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Past, present pros talk MLB future at The Bridge 

@castrovince
July 6, 2019

CLEVELAND – Perhaps the best way to understand what baseball could look like in 100 years is to venture back nearly 100 years in the past, when the Negro Leagues offered a come-as-you-are existence for athletes to play with passion and pizzazz in front of adoring audiences. That was the

CLEVELAND – Perhaps the best way to understand what baseball could look like in 100 years is to venture back nearly 100 years in the past, when the Negro Leagues offered a come-as-you-are existence for athletes to play with passion and pizzazz in front of adoring audiences.

That was the main thrust of Saturday’s “fireside chat” featuring MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick at The Bridge, a one-day installation held at Red Space in Cleveland that connected baseball to pop culture areas such as fashion, art, music and technology during All-Star Week.

The goal of The Bridge, which was presented by CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion and curated by the MLB Diversity & Inclusion Department, was to attract diverse audiences in an innovative way -- Reynolds’ and Kendrick’s discussion made clear that the Negro Leagues did exactly that.

“A league born out of exclusion became perhaps the most inclusive entity in American society,” Kendrick said. “The Negro Leagues is everything America is supposed to be. She’s not there yet. We’ve still got work to do. And that’s what makes the story [of the Negro Leagues] so inspiring.”

With two of Sunday’s SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game participants -- outfielder Jo Adell from the Angels and shortstop Royce Lewis from the Twins -- in the audience, Kendrick and Reynolds swapped stories about Negro League greats like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell.

But the bigger-picture point the two men kept coming back to was that although the Negro Leagues were born out of the abhorrent realities of racial segregation, they stand as an example of the sport’s power to bridge cultures. Over the years, Negro Leagues featured not just black players from the United States but also players from Latin America and even some white players. Negro League players barnstormed in Canada and Mexico and as far away as Japan, showcasing their love of the sport.

“The Negro Leagues didn’t care what color you were,” Kendrick said. “All they cared about was whether you could play.”

There is value in telling that story as MLB continues its efforts to grow the game and to encourage more African-American participation. As Reynolds noted, having Adell, who is black, and Lewis, whose father is black, in the audience two years after they were both taken as top-10 picks in the amateur draft was an example of where the game is headed.

“As we dive into the next 100 years, in their draft alone, there were 10 African-American players drafted in the first round,” Reynolds said. “So it’s coming. There’s a pipeline working.”

The Bridge was a different means of spreading the joy of the game to a diverse audience. It featured exhibits from the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh and from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to tell the story of some of the sport’s most influential people of color. But it also included a gaming lounge and a cleat customization demo to appeal to today’s younger audience.

The main hall of the urban event space was brightly adorned with enlarged baseball cards reimagined as modern art. Images of players like Francisco Lindor, CC Sabathia, Cal Ripken Jr. and Mariano Rivera are given an added jolt of life in these artistic interpretations, and the point of how diversity shapes the sport was really hammered home on a gigantic interpretation of the MLB logo that had those same images in the background.

“[The art] makes it attractive, it’s colorful,” Adell said. “Once it’s attractive, younger kids are more likely to want to see what it’s about. They want to be able to learn about it, as well.”

Both Adell and Lewis said they learned a lot from the Reynolds and Kendrick discussion. Lewis said he had already modeled his game and his aggressive style after that of Jackie Robinson after watching the movie “42.” This added history lesson gave him a deeper appreciation for what the Negro Leagues game looked like -- and what the Major League game could look like.

“Just the motivation those guys had back in the day,” Lewis said. “Playing with swag. Bringing that to the game, with that motivation, will help you play better.”

Added Adell: “It makes me want -- when I go back home to inner-city Louisville -- to expand the game of baseball and educate the kids, especially minority kids, in my area, to help them understand that baseball was always popular for African-Americans. Let them hear the stories I heard today and help them know anything is possible.”

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.