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Archive for Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Rewards of racial diversity

February 15, 2006

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In a matter of days, America's national pastime will return in full force, with millions of baseball fans entertaining visions of a World Series championship in 2006. Spring training in Arizona and Florida is a special time of hope and dreams across the country.

It seems like an ideal time to revisit last year when the magical White Sox brought a championship back to the South Side of Chicago for the first time in 88 years. Maybe the most important lesson of the thrill-packed season escaped a great many fans.

Owner Jerry Reinsdorf proved, without question, that racial diversity could be a winner in terms of victories and business. Atop the Chicago organizational chart is Ken Williams, senior vice president and general manager and an African-American. His mastery of the game and willingness to make the tough decisions won him universal acclaim among his peers and competitors.

The manager is colorful Ozzie Guillen, a Hispanic. He won the undying loyalty of White Sox fans everywhere, the unqualified trust of his players and the deserved recognition as American League manager of the year. His coaching staff had two blacks, one Hispanic and one Asian on it.

The 25-member roster of the world champions included four blacks, eight Hispanics, and one Asian. The most valuable players for the White Sox in the 2005 World Series were outfielder Jermaine Dye, an African-American, and pitcher Freddy Garcia, a Hispanic.

The amazing White Sox fought off a serious September slump and surprised many by remaining in first place from start to finish to capture the Central Division title of the American League. They eliminated the reigning champion Boston Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs and defeated the Angels of Los Angeles/Anaheim in the AL championship series. Then came the World Series, and the inspired men from the South Side reeled off four consecutive wins over the National League entry, the Houston Astros, for the storied baseball prize.

Many informed observers see a White Sox repeat in 2006, given their superior pitching and superb balance at the bat and in the field. A record year of attendance could be in the offing.

Reinsdorf learned the power of diversity as a boy growing up in Brooklyn, witnessing the different races, religions, national origins, and political parties. His parents taught him that discrimination for any reason was wrong and in no one's best interest. He grew up a fan of the old Brooklyn Dodgers and cheered the arrival of Jackie Robinson in 1947.

It was Reinsdorf's background that led Commissioner Bud Selig and me to ask him to lead Major League Baseball's much publicized drive in 1994 to increase the number of minority employees at every level of the game, both on and off the field. He led the crusade with conviction throughout the 1990s, and his efforts resulted in a new awareness and tangible hiring gains. Even critics were impressed.

Minorities had a special friend in Reinsdorf, who freely criticized owners who failed to measure up in minority hiring. He also pressed the clubs to seek out minority-owned businesses, emphasizing that Major League Baseball wanted them to compete for purchases of goods and services. The results were immediate and encouraging, with the clubs getting a larger pool of suppliers and better quality goods and services at lower prices.

Furthermore, the game was making new and needed friends among the minority communities. More people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds started to attend baseball games, helping to boost overall MLB attendance to over 70 million people, and costs for families to attend games were held down.

Both minorities and nonminorities are more likely to buy your sports products if they see your club as an equal opportunity organization and a contributor to society, Reinsdorf reasoned. The White Sox have given, for example, millions of dollars back to the community for charitable purposes, focusing on teacher-training programs, computers and the improvement of school facilities, along with baseball fields and basketball courts in the city parks.

It is safe to assume that the world champion Chicago White Sox won more, much more, than baseball games in 2005; they reminded us all, and with considerable fanfare, of the lasting value and rich reward of racial diversity.

Gene A. Budig, a university president for 22 years, including 13 years as chancellor of Kansas University, served as president of the American League from 1994 to 2000.

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