Vines' Jackie Robinson Day start holds unique place in his heart

Braves' young pitcher recalls lessons from late father inspired by Robinson's courage

April 16th, 2024

HOUSTON -- Braves rookie Darius Vines knows how proud his late father would have been to see him wear No. 42 while pitching on Jackie Robinson Day. He gained assurance from Phil Cuzzi was completing a routine glove check during Monday night’s 6-1 win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

“He saw my dad’s name in my glove and he was like, ‘That’s awesome,’” Vines said. “He was asking me about him and he said, ‘Just know, he is always here with you.’ That was around the third inning, and that’s when I started to find a groove a little bit. That kind of stuck with me.”

Randi Vines never saw his son reach the Majors. The proud papa battled kidney issues and suffered a fatal heart attack in October 2022, approximately 11 months before his son made his big league debut. But Randi’s early lessons continue to impact his son.

The Braves pitcher remembers being around 7 years old when his father helped him choose his jersey number. The No. 42 wasn’t available, so Randi decided his son could still honor Jackie Robinson by wearing No. 24, the reverse of the Hall of Famer’s number.

“Around then, he started to talk more about [Robinson],” Darius Vines said. “He would tell me, ‘Son, the sky is the limit, you can do what you want.’ He always wanted me to play baseball when I was growing up. He heard it from his father, and it was engraved in him whenever he would tell me, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you, you can’t because of your color.’”

Some of those early childhood experiences enriched what Vines experienced on Monday night, when he and all Major Leaguers wore No. 42, the number Robinson wore when he broke baseball’s color barrier by debuting for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves on April 15, 1947.

MLB retired Robinson’s number in 1997, but players and on-field personnel have been permitted to wear No. 42 on this date going back to 2009.

Vines didn’t make his big league debut until Aug. 30. So this was his first Jackie Robinson Day as a big leaguer. He teetered in the first inning of his start, but he allowed just one run over 4 2/3 innings.

Five innings might always be the minimum goal for a starting pitcher. But this may have been one day where it was OK to throw 4.2 innings.

“It was an honor,” Vines said. “The things that man had to go through, the things that man did for everybody of color and change. It was a very honorable night I'll never forget.”

Vines allowed four of the first five batters he faced to reach safely, then retired 11 of the final 14 batters he faced in his season debut. Alex Bregman’s first-inning single drove in the only run surrendered by the young righty, who was lifted as left-handed slugger Yordan Alvarez came to the plate with one on and two outs in the fifth.

“He was able to keep his heart rate low,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “He went to Cal State-Bakersfield, so I know he was taught well there. One of my groomsmen was a coach there. So I know his baseball IQ is really good and he understands pitching.”

Vines was given this MLB opportunity as the Braves try to fill the void created by Spencer Strider’s season-ending elbow injury. The Braves could eventually fill this spot with 2023 All-Star Bryce Elder on a more permanent basis. But you can’t overlook what Vines has done when given a chance.

Vines was never considered a heralded prospect. Maybe because, like Elder, his fastball sits in the low 90s. But he has delivered results. Vines has allowed five earned runs while totaling 16 2/3 innings over his first three career starts. He completed six innings in each of his previous two starts.

“He just keeps pitching and doesn’t give in,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That was really impressive. Very, very impressive outing.”

Some leg issues prevented Vines’ grandmother from making the cross-state trip from Dallas to be in attendance for this start against the Astros. But some other family members were present. And as Cuzzi reminded the Braves pitcher, his proud father “is always with” him.