Major League Baseball (MLB) defied decades of entrenched conservatism within its ruling ranks and moved the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta, Georgia, to Denver, Colorado.
The Republican party is still reeling from this decision, reduced to claiming — I kid thee not — that baseball is a part of a global communist conspiracy. But the question that lingers is why. Why has baseball defied its own culture to make such a move?
One way to understand it is to look back a decade ago, to the last time there was a public push to move the MLB All-Star Game.
Back then, all eyes were on Arizona. The state’s governor, Jan Brewer, signed SB 1070, the “papers please” bill, into law on April 23, 2010. The law, in its worst form, would have given law enforcement the right to ask anyone for their immigration papers; it would have criminalised citizens who had any knowledge of undocumented people in their midst but did not report them. It was brutal. It was ugly. And the sports world took note, both on and off the field.
In the National Basketball Association, the Phoenix Suns played a playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs on May 1, a day of international solidarity, wearing shirts that read Los Suns. The game was accompanied by an immigrant rights march on the arena as well as statements of political support for all immigrants by Suns players like Steve Nash and announcers like Charles Barkley.
But it was in baseball that the sparks really flew. Fans and activists marched at stadiums around the country in August–September of 2010, demanding that MLB move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona. Banners were unfurled at stadiums.
At Nationals Park, two people ran onto the field holding a banner targeting the commissioner of baseball Alan Huber ‘Bud’ Selig that, as reported on ESPN, read, “Bud Selig Move All Star Game No SB 1070,” while a picket went on outside the stadium’s gates. Even a small group of players in the very conservative world of baseball spoke out. Given MLB’s dependence on Latin American talent, many thought that Selig would buckle and move the game. Despite all the pressure, he did not.
To state the obvious, 2021 is an entirely different ballgame. Before one picket could be announced, before players could meet and devise their own strategies, before the media could question everyone in the baseball world about whether the game should move, MLB decided on its own that it wasn’t worth the headache and got the hell out.
I spoke to three activists who worked in 2010–11 to get the All-Star Game moved. Here are their thoughts about what has changed.
Enrique Morones, the San Diego Padres’ Vice President for Latino and International Marketing from 1995–2001, is the founder and executive director of Gente Unida, a nonprofit with the mission to defend human rights along the border. Morones believes that “racism in baseball has a long history, but when it pertains to Latinos, we are often ignored...
“In general, Latino voices are just not respected well beyond baseball. Just look at lack of Latino leadership in industries overall. I watch the Today show, and there are no Latino anchors. When CNN talks about race, it’s about black and white. Our voices and experience are ignored.
“I am a huge supporter of [Black Lives Matter] BLM. But I can see that when George Floyd was killed by four police officers in Minnesota, there were international marches. When Anastacio Hernandez was killed by 12 border law enforcement officers, there was no national outrage.”
Morones argues that if we understand the marginalisation of the Latinx community, then we can understand why some social justice calls get more traction than others, especially when one of the motors for change is the bottom-line considerations of corporate America.
When Washington played the Arizona Diamondbacks 11 years ago, Gustavo Andrade ran onto the Nationals Park field to protest SB 1070. “My heart was filled with pride in all of us movement folks when I heard the All-Star Game was to be moved from Georgia,” he told me.
“The progressive movement has come a long way since 2010. We have managed to, in just a few short years, organise a critical mass of the general public to take a stand for the welfare of Black and brown people as we fight for our lives. So what’s different today?
“Back in 2010, the very idea that sports and popular culture presented organisers with a vehicle to raise critical questions about the nature of our system was met with derision from short-sighted leaders in media, government and even mainstream advocacy groups. ‘Stick to sports’ and ‘Shut up and dribble’ were the consensus positions of the day. That consensus has radically changed since 2010 and we are better for it.
“However, the last decade’s protests by athletes wasn’t the key that changed public perception: It was the millions of people who marched, protested and organised from Phoenix to Ferguson to Baltimore and everywhere in between over the last decade who have changed the world. Corporate America is now afraid of us. Let’s show them they’re right to be scared.”
Another long-time activist, who asked not to be named, told me, “It’s a different world. We’ve had the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve had a racist-in-chief in Donald Trump polarise everything. We’ve had the George Floyd protests last summer. This is a whole new generation at the front of the march for change.
“Major League Baseball and these other corporations are finally putting their fingers in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing. They want to connect with this younger generation, not with voter suppression, backlash, and bigotry.”
Yes, times have changed. As anti-immigrant and anti-voting bills spread through other Republican-led state legislatures, MLB will have to decide which side it is on. Passivity will undoubtedly be met with action. Fans and a new generation of players are going to make it too expensive for the owners to sit on the bench.
[Abridged from Edge of Sports. Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports, published by Haymarket.]