When Team Mexico and Team USA meet up on Friday night at Chase Field for their World Baseball Classic tilt, the focus isn't going to be entirely on baseball.
There will be at least a shred of focus on something else, and this particular something else happens to be one of the things you're not supposed to talk about at family dinners: politics.
Yes, politics. Otherwise known as the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies (credit: Groucho Marx).
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports produced an interesting column on Wednesday, one about the general awkwardness of a team of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans playing a tournament in the state of Arizona. This, after all, would be the state that was recently granted the right to empower law enforcement officials to verify the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally.
No doubt you've heard all about it. You've also heard that the common complaint is that the law encourages racial profiling, a notion that isn't sitting well with many of the locals and many others across the union.
It's also not sitting so well with a couple notables on Team Mexico.
One of Mexico's players has already had a run-in with the local law in Arizona. Right-hander Marco Estrada, who plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, was pulled over on his way to an exhibition between Mexico and the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday.
The officer who pulled Estrada over disagreed that he had made a full stop at a stop sign. Since Estrada was never asked for his papers, it's certainly possible that's all it was about. And if that's the case, Estrada was spared the same experience that Mexico teammate and San Francisco Giants closer Sergio Romo has had to put up with on more than one occasion in Arizona.
"I've been pulled over numerous times, driving a nice car," said Romo. "The first question is: What's your citizenship? The second question: Is this your car? And then: What do you do for a living? And it's like, 'Bro, you're Mexican just like me.' 'Ah, but I was born here.' And I say, 'So was I.' "
This would be the anecdotal version of the T-shirt Romo wore during the Giants championship parade last October.
Anecdotes such as these have brought politics into the overall picture of Team Mexico's tilt with Team USA. The players probably won't be distracted by politics by the time they take the field on Friday night, but you can also rest assured that the politics won't be lost on fans in the stands and many more watching at home.
A contentious situation? It shouldn't be. Team Mexico is just a baseball team in town on business, not an invading army of illegal aliens hellbent on making the state of Arizona pay for its treachery (so far as we know).
But an iffy situation that could have been avoided? Yeah, that's fair.
To that end, pointing an accusatory finger at a single party isn't easy. According to the tournament's website, the World Baseball Classic is sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation and operated by World Baseball Classic, Inc., which is a company created at the direction of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Don't try saying all that five times fast. Your brain will lock up and you won't be able to hear certain sound frequencies when you come to.
The short version is that the show is basically put on by MLB and the MLBPA, so Mexico's presence in Arizona for the WBC floats back to them. A call to the commissioner's office seeking comment didn't go anywhere. A call to the MLBPA seeking comment went a little further, but not quite far enough for a comment on the matter.
Thus, here I am ready to take a whack at filling in the blanks with a few theories.
One possible explanation for a team of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans finding its way to Arizona for a baseball tournament is simple shortsightedness. Maybe the tournament organizers never stopped to consider the political climate in Arizona when Chase Field was chosen as a venue and Team Mexico was tabbed to play there. If so, the iffy situation that has arisen may have been avoided with the simple purchase of a newspaper and a few second thoughts.
Another possible explanation is that the political climate of Arizona was considered, but that the tournament's organizers had their hands tied by logistics.
The World Baseball Classic is a big event, but it's possible the organizers can't pick the event's venues at will. Stadiums tend to be used for other things besides baseball, after all, as there are things like concerts and monster truck exhibitions going on in between seasons.
More importantly, there are only a select few Major League Baseball stadiums where baseball can be played in the middle of March. This isn't a very good time of year to play ball at places like Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field or Target Field, as you just don't know what kind of weather you're going to get.
You generally know what kind of weather you're going to get in Arizona, and Chase Field has a retractable roof that can shut out any inclement weather that might come calling. It thus stands out as one of the best places to hold the Classic, as it did when it first hosted WBC games back in 2006.
But the most intriguing possibility of all is that putting Team Mexico in Arizona for this year's tournament was intentional. Maybe organizers were fully aware of the political situation in Arizona, but decided to make sure Team Mexico played there anyway.
If so, well, then this is a bold play.
If event organizers knew what they were doing when they chose to put the Mexican team in Arizona, then they knew they were signing up for stories like Passan's coming out and drawing attention away from the baseball part of the World Baseball Classic. If he didn't write about the situation first, somebody else would have.
The likely thought process there was that the controversy level surely wouldn't rise any higher, which is probably still true. It's hard to imagine an Arizona cop pulling over the Mexican team's bus and throwing everyone in jail. It's even harder to imagine any hardcore SB 1070 supporters rebelling against Team Mexico's presence in some way.
The question that arises is why even bother signing up for articles calling attention to the awkwardness of Team Mexico playing a tournament in Arizona? Why not just avoid it?
The answer to these questions may have something to do with what baseball really is. It's not just a sport. Like James Earl Jones said in Field of Dreams—yeah, I'm going here—baseball is a marker of time and a reminder of "all that once was good and it could be again."
MLB commissioner Bud Selig has always come off as a believer in this idea. He commonly refers to baseball as an "institution" whenever he gets a good excuse to do so. In fact, he even did it when he approved the big trade between the Miami Marlins and the Toronto Blue Jays in November, saying in a statement that baseball is "a social institution with important social responsibilities."
Putting a team of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans smack in the middle of a state that doesn't have the best relationship with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans? Yeah, that fits. Regardless of whether the idea was to create headlines or just rush boldly into them, a Mexican team being intentionally placed in Arizona looks like baseball embracing its status as a social institution with important social responsibilities rather than hiding from it.
It's not going to feel like much of a statement was made if Team USA beats Team Mexico on Friday night. VegasInsider.com had Team USA's odds of winning the tournament at 5/2, compared to 18/1 for Team Mexico. The American team always was going to be a heavy favorite in Friday night's matchup, and it should be an even bigger favorite to win after Mexico's tough loss to Team Italy on Thursday.
But let's not kid ourselves. Team USA has a track record of getting upset in the World Baseball Classic. It's not out of the question that the American team could find itself on the wrong end of the score when the last out is squeezed on Friday night.
And if that's what happens, Mexico's victory is going to feel like it means something. The significance of a team of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans beating a team of Americans in a state that has specific notions of what real Americans look like is not going to be lost on everyone. Those who watched the game could remember that what they watched was more than just a baseball game.
Those who got to play in it might just feel the same way.
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