Baseball is striking out on preserving Robinson's legacy

April 22, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Baseball's Ad Hoc Committee on Re-Integrating the National Pastime met yesterday in the home clubhouse about an hour before the first pitch of the re-scheduled Jackie Robinson Night at Camden Yards.

Two of the Orioles' African-American players, later joined by the third, stood in front of a locker with a writer before the game and batted around ideas for keeping the memory of Robinson alive beyond the landmark-anniversary celebrations - and for taking the next step, preventing players like themselves from disappearing altogether.

Why this was taking place so informally, on a Saturday evening with half-dressed players in the moments before the clubhouse was closed to media, is a question the powers-that-be in baseball need to answer.

Such a gathering should be taking place in the commissioner's office, or a hotel ballroom, or a ballpark luxury box or the private dining area of an exclusive eatery. It should be by formal invitation, with baseball officials, Hall of Famers, current players, corporate sponsors and community leaders giving input and exchanging ideas.

If preserving Robinson's legacy and bringing his heirs back into the game were truly high priorities, baseball would have made such a gathering happen long ago.

But, said Jay Payton and Corey Patterson, to their knowledge nothing like that has ever happened or even been suggested.

"No," Patterson said, shaking his head. "No one's ever thought of that. No one's ever asked me, I know that. They should. They could bring a lot of us into it, just to talk about ways to promote it."

Patterson wore Robinson's No. 42 last night, as he had been scheduled to do last Sunday before his bereavement leave after his grandfather's death (and before the rainout of the game against Kansas City). Payton would love to have worn it, but he just returned from the disabled list and was glad Patterson was getting the honor.

Both players liked the idea of baseball continuing to honor Robinson at every opportunity and noted that the understanding of his contributions to baseball and society has increased since his number was retired throughout the majors 10 years ago. But, Payton added, "since then, percentage-wise, the numbers have gone down, so I don't think it's had an effect on that."

It's down to 8 percent. "That's two or three per team," he said soberly. "It used to be one of every four. Now there's 55 or 60 of us total."

The decline rarely, if ever, is put in those terms. Payton, Patterson and Freddie Bynum (who strolled by and was pulled into the discussion) started naming the ones they knew on each team, pointing out the teams that had none. It was depressing to realize it would have taken maybe three minutes to run through them all.

"I don't know what we can do to keep it going," Payton said. "I wish I had a grand plan, just to keep players here [in baseball], to give guys opportunities."

They might not have had a grand plan, but 10 more minutes of bouncing thoughts off each other created a rough draft of talking points that could guide such a summit, and lead to a grand plan.

There were the usual suspects: the cost of playing, the scarcity of fields, finding enough to play a real game. There were the well-worn topics of basketball and football being sexier and a quicker route to stardom and riches. There was the chicken-and-egg question of whether blacks stopped caring about baseball first, or baseball stopped caring about blacks.

And there was the overriding theme of reaching youngsters when they're still reachable and teachable.

"If baseball decided to promote it to kids at an early age, in the commercials -" Patterson began, then had a sudden thought. "Maybe get Nike involved, get them to sell it to kids at a young age. Definitely get commercials. Bring in talent, bring in the musicians. Today, it's all about hip-hop. And not just for black kids, for everybody, white kids, too. They need to recognize that. Everyone else does."

"They need to figure out a way to show that," Payton chimed in. "Show our cribs, show our rides, show our bling." They both barely finished that before bursting out laughing - but they were serious.

"It's not just the money, it's the lifestyle," Patterson said. "We have a really good living from this, but the kids see guys on TV playing basketball and football, and they admire that lifestyle. They get told that there's more money and a better life in basketball and football, but it's not true. They don't know that. They don't get told that."

They were echoing other black players - Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis, for example - who have made the same points in recent years. If it's that common a theme among the players themselves, then baseball is obligated to get it directly from them and have them help decide what to do about that.

"They could bring Torii Hunter into it, someone like that," Patterson said. "Not us, though, we're just everyday ballplayers."

Wrong. It sounds like Patterson, Payton and Bynum are exactly who baseball should ask.

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