“I credit Jackie Robinson to one of the main reasons why I’m able to play the game of baseball.”
Triston McKenzie made it clear to a group of local eighth-grade students just how important Robinson was in his career. McKenzie explained Tuesday morning the impact that Robinson made on the game and in society, paving the way for people of color to play baseball. And now, McKenzie is becoming a trailblazer of his own.
Over the last three months, McKenzie has taken time to Zoom with Cleveland Metropolitan School District eighth-graders as part of the True2U mentoring program, which allows mentors to share what they have learned throughout their careers and guide students on a course for success as they begin the transition from middle school to high school. And because Tuesday was scheduled to be his last call with the group, he wanted to make sure that the theme of the meeting was something most important to him: Robinson.
“I used to dress up as Jackie Robinson a lot just because he was sort of my inspiration,” McKenzie told the students. “Just him going through all that he went through -- he used to receive hate mail after games; like people would send death threats to him and his family after games. Fans would boo him. Fans would talk a lot of smack in the stands saying like, ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ They’d call him the N-word, they’d do a bunch to him on the field, and he took all of it on the chin and would just kind of go about his business.
“He pretty much paved the way for everybody with a darker skin tone in MLB.”
While Major League Baseball is doing its part to honor Robinson on Thursday and Friday by wearing No. 42 jerseys, the group of eighth-graders will also be at home showing that same support, as McKenzie and the Indians sent No. 42 jerseys to all the kids to wear on Tuesday’s call.
McKenzie and Megan Ganser, the Indians’ coordinator of player engagement and family relations, opened the floor for students to talk about any discrimination they’ve ever faced to normalize speaking up about mistreatment. To make sure all the kids were comfortable, McKenzie chimed in about a situation he ran into during a game he pitched in the Minor Leagues in North Carolina.
“I was pitching at night and third inning, game is kind of going well for me,” McKenzie said, “and [these fans in the stands were] just yelling hateful stuff like, ‘Go eat some fried chicken,’ like trying to distract me while I’m pitching. They’re saying like some wild stuff, and it’s just like, we’re out here to play baseball and this is years and years after we’re supposedly united.”
That inspired another student to open up about situations that he had run into where he wasn’t treated right, and the group then turned the focus to finding ways to make positives out of these horrible situations. And the most important part that McKenzie wanted to stress to the group of teenagers: Don’t be afraid to speak up.
“Personally, I think it’s important when stuff like that happens and it affects you personally, I feel like it’s good to not hold that internally,” McKenzie said. “It’s good to tell the people around, so they’re aware of it and they can notice it, too. Because sometimes they may not pay attention to it because it’s not happening to them. But if you make them aware of it, you’ll have more people on your side able to recognize it and call other people out.”
McKenzie is only 23 years old and is already trying to be like his role model, Robinson, by setting the best example that he can for future generations. Because Tuesday was his final call with the group, each student took time to thank McKenzie for all the advice he’s given them over the past few months. And the Cleveland starter responded by thanking the students for allowing him to be part of their lives.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been able to do anything like this,” McKenzie said. “And even if you guys didn’t take anything out of it, I was just happy to be able to get to know you guys a little bit, understand where you guys are going in your life, and even if I can make the littlest difference in trying to help you guys make a difference for high school or even past that, I’m really happy I had the opportunity.”