As American institutions go, big league baseball has always been more evolutionary than revolutionary. On the field and off. Whenever it's safe and convenient -- say, in a shoe commercial or public service announcement -- Major League Baseball can always be counted upon to take as much reflected credit as possible for the courage of individuals such as Jackie Robinson or Branch Rickey or Curt Flood.
The cold truth of our national pastime is somewhat less inspiring, however, as the game itself has a bad habit of hiding behind Mom and the apple pie whenever trouble starts. Hoping Congress, for example, will clean up the steroid mess; or invoking that red, white and blue antitrust exemption whenever too-greedy owners jingle their cartoon moneybags and put the business model at risk. In fact, Major League Baseball is as hidebound and reactionary as any institution in America, and something of a stooge for the status quo.
Bringing us to this week's All-Star Game in Phoenix, and the inglorious business of business.
A little more than a year ago, this column
got tangled up in the comic opera of Arizona politics. A thing for which the governor of Arizona herself rebutted me very politely here, while some others supported me here.
This was all on account of SB 1070, a piece of Arizona legislation designed to curb illegal immigration. More correctly, SB 1070 was a piece of legislation designed to give the appearance of curbing illegal immigration. It made politicians look tough by stoking folks' fear and prejudice. SB 1070 is a law so bad it had to be rewritten while the ink of the original signatures was still drying. It is law so bad it's been stalled in the courts since the day it was enacted. It is a law so bad it is so far unlawful.
This may be because SB 1070 isn't really a law at all in the conventional sense. It's a piece of performance art. It's community theater.
Sports is a kind of theater, too, of course, which is why it's surprising to me that none of the promised protests at this week's All-Star Game in Phoenix are likely to materialize. This would seem a perfect moment in which to remind America how many ballplayers are foreign-born (27.7 percent), and how many are of Latin extraction (also 27 percent) and how many come to Arizona every year for spring training (50 percent).
With a few exceptions in this country, we seem to have lost the habit of organized protest. Especially when it comes to sports, there is no counterculture, only consumer culture. Don't rock the boat.
For example: Here's the public statement of Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Michael Weiner. And here's the money quote:
"Our nation continues to wrestle with serious issues regarding immigration, prejudice and the protection of individual liberties," Weiner said. "Those matters will not be resolved at Chase Field, nor on any baseball diamond; instead they will be addressed in Congress and in statehouses and in courts by those charged to find the right balance among the competing and sincerely held positions brought to the debate."
Thus does baseball hide behind the apple pie again.
If only Jackie Robinson had waited politely for "those charged to find the right balance!" How much easier things would have been for us all!
Sorry, but no matter how dire the economy or the national emergency, racial profiling is antithetical to the American experiment. If we encourage by complicity, or even by silence, legislation like Arizona SB 1070, we lose whatever battle it is we think we're fighting.
The Constitution needs to be more than just a piece of bright bunting or bit of decorative crepe hung on the hobbyhorse of our preferences and prejudices. Once we sacrifice our founding principles in service of our fears, we give away our right to their protections.
The irony here is that sports are almost entirely pragmatic. They favor what works and discard what does not. American politics, on the other hand, has become a kind of dream state in which ideology trumps ideas and magical thinking is the only kind of thinking we can manage.
Clubhouse or statehouse, our institutions fail us not when we ask too much of them, but when we ask too little.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.