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Jackie Robinson Day

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Major League Baseball is designating Sunday April 15th as Jackie Robinson Day. It’s 60 years since Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, representing the beginning of integration in Major League Baseball…whoa, not so fast, buddy! The League wasn’t fully integrated until 1959; in the intervening 12 years Robinson endured epithets, threats, and wads of spit from fans and other players. Betcha can’t guess which team was the last one to integrate…come on, quick, give it a try! I’ll let you know the answer later.

These days Robinson is treated like a real hero, with good reason. Through all the abuse he suffered, he never once retaliated, knowing that to do so would blow the whole thing. The man carried a heavy load on his shoulders: he knew what he was doing, not only for baseball but for all of America.

That’s how important baseball was back then. Since then the game’s lost some of its stature due to the popularity of football and basketball, but back in Robinson’s day it was the quintessential American experience. And what Robinson did had a trickle-down effect that went beyond the world of baseball.

Even if it had only affected baseball fans, Robinson’s contribution was enormous. When I first got into baseball, only seven years ago, I was amazed to learn about the ongoing conversation among fans. Every time I venture out wearing my Yankee visor, I end up talking with someone about whatever’s going on in the field. My son and I went on a baseball tour through Middle America, and for a week talked about nothing else. I can’t tell you a thing about the other 50 people on the tour with us, yet I felt close to them because of the baseball conversation. It transcends race, religion and politics. At the risk of sounding sentimental, baseball talk engenders good feelings and kindness among people (well, except when Yankee fans and BoSox fans meet). When Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field 60 years ago he opened up the conversation as well as the diamond.

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How ironic then that fewer African-Americans are playing today than ever before. In the year 1975, 27.5 percent of all major league players were black; today that number’s a mere 8.4 percent. What happened?

Bruce Jenkins of the SF Chronicle thinks kids in urban areas today have been influenced by the kind of glamour and celebrity to be found in football and basketball, so they don’t get into the sport or develop baseball skills. Baseball, he notes, is an intellectual sport—in other words, uncool. That might be part of the reason—but I think it has more to do with practical reality: colleges hand out hefty scholarships to football and basketball players, but not for baseball.

Another probable factor is that everyone has a shorter attention span from living in a culture that functions like it’s continually on speed. During football and basketball games someone’s almost always in motion. But in baseball nine innings can go by without a single run scored by either side–and they go right on playing until someone gives the damn ball a good whack. This can go on for three hours or more (the longest game on record went 26 innings). Baseball fanatics will tell you these are the best kinds of games, perfect pitching matchups–but hell, they make me want to tear out my eyebrows, so I can’t imagine a teenage boy sitting still for that in 2007.

With so few African Americans batting and pitching, the league is heavily populated by players from Central and South America. That’s where the scouts go to find the next Mariano Rivera or Pedro Martinez. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the presence of the scouts encourage South American kids to put on baseball mitts, or did the kids attract the scouts because they were already playing well? I don’t know the answer to that—but I do know that scouts can’t be in two places at once, and if they’re down in Venezuela they can’t be in Oakland or the Bronx.
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Okay, in honor of Jackie Robinson Day, I’ve decided to issue a special dispensation for Alex Rodriguez, he who I formerly hated, he who wimped out under pressure from New Yorkers, he whose batting average this season is 371, he who is now hitting grand slams and breaking ties for the team. I’ve been shamed into repenting for my previous participation in the New York cruelty fest. Besides, I just found out that A-Rod’s no longer the highest paid player in major league baseball; Jason Giambi is—and he’s not even playing in the field this season, he’s a Designated Hitter! Henceforth I plan to treat A-Rod the same way I treat the rest of the Yankees—with respect and empathy. When it’s earned, anyway.
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And now here’s the answer you’ve been waiting for:
Q: Which Major League team was the last one to inegrate?
A: The Boston Red Sox. No comment.

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