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Guest worker all-stars

By
October 19, 2007

There can’t be many baseball fans that are still surprised by lineups of big leaguers whose names end in “guez” or “rez” or “ina.” Count ‘em: Rodriguezes, Ramirezes, Hernandezes, Gonzalezes, Perezes, Vazquezes, not to mention the Zambranos, Cabreras, Encarnacions, Suzukis, Matsuis, and Kims. Is there still a major league catcher not named Molina?

Of the 25 players on the astonishing Colorado Rockies — they won the National League pennant Monday night — eight are foreign born. The Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox, the teams still competing for the American League title, each have nine foreign-born players, meaning that 17 of the 50 players in the World Series will not be U.S. natives.

Of the 18 starters in last summer’s All-Star Game in San Francisco, eleven (61 percent) were foreign-born. Of the top 10 hitters in the American League this year, seven were foreign born. In the National League, it was a mere four. Total: 11 of 20 (55 percent).

All told, according to Major League Baseball, 27 percent of the players on the 30 big-league teams this season were Dominicans (85), Venezuelans (43), Puerto Ricans (33), Mexicans (14), plus smaller numbers of Cubans, Arubans, Colombians, Panamanians, Japanese, Koreans, Canadians, Australians and Chinese. Count the Puerto Ricans as U.S. natives, and it’s still 24 percent.

What’s happened to the Great American Pastime? The answer, other than the ascendancy of football, basketball and other professional sports, is not very much that hasn’t happened to other segments of the U.S. economy. The only difference is that the proportion of foreign-born players in baseball is about twice that in the general population.

Of course these guys are taking good jobs from nice American boys who probably wouldn’t spurn the multimillion-dollar salaries those foreigners are collecting. But who’s complaining?

In fact, last December, in one of its very last acts, the lame duck Republican Congress, which had spent much of the year writing tough new ID requirements and other immigration restrictions into every bill that came its way, passed legislation — the “Compete Act” — vastly expanding visa eligibility for foreign minor league players. The visa, a P-1, is essentially a guest-worker program for professional athletes — mostly ball players and ice skaters.

Passage in the House was by voice vote (in the Senate by unanimous consent), so we’ll never know for sure whether people Rep. Tom “Deport ‘em all” Tancredo of Colorado was screaming “NO!” in the back of the chamber.

But there’s more to this story. According to Major League Baseball, which now seems to keep statistics on almost everything, nearly 3,000 of the nation’s 6,600 professional minor league prospects (45 percent), the farm team hopefuls under contract to big league teams, are foreign born.

Many of them are products of the baseball academies that the teams have established in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Virtually every big league organization now has an academy in what everybody in baseball calls the Dominican. All told, they train a total of 1,600 players. Meanwhile, teams are recruiting and trying to promote baseball in China, Ghana and other places.

For kids from the hardscrabble lives of an impoverished country, many no more than 12, the prospect of a big-league contract is a near-impossible dream. By definition only a handful of academy prospects make it. And even those who are offered minor league contracts sign for a fraction of what teams offer American-born prospects. Some who are brought here and don’t make it stay as illegal immigrants.

Because those who don’t make it have few other skills, the teams have been under pressure to support schools in the communities where they operate to give the kids some rudiments of education. They’re also trying to teach the ”Big Poppies” of the future some English and a little about American culture.

It’s a great pipeline for talent that can be developed for less than it would cost if all this had to be done with Americans on American soil. The official fiction is that the Dominicans et al. are doing jobs Americans won’t do.

Maybe there’s even some truth to it: How many American parents would jeopardize their kids’ education against the long odds that they might someday make it to the majors?

It’s been 60 years since Jackie Robinson first put on a Dodger uniform and broke baseball’s color line. If they were light-skinned enough, a few Latinos like Alex Carrasquel had been able to pass as white in baseball even before World War II, but the door Robinson opened now admits many more Hispanics than blacks.

Despite the efforts of former baseball stars and managers like Frank Robinson, blacks, who now dominate professional basketball and football, seem to have lost interest in baseball. So maybe we have to be thankful to all those guest-worker stars that are keeping the great American game alive and exciting. There may be a lesson here that goes beyond sports.

(Contact Peter Schrag at pschrag@sacbee.com.)