Quick question: Isn’t baseball better because Sammy Sosa plays it?

If you said “no,” then something tells me you’re a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. Slammin’ Sammy of the Chicago Cubs is one of the premier players in the game today. So is Albert Pujols–and he plays for the Cardinals.

Sosa and Pujols both come from the Dominican Republic. I was reminded of this fact the other day, when I read that Sosa’s Caribbean homeland soon may try to join CAFTA–the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which U.S. negotiators just completed.

Sosa, Pujols, and their countrymen provide a perfect illustration of why free trade is good for the United States. Last year, 123 Dominicans played major-league baseball. Their presence increased the quality of the games we all saw–we knew we were watching the best of the best. Today, more than a quarter of all MLB players are foreign-born and so are about half of all minor-league players.

Think of it this way: America’s pastime is brimming with global talent.

If we closed our borders to this influx of fastball pitchers and home-run hitters–in the name, say, of protecting jobs for U.S.-born athletes–big-league ball wouldn’t be nearly as good. Anybody who disagrees with this fact is invited to consider Thomas Sowell’s famous quip that Hank Aaron sure was lucky to come to bat so many times when a home run was about to be hit.

Normally free trade isn’t such a glamorous topic. CAFTA was strengthened last week when Costa Rica signed on and agreed to open its insurance and telecommunications industries to America competition. I could bore you with the nitty-gritty details of how U.S. negotiators made it all happen. Suffice it to say that the office of the U.S. Trade Representative performed like a tenth-inning MVP closer.

In addition to the possibility of the Dominican Republic joining CAFTA, we can look forward to several more successes in the near future. Among Latin American countries, Colombia and Peru may begin trade talks with the United States. In the Middle East, a deal with Morocco appears imminent. Algeria, Bahrain, and Tunisia may appear on the line-up card. A pact with Australia is on deck as well.

These may seem like pint-sized accomplishments, but it would be a big mistake to think they don’t matter. Just as a good bunt can turn into a game-winning RBI, trade with Central America is more important than most people realize. The United States currently exports as much to the 34 million people of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (the current CAFTA “line up”) as it does to the 1.4 billion people of India, Indonesia, and Russia.

I believe strongly in the World Trade Organization and would like to see the Doha round get back on track following the “incomplete game” in Cancun last year. That would be like winning the World Series. In the meantime, regional and bilateral trade accords can be important wins in a long season.

These small advances matter because reducing tariffs is like cutting taxes. They keep more money in the pockets of consumers, provide them better market choices, and create export-related job opportunities. They also fight a problem Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has warned against in several recent speeches: “It is imperative that creeping protectionism be thwarted and reversed.”

This line about “creeping protectionism” has been well reported–Greenspan first spoke of it last August. Another statement has been less noticed: Most of the “low-hanging trade-agreement fruit,” he says, has been picked over and only the hard-to-reach stuff remains. That means trade agreements are becoming tougher rather than easier. So each one is an impressive and worthwhile accomplishment.

I’ll quote Greenspan one more time: “On net, vigorous economic competition over the years has produced a significant rise in the quality of life for the vast majority of the population in market-oriented economies, including those at the bottom of the income distribution.”

That’s true as much for baseball fans as anybody.

Congress must approve all these trade agreements, of course. Because 2004 is an election year, there’s ample reason for pessimism. If the rhetoric in the presidential primaries is any indication, we’re in for months of chatter about how free trade is bad. The silly season is upon us.

But so is the baseball season. Spring training is just a couple of weeks away. So remember: There’s really no such thing as a bad at-bat for guys like Sammy Sosa and Albert Pujols.

Dean Kleckner, Chairman, Truth About Trade and Technology, is an avid St. Louis Cards baseball fan.  Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) is a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.