration.

Opponents argue that requiring immigrants to carry their alien registration documents at all times and requiring police to question people if there is a reason to suspect that they are in the U.S. illegally is a formula for racial profiling.

Condemnation of the law has been swift and resounding.

If SB 1070 were a movie, here’s how its critics would blurb it:

“A disgrace.”

“Un-American.”

“A hallmark of totalitarian regimes.”

“The ugly head of apartheid.”

“A desecration of the Bill of Rights.”

And that’s just the English. I’m guessing it gets worse in Espanol.

The day before the law was to take effect, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton issued a preliminary injunction that blocked the law's most controversial provisions. Judge Bolton's ruled that a number of other aspects of the law could take effect on July 29. In February 2011, Arizona filed a countersuit against the federal government in the United States v. Arizona case, accusing it of failing to secure the Mexican border against large numbers of illegal immigrants. The fight goes on.

Poor John McCain. What could end up being the bookend political issues of his career have both twisted him into a pretzel.

He was against the MLK holiday before he was for it. He voted against it as a freshman member of the House of Representatives in ’83 and supported Mecham’s decision to rescind Babbitt’s executive order, but eventually he came around to supporting the ballot initiative as the Super Bowl disappeared over the horizon to Pasadena.

Three years after advocating amnesty, McCain, who was facing an aggressive primary challenge on his right flank from J.D. Hayworth, vigorously endorsed the new law. (Even though his daughter Meghan McCain opposed it, calling it a “license to discriminate.”)

The law is called SB 1070 and it probably would be Super Bowl MLXX before Arizona got the big game again if there were as many Latin players as black players in the NFL.

But there is, of course, a sport where Latin players thrive. Twenty-seven percent of the players in Major League Baseball are Latino. Even if those players wanted to remain blissfully unaware of Arizona’s new policy, the law’s opponents aren’t about to let them.

As the face of Major League Baseball in Arizona, the Diamondbacks drew protests on the road in Denver and Chicago following the signing of the bill. As was the case during the MLK controversy, opponents of the policy want to hit Arizona in the wallet and boycott anything that comes out of the state.

Critics have pointed to D-backs general partner Ken Kendrick’s generous support of Arizona’s state Republican Party to link his baseball team with the new law, a connection the D-backs were forced to push back against, releasing this statement:

“Although D-backs’ Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick has donated to Republican political candidates in the past, the organization has communicated to Arizona Boycott 2010 leader Tony Herrera that Kendrick personally opposes State (sic) Bill 1070.”

Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall added, “We have a lot of support from Hispanic leaders who work closely with us and know what we do for the community. We employ so many Latinos. We have so many Hispanic fans, players. I just think it’s a misdirected target.”

Hall said the team would not come out in opposition to SB 1070 because the organization does not take political positions. (A non-position that critics will no doubt consider a political position.)

The Diamondbacks’ case might be bolstered if they did, in fact, have a lot of Latin players.

But the Arizona legislature and Gov. Brewer would have heartily approved of the Diamondbacks' starting lineup the day before the law was enacted. Not a single member of the starting nine was born outside these great United States.

Of the 20 teams in action that night in 2010, only one other team — the Oakland A’s — could make that claim. The night before that, the Angels had six foreign-born players in the lineup that beat the Indians (who started three immigrants).

The lack of high-profile Latino players on the D-backs — Venezuelan starting catcher Miguel Montero was on the DL — probably had nothing to do with the front office’s political views. But it might help explain why they finished in last place, 25 games out in 2009.

And what if Rodrigo Lopez or Montero gets pulled over for DWL, Driving While Latino? You don’t think that news will travel through the baseball player grapevine?

How do the D-backs expect to attract Latin free agents if SB 1070 is the law in and around Chase Field? And do the D-backs expect to contend without meaningful contributions from Latin players? (When the Snakes won the NL West in 2007 Latin pitchers went 35-28 and had 47 of the club’s 51 saves.)

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Anyone who doesn’t think the political culture of a front office and a community can impact success on the field should check out the history of the Boston Red Sox.

Tom Yawkey, who owned the team from 1933 to 1976, was openly hostile to the idea of racial integration in baseball and the Red Sox were the last team to field a black player, holding out until 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers. (When Willie O’Ree stepped onto the ice for the Bruins in 1958, breaking the NHL’s color barrier, the B’s had more black players than the Red Sox.)

Once other teams started to integrate it didn’t take long for Boston to fall behind in the standings. From 1950 to 1966 the team never finished within 10 games of first place.

When the Red Sox finally won a World Series after an 88-year drought, the team was led by Latin superstars Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez (and, to be fair, white Christian conservative Curt Schilling).

The D-backs had no such drought, winning a World Series in their fourth year of existence in 2001.

Dominican Danny Bautista hit .583 in that series. Mexican Erubiel Durazo hit .364. Dominican Miguel Batista threw eight scoreless innings.

And the most iconic moment in Diamondbacks’ history was that championship-winning blooper off the bat of Luis Gonzalez.

Would Gonzalez, who was born in Tampa, have thrived in Phoenix if every once in a while he’d been pulled over to show his papers?

Arizona was right last year to be nervous about possibly losing the 2011 MLB All-Star Game.

But if SB 1070 remains the law of the land from Yuma to the Painted Desert, the Diamondbacks stand to lose a whole lot more.

Tagged: Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Miguel Montero

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