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ANTA -- When Jackie Robinson appeared in the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he changed both a sport and a nation.
But the impact of April 15, 1947 -- the breaking of baseball's racial barrier -- later became global, as Major League Baseball was opened to Latin American and then later to East Asian players.
The fifth annual Civil Rights Game, held Sunday at Turner Field, celebrated that heritage. The game was the culmination of a weekend of events honoring those who have served the cause of civil rights. In this case, the host Atlanta Braves defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-2, in a contest that was good enough to be worthy of its title.
The nature of the baseball game doesn't change regardless of its title, but the Civil Rights Game is, in part, a tribute to a sport that was changed, improved and diversified from 1947 forward. People inside the game respect that history, and they respect it more than once a year when this game appears on the schedule. One of those people is Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who was born in Cuba. Gonzalez honors that history, worries that future generations might lose touch with it and fully understands how special both the heritage and the Civil Rights Game are.
"It's special that way, revisiting with Hank [Aaron] when he comes here in the mornings sometimes," Gonzalez said Sunday in the home dugout at Turner Field. "Hank doesn't give you much, but he tells you some of the stuff that he went through. We've really come a long, long way. And I think Jackie Robinson not only opened the door for African-Americans, but worldwide; Latin-American players, too.
"It's special to me, because I go back in the history, I love the history and how all that evolved. In the 1970s, my team was the Big Red Machine, and they had Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, George Foster, [Cesar] Geronimo, everybody was integrated already. Going back and seeing the former Negro Leagues players, that was fun. And listening to Cookie Rojas and Tony Perez talk, because they were involved in that also, the [Latin] players couldn't play, either.
"It's good for the game, it's good for us to keep that history alive. Like my son, he wouldn't even know who Jackie Robinson was, unless I tell him, unless he sees this weekend, the presentations. Now he can go back and say: 'OK, dad, I know that name.' It's good for the younger generation that baseball is doing this, to keep that flame going. If we don't, 10 years from now nobody will remember these people."
On this Sunday, the Braves and the Phillies wore throwback uniforms from 1974, the year when Aaron broke Babe Ruth's career home run record. Aaron was honored in pregame ceremonies along with the three winners of Major League Baseball's Beacon Awards: Mr. Cub Ernie Banks, Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman and musician Carlos Santana. There was a trio representing a cross section of America's best.
Santana used this ceremony as a platform from which to denounce the new immigration laws and the people who enacted those laws, in Arizona and here in Georgia. Santana, who is of Mexican-American heritage, later expanded upon his remarks in an impromptu news conference, saying:
"I am here to give voice to the invisible ones. ... This is the United States, the land of the free. If you're going to try passing immigration laws in every state, then everybody should get out except the American Indians."
There will be those who may not like Santana using the Civil Rights Game as a vehicle for publicizing his views. In fact, he was acting within the spirit of not only the Civil Rights Game, but the entire civil rights movement by speaking as he did.
This is a real regular-season baseball game, but it is also a symbolic baseball game. It stands as a representation of baseball's best and brightest moment, when the game was at the cutting edge of civil rights, social change and just basic, necessary human progress. It recalls events that need to be recalled and reminds us, whether we like it or not, that there is still much to be done.