If ESPN.com columnist Jeff Pearlman were a surgeon, he’d likely eschew the scalpel for the hacksaw. The Pearlman hacksaw was on full display Tuesday, his sights set on Detroit Tigers slugger Gary Sheffield, with a column carrying the subtle headline: “Sheffield Is One Dangerous Moron.” What, exactly, does that mean?

“In major league baseball, there are morons, and then there are dangerous morons…. They are, to be kind, dim,” Pearlman writes. “What makes dangerous morons dangerous, however, is not stupidity–but, rather, an uncanny inability to recognize one’s own shortcomings. Unlike the moron, the dangerous moron believes he is wickedly intelligent, with volumes of fascinating musings just waiting to be dispensed.”

Considering the “dangerous morons” turning the world into a flambé of horrors, surely Sheffield’s sin must be grand. Maybe he let oil company execs write our nation’s energy policy, or didn’t fix the levees in New Orleans, or called WMDs in Iraq a “slam dunk.” In the era of Bush, Cheney and Tenet, the bar on dangerous morons has been raised considerably.

Sheffield, a lifetime .300 hitter closing in on 500 home runs, has rattled more than a few batting cages with a recent GQ Magazine interview about the tensions between African-American and Latino ballplayers. This has caused Pearlman, and many other sportswriters, to jump on Sheffield with both feet. It’s frankly not hard to understand why.

Sheffield, one of the now only 8.5 percent of African-American players left in the game, spoke about his frustration over baseball’s current ethnic mix.

“I called it years ago,” he said to GQ. “What I called is that you’re going to see more black faces, but there ain’t no English going to be coming out…. [It’s about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do–being able to control them. Where I’m from, you can’t control us…. These are the things my race demands. So, if you’re equally good as this Latin player, guess who’s going to get sent home? I know a lot of players that are home now can outplay a lot of these guys.”

Pearlman pledged to not waste a keystroke commenting on the substance of Sheffield’s remarks:

“I refuse to bash Sheffield for his words because, quite frankly, the man is a dolt…. I don’t care what Sheffield thinks about the Latin-American versus African-American ratio of players.”

Pearlman’s condescending prose neglects the fact that Sheffield’s words are going to become grist for debate at a time when Latino immigrants off the field are becoming the Willie Hortons of the 2008 elections. So they need to be taken seriously.

Have Major League owners shown a preference for developing Latin American talent? Absolutely. Every club has a Latin American scouting department. Teams plow millions of dollars into baseball academies south of the border. But they don’t do it because Latino players are docile sheep. They do it because the young of Latin America live in dire poverty and they can sign 15-year-olds for $2,000. The Dominican Republic, called the Republic of Baseball, is particularly attractive. Its allure lies in its love of baseball and cornucopia of talent and–surely, this is just a coincidence–the fact that steroids are sold over the counter.

Sheffield’s main assertion, that Latino players are somehow more docile, is not backed by reality. In recent years, former Giants manager Felipe Alou and his son Moises have spoken out against anti-Latino racism on the airwaves.

Carlos Delgado has been a vocal advocate for the people of Vieques in Puerto Rico as well as an opponent of the war in Iraq (although since coming to the Mets in 2006, he has muted himself on this question). In leading the effort to get the US Navy out of Vieques, Delgado enlisted fellow Latino Major Leaguers including Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.

It’s tempting to say that Sheffield should spend more time talking to his Latino teammates and less time talking. But Sheffield’s teammate Carlos Guillen has supported an aspect of what Sheffield said.

“I’m glad somebody spoke up. In my first year, in rookie league, I hurt my elbow and I played DH,” Guillen told the Detroit Free Press Tuesday. “In my first at-bat, I hit a double, and I missed first base. I was out, and they screamed at me. I didn’t know what to say. If I had said anything, they would have sent me home. I was afraid to talk. That happens to every Latin player. They are afraid to talk.” No question poverty and competition creates pressures to not speak out.

But it was Lisa Navarrete, vice president of La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization, who smacked down Sheffield’s contention perfectly to the New York Daily News:

“He’s targeting the wrong culprit, the players themselves. Then he resorts to the stereotyping that he himself is trying to fight. I don’t want African-Americans to be stereotyped. Plenty of players belie Sheffield’s characterizations. It’s unfortunate, because at the end of the day, the situations faced by Latins and African-Americans have more in common than they are different.”

She is absolutely right. Now more than ever, in the shadow of the immigration debate on Capitol Hill, where some politicians seem far more eager to build actual fences than political bridges, black-brown unity is a question of political urgency. Instead of fostering that divide, Sheffield should recall the tradition of Roberto Clemente, a founding member of the players union, who in 1968 led a successful push to have the Pittsburg Pirates delay its opening following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The logic of black-brown unity in the 1960s led Clemente to support the breakfast programs of the Philadelphia Black Panther party and speak out against racism in all its forms.

As Clemente once said, “They say, ‘Roberto, you better keep your mouth shut because they will ship you back.’ [But] this is something from the first day I said to myself: I am in the minority group. I am from the poor people. I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So I am going to be treated like a human being.”

Here’s hoping Sheffield considers all this and understands what Latinos are doing to fight for full citizenship and respect inside and outside the lines. And here’s hoping a dialogue opens up in the sports world and beyond, with more noble a purpose than branding someone a “dangerous moron.” That kind of discourse isn’t just moronic; it’s dangerous.