La Russa way off base on Arizona stance

Despite managing nearly 5,000 games, Tony La Russa doesn’t get it.

It’s not about him. It’s not about his impressive intellect. It’s not about his clever lineups. And it’s certainly  not about his opinion on border enforcement.

It’s about the players. And based on remarks he made this week, it’s apparent that he’s out of touch with the multicultural group of men responsible for his forthcoming trip to Cooperstown.

On Tuesday, the Cardinals manager offered a statement in support of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Given the chance to clarify his position two days later, La Russa explained to the Associated Press, “States should take care of what the federal government’s not taking care of.”

La Russa is a lawyer by education, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he seized the opportunity to turn an interview into “C-SPAN at the Ballpark.” But he picked a lousy time to have a Jeffersonian moment.

La Russa could have chosen virtually any other issue du jour, and few of his charges would have paid attention. Republican? Democrat? Pro Life? Pro Choice? Pro Gun? Pro Gay?

All fine. Not this.

The Arizona law has become the ultimate third-rail issue in baseball culture. The players’ union issued a rebuke when it passed in late April, calling on the state to repeal or modify it – and raising the possibility of “additional steps” if that didn’t happen. Some have demanded that Major League Baseball relocate the 2011 All-Star Game, currently scheduled for Phoenix.

Under the statute, law enforcement officials have the right to demand that suspected immigrants produce documents proving the legality of their presence in the country.

Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez, one of the most prominent Mexican-American players in the game, told the San Diego Union Tribune: “It’s immoral. They’re violating human rights. … This is discrimination. Are they going to pass out a picture saying ‘You should look like this and you’re fine, but if you don’t, do people have the right to question you?’ That’s profiling.”

Clearly, this is a sensitive matter for many people who watch – and play – the game. La Russa was happy to enter the discussion, after what I hope was a thorough, in-season reading of the document.

“I’m actually a supporter of what Arizona is doing,” La Russa said Tuesday, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “If the national government doesn’t fix your problem, you’ve got a problem. You’ve got to fix it yourself. That’s just part of the American way.”

The law isn’t scheduled to go into effect until later this month, but its opponents fear that “Driving while Latino” will become a frequent offense in Arizona. And if Cardinals players have the same concern, La Russa could have an unnecessary problem on his hands.

To be clear: The issue is not that La Russa supports SB 1070. He is entitled to advocate for causes that matter to him – yes, even batting the pitcher eighth. In fact, he should be commended for the time and money he has invested in the Animal Rescue Foundation, which he founded with his wife in 1991.

Fans are usually charmed by leaders who speak their mind, and La Russa often does. But he should have punted on this one. Baseball prides itself on welcoming players of every creed and color. Perhaps unwittingly, the 65-year-old La Russa advocated for something that has caused great worry in diverse clubhouses around the major leagues.

Tonight, the St. Louis battery will likely include Mexican-born left-hander Jaime Garcia (7-4, 2.27 ERA) and Puerto Rican catcher Yadier Molina, a two-time Gold Glove winner.

And lest we forget: The Cardinals employ Albert Pujols, one of the finest players — Latino or otherwise — in the game’s history.

When asked for his reaction to La Russa’s remarks, Pujols told the AP: “Don’t talk to me about that. It’s not my business.”

As most everyone in St. Louis knows, Pujols will be eligible for free agency after next season. It would be absurd to suggest that La Russa’s remarks will have an impact on whether Pujols re-signs with the team. La Russa is the only manager Pujols has had in the major leagues. The two won a World Series together. Pujols knows the man, apart from his views on one radioactive issue.

But what about free agents – players who don’t know La Russa as well? Their opinion of La Russa is based on what they hear from others in the game, along with what they read or see through the media.

All it takes is one teammate-to-teammate remark – “You know, La Russa supports that Arizona law” – and a player’s perception of La Russa becomes something very different from what the Cardinals want it to be.

La Russa is a very smart man. He should have realized the weight of what he said on Tuesday. But rather than taking the humble approach – backpedal like hell, as a courtesy to his Latino players – he merely clarified his explanation.

Major League Baseball hasn’t imposed a gag order on managers or general managers when it comes to this issue, sources say, but it’s clearly an uncomfortable subject for commissioner Bud Selig.

In May, Selig steered around a question about whether the 2011 All-Star Game should be moved by citing baseball’s minority hiring record. (“Apparently all the people around and in minority communities think we’re doing OK,” he told reporters.) A spokesman for MLB said Thursday that the commissioner had no official reaction to La Russa’s remarks.

Selig needs to articulate a clear position on this issue, and he needs to do it soon. He should say what conditions, if any, must be met before MLB hosts its Midsummer Classic in the desert next year. Then it will be up to officials from Arizona and the players’ union to respond as they see fit.

But without strong leadership from Selig, the immigration issue will fester for MLB in the same way that it has for years in higher corridors of power.

Sunday, meanwhile, will bring the release of this year’s All-Star Game rosters. The announcement is sure to prompt plenty of good-natured debate among fans about who belongs and who doesn’t.

Next year, snubs may be the least of our concerns. We will be worried about All-Stars being detained during the annual Red Carpet Parade.

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