Nelson Mandela's appreciation of sports as a unifying symbol was well-documented, from his donning of a Springboks jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup to his role in South Africa hosting the most recent soccer World Cup in 2010. Mandela also appeared at Yankee Stadium in June 1990, during his visit to the U.S. soon after being freed from prison, and proclaimed: "I am a Yankee!"
On Friday, the world mourned the passing a day earlier of the former South African president and renowned humanitarian at the age of 95. Major League Baseball had just begun its now-annual MLB African Elite Camp in Durban, the largest city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, when the news was announced. This camp was an event that, like so many other facets of society there, never would have existed had it not been for Mandela, and those in attendance said it stirred tremendous emotion as local athletes turned out.
"It was a solemn morning when we met with the kids on the field, especially for South African coaches and players present here at the Academy," said Jason Holowaty, MLB director of market development for Europe, Middle East and Africa. "Our coaching staff addressed the camp and remarked how, without the immense contributions and influence Mr. Mandela had within South Africa -- as well as the rest of the world -- this MLB Elite Camp simply wouldn't exist without the way he led change in this area of the continent."
Also present at the academy is Rick Magnante, manager of the South Africa team that has participated in all three World Baseball Classics. Magnante, the manager of the Oakland A's Class A short-season Vermont Lake Monsters of the New York-Penn League, summed up the impact of Mandela's loss:
"Truly a statesman and spokesman for human rights and unity here in the South African community," Magnante said. "It's a very sad, somber day when you lose a special person -- not only in our generation, but who personified an inspiration within history, who not only spoke up for the rights of blacks, but found a way to unite a whole nation. We're very sad with his passing and we can only hope his legacy shall continue forever."
The camp is part of the MLB Ambassador Tour, which has taken various players to seven nations this offseason to grow the sport. More than 40 players from various African countries, including Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana, have been invited to Durban for specialized, intense, expert training in hopes of furthering their baseball ambitions.
Craig Lefferts, who pitched for six MLB clubs from 1982-94, was the pitching coach for South Africa at last spring's World Baseball Classic. He shared his sentiments about Mandela with the aspiring players who attended, along with the coaching staff. Pirates reliever Mark Melancon will also bring his knowledge and tutoring skills to this Elite Camp in the nation that Mandela built.
"As we look specifically at the baseball community here and Major League Baseball's continuing efforts to embrace this African nation and bring it within the global baseball spectrum," Magnante said, "this probably wouldn't have been possible had Mandela not [only] worked hard to bring equality in the community, but in the sports world as well."
Mandela was released from prison after 27 years on Feb. 11, 1990. That June, he came to America and received a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan. An estimated 750,000 people caught a glimpse of Mandela as his 40-car motorcade weaved through New York after his arrival, led by two dozen police motorcycles. It led to the Bronx.
"Yankee Stadium rocked with a chant of 'Amandla! Amandla!' -- the Zulu word for power," The New York Times wrote. "Many in the crowd thought the word meant freedom or victory, but, in the enthusiasm, it really did not seem to matter."
The Yankees, then a cellar-dweller in the American League East, were on the road in Milwaukee. Billy Joel had booked Yankee Stadium for a block of days while the home team was gone, and his group reportedly gave use of the facility that day to the city of New York for Mandela's arrival. George Steinbrenner, then the Yankees' owner, reportedly was so moved by Mandela's appearance -- and the public's reaction to it -- that he decided there would be no cost for that use of the ballpark.
Tony Morante, the Yankees' current director of stadium tours, was working in the ballpark when Mandela visited. He recalls what happened when David Dinkins, New York's first black mayor, gave Mandela a Yankees cap and jacket as the visitor spoke to a sellout crowd.
"My fondest memory of Mr. Mandela's visit to Yankee Stadium in 1990 was when he was asked if there was a team he rooted for," Morante said on Friday. "Mr. Mandela immediately pulled out a Yankees cap and said, 'I am a Yankee.'"