McClendon honored to follow in footsteps of Frank Robinson
The 2015 Civil Rights Game between the Mariners and Dodgers will be played at Dodger Stadium on Jackie Robinson Day, Wednesday, at 10:10 p.m. ET.
LOS ANGELES -- Baseball's proudest and most important moment will always be remembered. But Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, the best part of baseball history will be living and on center stage.
Sixty-eight years ago Wednesday, Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier and took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Major League Baseball will combine the celebration of that history with the annual Civil Rights Game, another commemoration of baseball's commitment to progress and diversity.
The Dodgers and the Mariners will play the final game of a three-game series. But the meaning of this celebration will transcend the one mid-April ballgame.
"I think it's a great honor, No. 1, to be associated with anything that's attributed to Jackie Robinson," Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. "I had the opportunity to play Little League baseball, fell in love with the game, aspired to one day to be Jackie Robinson. Feel like I came up a little short. In some ways, I hope I'm making him proud. It's certainly an honor to be here, to be able to wear No. 42. Hopefully, I'll do him proud [Wednesday night]."
Taijuan Walker, who grew up 45 minutes from Dodger Stadium, will have the honor and responsibility of being Seattle's starting pitcher in the Civil Rights Game.
"It means a lot to me, the fact that I get to pitch on Jackie Robinson Day and wear 42 on my back," Walker said. "It's something I've wanted to do for a very long time, ever since I started playing baseball."
To Walker, Robinson represents the best sort of perseverance.
"Just what he went through just to play baseball," Walker said. "All he wanted was to play the game, and everything he had to go through. He never gave up. He kept going."
There is yet another important anniversary to be celebrated in concert with Jackie Robinson Day. Forty years ago this month, Frank Robinson became the first African-American to manage in the big leagues. He will be honored by Major League Baseball with a Beacon Award, symbolic of his achievement.
Frank Robinson means something personal to McClendon.
"I'll tell you what, I had a special moment, when I got fired [as manager] in Pittsburgh," McClendon said. "The first phone call I got was from Frank Robinson, and I'll never forget that. He said, 'You'll get another opportunity. You're good at what you do.' That meant a lot to me. As life goes on, you start to appreciate what he accomplished and the pressures he had to go through."
Baseball was ahead of society in 1947. Maybe it could be ahead of society again with the recognition of a man based on his merits, rather than on his race.
"This is real important," McClendon said. "Listen, I'm proud to be an African-American. I'm more proud to be a good manager. I'm a good manager that happens to be black. I don't think that should be lost in the process.
"When Mr. Zduriencik [Mariners general manager Jack] interviewed me for this job, and I sat across from him, I'm sure he wasn't looking at a black man. He was looking at me asking himself whether I was most qualified to lead this ballclub at this particular time. I don't think race had anything to do with it. I don't want to get caught up in that aspect of it, I want to be known as a good manager first that happens to be black."
When it was noted that we never see a guy identified as a Caucasian manager, McClendon smiled slightly and replied, "Depends on who you're asking, I guess."
Austin Jackson, the Mariners' center fielder, sees the commemoration as a reminder of the basic quality of Jackie Robinson's legacy.
"I think it means something to everyone who is involved in Major League Baseball," Jackson said. "I think MLB does a good job in really recognizing everything that Jackie Robinson stood for. He did so much for the game of baseball and all colors in general. I think everybody gets a great appreciation for what he did for the game.
"When you take the field and everybody is wearing the same number, it touches you, because everybody is the same. No matter the skin type, no matter where you're from, no matter the race or the ethnicity, on that day and every day, really, we're all the same, we're all out to achieve the same goal."
That is the concept that lasts. Baseball remembers Jackie Robinson, plays the Civil Rights Game in tribute to that history, and the game celebrates diversity. And in the process, the rest of us get to remember that there should be far more bringing us together than setting us apart.