This story originally ran on Feb. 26, 2021. MLB.com is rerunning it in honor of Jackie Robinson Day.
On the night of Aug. 26, 2020, Dominic Smith entered Citi Field’s press conference room with something to say. Smith had spent his day mourning the police shooting of Jacob Blake, pondering what it meant, then playing in a baseball game with all that on his mind. He freely admitted that he had struggled to focus on the baseball part.
It was time for Smith to speak.
He did not rehearse. He did not intend to cry. Smith wanted simply to talk -- to tell everyone how difficult it is to live in a world that discriminates against people like him. To tell everyone that his own success was rooted in hard work, yes, but it was also thanks to a support network that many young players never get to have. To urge others to donate a little bit of time -- not even money, just time -- and to open their minds, and that would be enough.
When Smith attempted to say all this, the tears began flowing, which did more for his message than his words alone could. He worried about that. This emotion was genuine, visceral, and it risked overshadowing the whole point of the thing. When Smith had cried earlier that evening as he kneeled during the national anthem, no one had seen his tears. This one, he couldn’t hide.
“I didn’t do it for the reaction,” Smith said. “I just did it because of how hurt I was in my heart.”
What Smith longed for people to understand is that he didn’t want sympathy, or kind words, or reactionary support. He simply wanted whatever came next to be different.
Three months later, at a ballfield in San Bernardino, Calif., Smith is here with his longtime friend and fellow big leaguer J.P. Crawford. One of Smith’s Mets teammates, J.D. Davis, made the trip to stand by his side. Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty did the same. So did Marlins prospect Jazz Chisholm, helping oversee some of the top young amateur players in the country: Carsten Sabathia, son of CC; Druw Jones, son of Andruw; Termarr Johnson; and more.
They were competing in Baseball Generations’ annual All-Star Game, which Smith had worked to establish because, in his words, there were no opportunities for things like that when he was a kid. Becoming a high-round Draft pick can be an expensive proposition for those hoping to be seen by Major League scouts. High-level amateur baseball, for players from low-income backgrounds, can be difficult to pursue. Smith wanted to make it easier.
“Dominic, just being the person that he is off the field as well as an exceptional baseball player, it made sense to do something that we were all passionate about,” said one of his longtime friends and business partners, Tim Ravare. “It definitely felt like it was needed.”
Smith has known Ravare and a third partner, Ron Miller, for most of his life, dating to their days playing baseball against each other in inner-city Los Angeles. While the Mets selected Smith in the first round of the 2013 Draft, Ravare went to North Carolina A&T to pursue a business degree. He returned home with an idea of what he wanted to do, which meshed with Miller’s training expertise and Smith’s growing platform. The three founded Baseball Generations with a goal to give inner-city players the opportunities that they never had.
In other words, to give the next generation a chance.
That means in baseball, but also in life. When Smith’s August press conference went viral, donations came pouring in from throughout the baseball community and elsewhere, allowing Baseball Generations to expand in ways its founders had only previously dreamt. The COVID-19 pandemic limited what Smith, Ravare and Miller could do, but it also created new opportunities. Since the end of the 2020 Major League season, Baseball Generations has donated more than 60 laptops for its members to keep, allowing them to participate in remote learning at school.
In that fashion, Smith hopes to develop more than just baseball players. In his eyes, children need not be athletic to deserve a chance.
“If you can get these kids to think for themselves and be self-reliant … I think that’s what’s going to help change the next generation,” he said.
Growing up, like many Angelenos, Smith was a basketball fan. In the days after his emotional interview, as text after text buzzed across Smith’s phone, one message stood out from the rest: from Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, who told Smith she wanted him to know that she cared.
“She just wanted to give me a big hug,” Smith said. “She said it looked like I needed one.”
Out of all the messages that Smith received, Buss’ helped him snap out of a depressive funk. Despite the outpouring of support, Smith was concerned that his message would be taken the wrong way. He wasn’t totally sure how to proceed, or even if he was doing the right things. Buss assured him that he was.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, countless others reached out -- some offering support, others money -- and Smith appreciated all of them. He also fretted over them, knowing that even the most well-intentioned people can miss the mark when it comes to issues of racism and inequality. Those who pledge time and money have helped Smith do wonders with Baseball Generations, in ways that he, Ravare and Miller could have only dreamed about a year ago. But how to make that sort of thing last? How to ensure that Smith, or someone like him, never has to cry about unfairness again?
Slowly, through his expanded work with Baseball Generations, Smith came to see his emotional press conference in the same light others did. Like many, Ravare watched film of his friend shortly after the briefing aired. Like many, he was taken aback by Smith’s presence.
“I was just impressed by how he could manage such a heavy question like that and continue to play baseball,” Ravare said. “I’ve known Dom since [we were] young. When he talks like that, when he has things to say like that, you know he’s not just making it up for the camera. He’s not an actor, so he’s not crying on the dime or anything like that. You know for sure that that’s just genuinely how he felt. And I just think it was a mark of things to come.”
Even so, Smith knows, Baseball Generations can only help so many children in one pocket of the country. For real change to happen, the entire rhetoric needs to be different.
For real change to happen, attitudes must transform. Worldviews must realign. The conversation must continue here, there, everywhere -- in a press conference room in New York, on a ballfield in Southern California, in a living room in Los Angeles, in untold communities in untold cities across the country and the world.
“It’s deeper than just me getting on TV and crying,” Smith said. “I didn’t cry for people to reach out to me. I cried for things to change.”