Baseball is an international game, yet quintessentially American. So what better place to become a U.S. citizen than at the ballpark?
It's that line of thinking that has led the Toledo Mud Hens to host an annual Naturalization Ceremony, in which immigrants from a panoply of countries are officially granted citizenship. The most recent such ceremony took place at Fifth Third Field on Monday before the evening's regularly scheduled contest between the Mud Hens and fellow International League avians the Rochester Red Wings.
Prior to the words "Play Ball," a far more anomalous declaration was heard from behind home plate: "Hear ye, hear ye, court is now in session."
And with that, the Honorable David A. Katz began a brief ceremony that would complete the path to U.S. citizenship. Assembled before him were 20 individuals hailing from 13 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Mexico, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Venezuela. A disparate group, to be sure, but all united in their desire to become Americans.
Katz began by quoting from the Declaration of Independence, of "self-evident truths" and "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And in recognition of recent democratic uprisings worldwide, he put particular emphasis on the passage that declares "that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."
But the right to revolution was on this night superseded by the desire to enjoy a ballgame. Katz soon told the group assembled before him that "On behalf of this government, I welcome you to this country." The pledge of allegiance and national anthem followed, with Toledo's newest Americans welcomed with miniature American flags and handshakes from a group of public-spirited Mud Hens players.
Among them was catcher Max St. Pierre, a Quebec native in the process of obtaining American citizenship himself.
"I've got about a year to go [until citizenship]. It's a big day for all of them," he said, before putting tongue in cheek and adding, "I've got to find a wife that I can marry out here. That would make it go a little quicker."
The Mud Hens have held the Naturalization Ceremony for each of the past three years, inspired to do so after the parent Detroit Tigers held an on-field ceremony for then-third baseman Placido Polanco.
"The level of patriotism and pride is astronomical for our community in hosting an event like this, and we are thrilled to be a part of it!" explained Mud Hens manager of promotions JaMay Edwards, who coordinates the event. "Some of them have never been to a baseball game."
One such individual was native Bangladeshian Subid Das, a recent graduate of the University of Toledo, who moved to the U.S. when he was 17 and remained in Toledo with an aunt and uncle after his parents returned home.
"After two or three months here, I knew I wanted to become a citizen. It's always been my dream to become a doctor," said Das, who will return to school next year to pursue this goal. "[The Naturalization Ceremony] was a meaningful experience. I liked it."
But when asked if baseball's role as the national pastime added a deeper layer of meaning to the occasion, Das was incredulous.
"I thought American football was America's game!" he exclaimed. "C'mon, you're confusing me."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow him on Twitter.