One ESPN sportscaster may have said it best: “The Royals haven’t made the postseason since the Fillmore administration.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but after twenty-four years of competing for last place, I wondered if my favorite team would ever have a respectable season. Yet, beyond all expectations, at the time of this writing the Kansas City has clinched the wild card with a spectacular comeback against the Athletics and then swept the Angels in the division series. Now they are leading the series 1-0 against Baltimore for the American League Championship. Needless to say, I haven’t been this excited about Baseball since I was actually playing it in high school.
In order to build their fundamentally sound, speed-based team, Kansas City had to look beyond the borders of the United States. When they take the field on Friday, October 10 th , one-third of the players will be Venezuelan. Depending on who starts on the mound, the majority of the starting line may be foreign-born. On the entire twenty-five-man roster, ten Royals had to secure visas in order to play Baseball in the U.S.
This is not a situation unique to Kansas City. Major League Baseball, America’s pastime, looks more and more un-American with each season. Of the 750 major league players, 29% are foreign. In the minors, roughly half of the 7,000 players are foreign, largely thanks to the COMPETE Act of 2006 that President Bush championed. [i] Unlike race, ethnicity and nationality has never been an issue in American Baseball , and teams have procured talent from any place that could offer it since the mid-1800’s. In the early days, that place was primarily Cuba. And even though the race barrier was yet to be shattered by Jackie Robinson, Hispanics were always welcome to play in the majors as long as they could prove European ancestry. [ii] Due to the American presence in Cuba after the Spanish-American war, Cuba was able produce Baseball talent to be displayed before American fans for years.
Adolfo Domingo de Guzmán Luque was born in Havana in 1890 and played the bulk of his career with the Cincinnati Reds. He was the first Latino to gain serious recognition for his talents in the majors. On the opposite end of the color spectrum, Martín Magdaleno Dihigo Llanos from Cidra, Cuba excelled in the Negro Leagues in the 20’s and 30’s and would be posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame without ever playing a game in the majors.
After 1940, the Hispanic players entering the United States began to diversify by nationality considerably. Although there has recently been an eye on developing athletes from Japan and South Korea, Latinos now dominate the foreign Major League population with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela holding down the top two spots. [iii] And every year, a new crop of international players needs to procure nonimmigrant visas and other players already here need to renew or change their status.
Major league clubs either handle their immigration matters in-house or outsource them to law firms with an immigration practice. Before 1990 Baseball players could enter the United States on a H-1B visa as a temporary worker and possibly other types of work or visiting visas. In 1960, future Hall of Famer Tony Pérez from Ciego de Avila, Cuba was given a signing bonus of $2.50 to pay for his visa and plane ticket to Miami. However, the Immigration Act of 1990 eliminated foreign artists, entertainers, and athletes from the H-1B category and created the O and P visas specifically for this group of people.
The O visa is for aliens with extraordinary ability who wish to work temporarily in the United States, and athletes fall under the O-1A subcategory. The O visa is valid for one to three years, depending on the contract. This visa option is not available to every major league Baseball player. In order to qualify, one must have a substantial record of awards, international recognition, and a noticeably higher than average salary. Although Ichiro’s $6.5 million salary is relatively low for a player of his stature, his achievements speak for themselves: Rookie of the Year, AL Most Valuable Player, 10-time All Star, and active leader in stolen bases at 487. Internationally, Ichiro has already entered the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. David Ortiz, from the Dominican Republic, would be another terrific example of the caliber of player needed to qualify for the O-1A visa, further supported by his $14 million salary.
For the “average” foreign major leaguer, a major league contract is often enough to qualify for the P visa. The P-1A Major League Sports classification also applies to those playing minor league ball; there is no cap and the visa is valid for up to five years. However, there are still additional requirements to the P-1A visa that need to be proved such as substantial participation in a prior season on a U.S. team, participation in international competition on a national team, or a significant award. For those few brand new minor league recruits that don’t qualify for the P visa, they can still get the H-2B visa if they meet those qualifications.
Despite the relative ease for ball players to qualify for these visas, certain individuals, and even more certain countries, have encountered complications in the visa process. When the catcher asks for a fastball and gets a slider, he takes one in the cup. That is exactly what happened to major league Baseball in 2004 when immigration authorities started paying closer attention to the Dominican players. Since then, numerous visas have been revoked due to individuals falsifying their age in order to look more attractive to recruits. The major league recruits had been inadvertently encouraging this fraud only recruiting young players. Not only that, a couple of notable players have jeopardized their contracts and ability to enter the U.S. after committing marriage fraud.
On the other hand, some foreign ball players have truly inspirational stories. Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies catcher, hails from David, Panama. When he was seven years old his father was killed, and a young Ruiz went to work on the coffee plantations in order to support his family. However, he never stopped playing ball and spent ten years in the minor leagues. In 2006, he was called up to the majors and has been there ever since. Currently, he is the “heart and soul” of the Philadelphia Phillies, an All Star, three-time MVP, and holds an $8.5 million salary. From nothing to everything, based solely on talent, hard work and determination, Ruiz is the embodiment of the American dream.
Thanks to the decision to not cap the P visa, opportunity abounds for foreign ball players in the United States. Congress has allowed an endless supply of talent in the entertainment industries. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for scholars, professionals, and entrepreneurs. But each time you watch a Baseball game, you are guaranteed to see the best players in the world.
Ryan Knight is an immigration attorney with Fayad Law, P.C. Contact the firm if you need assistance with any immigration matter.
[i] The same President who made it a cornerstone of his administration to eliminate steroids from Baseball instead of focusing on more presidential matters like foreign policy and the economy….but everyone has to have priorities.
[ii] Anyone who couldn’t prove 100% whiteness was welcome to play in the Negro Leagues.
[iii] I, personally, do not consider Puerto Ricans to be foreign because Puerto Rico is the United States. They do not need visas to enter the U.S.; they are already citizens. That said, I will give due homage to Roberto Clemente, Hall of Famer, member of the 3,000 hit club and U.S. Marine. And while I’m on the subject, a special honorable mention to Hall of Famer Rod Carew as well, born in the Panama Canal Zone and also a 3,000 hit club member and U.S. Marine.
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