O's Mills makes pitch for tolerance Growing up in Kenya exposed reliever to racial harmony

March 02, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

VIERA, Fla. -- More than two decades have passed since Orioles reliever Alan Mills left Kenya with his parents, but his memories are vivid, colorful mental pictures of gazelles, of monkeys sitting on a mountainside watching cars pass, of his schoolyard friends.

Mills' father, Hugh, moved to Kenya when Alan was 5 to be an agricultural consultant, and for three years, Alan played with Akeel, another boy from Kenya, and Sundervan, a native of India. "There were kids from all over the world," Mills remembered, and they all played soccer together and sometimes cricket.

That period of his life, Mills says now, forever shaped the way he views other people. "There was no majority there," Mills said. "There was no minority [group]. Everybody was different, and there was no way to form an opinion of a certain group."

Mills formed his friendships then from a cross-section of humanity, as he does with the Orioles now; his friends are black, white, Latin American, just about anybody who happens to wear a black and orange uniform. "He's just a good guy to be around," said Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson. "Everybody likes him. He has his moods, like the rest of us, but mostly he's a really upbeat guy, somebody who'd protect you if you needed it."

Mills said: "That's what I like about sports -- all color stops. The only color that matters is the color of your uniform."

Looking back, Kenya represents kind of a utopia for Mills, a model of tolerance. Then again, Mills said, it could've just been that he was at such an impressionable age. You kicked a soccer ball with another kid and the kid kicked it back and neither child thought about what race the other boy happened to be, where he was from. Kids have a unique perspective, Mills said. "They haven't learned anything yet.

"I think when people form prejudices, it's something they learn. It's learned behavior -- it might be from the parents, the cousins, your friends."

He could see the beauty of Kenya, too. Not until years later did he recognize how stunning the landscape really is, when his channel surfing would land him on a nature channel and he would see Kenya. Wow, I know that place -- it is beautiful, he would think.

Mills returned to the United States with a slight British accent, which made him sound different in Lakeland, Fla., where his parents had relocated. "It didn't go over too well in the neighborhood," Mills remembered. "Some of the kids laughed at me."

He remembered, too, immediately sensing that kids in Lakeland treated each other differently. The area is predominantly white -- there was a majority group, which didn't exist in Kenya -- and Mills could feel the tension between blacks and whites.

"Here in the States," Mills said, "people are divided racially by where you live. You'll have a mass of white people over here, and then over here, you'll have a mass of black people. You end up not knowing about the other group.

"That way, you form opinions of people by not knowing, from ignorance. We segregate ourselves. I never experienced prejudice until I got back to the States."

Mills knew about blacks, whites, Indians and others from his time in Kenya, and this was nothing like Kenya. "When I first heard [racism]," said Mills, "I didn't know what it meant, because I'd never heard anything like it before. Once I did figure it out, I wasn't too happy about it."

The brother of a close friend referred to him in racial slang, and Mills, stunned, told him repeatedly that wasn't acceptable.

The kid seemed to understand, he stopped using the slang, and Mills was relieved. But a couple of years later, Mills and the boy -- who was white -- found themselves in a confrontation with black peers, and Mills' supposed friend uttered that ugly phrase again. Mills couldn't believe it.

"I never could and still don't understand how anyone bases their judgment on just appearance," said Mills. "Things were a lot different for my parents, and they told me how things were, the changes they had to go through. I've never been taught how to hate. I haven't learned how to hate.

"I try to treat everybody like I want to be treated."

Mills and his wife, Shareese, had their first child last summer, and they intend to add to their family in the future. Once their children are old enough to understand and absorb, Mills wants to travel to Kenya, to see the wildlife and his old school; Mills can't remember the name of the school, but he recalls its location, the children who used to play there.

"I'm going to wait a little while," Mills said, "so that when they go over there, they can have a little appreciation for that place."

As their father does.

Orioles today

Exhibition opponent: Montreal Expos

Site: Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Stadium

Time: 1: 05 p.m.

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM).

Tape-delayed, beginning approximately 3: 45 p.m. Starters: Expos' Rheal Cormier vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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