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Black players discuss challenges, pride

November 24, 2020

In 2020, the Jackie Robinson Rookies of the Year were two Black players -- Brewers reliever Devin Williams and Mariners outfielder Kyle Lewis -- for the first time since the award was renamed for Robinson in 1987. During the "Culture & Journey of the Black Baseball Player" roundtable discussion that

In 2020, the Jackie Robinson Rookies of the Year were two Black players -- Brewers reliever Devin Williams and Mariners outfielder Kyle Lewis -- for the first time since the award was renamed for Robinson in 1987.

During the "Culture & Journey of the Black Baseball Player" roundtable discussion that streamed on Tuesday, Lewis said that he was honored for the opportunity to be a leader in the Black baseball community.

He, along with Mariners pitcher Justin Dunn, Mets first baseman Dominic Smith and former big league infielder and manager Jerry Manuel, joined Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims on a Zoom video call to share their experiences.

“It was special, with the tone of the country and the world right now,” Lewis said. “I take a lot of pride in that, and I know Devin does, too. It’s cool when you get the opportunity to advance, any time you get those platforms, you want to take advantage of that.”

Being Black in this sport has brought unique challenges to each player.

Lewis described a cultural divide while growing up in Atlanta that required him to navigate more than overt racism.

Smith said coming up through the Minor Leagues was especially hard sometimes because of the things fans would yell from the stands.

“In Double-A, I had an incident where I came back to my locker in Tulsa and somebody had written “learn to swim” on a ball and put it in my locker,” Lewis said of his own Minor League experience. “I never found out who did it or where it came from.

“It was tough because you’re playing a predominantly white sport, but you’re also trying to advance in your own career and look after it. You understand the pain of the community at that time and what’s going on outside of your bubble. It became tough to navigate.”

Manuel, who remembers his dad playing in the Negro Leagues, said the advent of social media and cameras everywhere have pulled the covers back on things that have been going on for years.

In response to the police violence against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake this year, multiple MLB teams joined other American sports leagues in calling off games in protest. Manuel said that it was “rewarding” to see the young guys take stands.

A generation of Black players finds its voice

Both Dunn and Lewis emphasized how important it was for them to have a clubhouse in Seattle that was supportive of their causes, from top to bottom. Dunn and Lewis point to Dee Strange-Gordon as the Mariners’ leader during that time.

The Mariners had the most Black players of any Major League club at the time of the protests.

“We’re a pretty tight family,” Dunn said. “Kyle and I were fortunate enough, along with the other African American players, to have some older veteran presences in Dee Gordon who were able to speak up and have those conversations not only with our teammates but with upper management and ownership. I know I am very appreciative of everything the Mariners did.”

Smith’s own speech during a Zoom media conference went viral on social media on Aug. 26, the week of the protests.

“I come from South Central L.A.,” Smith said of his emotions that day. “It hits me pretty deeply because I’ve seen this stuff happen for years, whether it’s my own personal experiences with law enforcement and police officers and the racial tension that just shouldn’t be there.

“For me to continuously have to relive these moments and for others to disregard it and bring up things in their past that doesn’t even matter. They try to justify the killings. To me, it isn’t right.”

Smith wants to use baseball to help kids who may need it. He said that going back to hometowns and inner cities is the most important thing Black professionals can do to make an impact and increase the number of Black players in the coming years.

In 2017, Smith and two of his friends founded Baseball Generations, an organization dedicated to providing instruction, mentorship and playing opportunities for inner-city youth, including free and subsidized youth programs and travel teams. Last week, it held its first all-star game, featuring 40 of the top high school players in the country.

MLB Youth Programs

Getting the culture back into the sport is the first step to doing that, Manuel said. He thinks kids need to see that players are expressing themselves, whether that is bat flips or creative walk-up songs or anything along those lines.

“The culture has been shaped to look at those things negatively and acting outside of respect for the game, but I think respect for the game is playing hard and playing the right way,” Lewis said. “Putting the uniform on with pride and wearing it the right way.”

“The whole key is that as long as the mind is not enslaved, the body can be free,” Manuel added. “That’s what we need our young men to be -- free. Free to express themselves, free to challenge the apparatus that is in place. We need each and every one of these guys' uniqueness to be a part of the game. That’s what makes our game great. It’s all about making the game better. We need you to be you.”

Kennedi Landry is a reporter/producer for MLB.com.