Civil Rights Game is a King’s cause

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Jerry Manuel could have planned the entire event. Could have dreamed it up. Executed it. Enjoyed every minute.

As it turned out, the New York Mets bench coach did enjoy every minute of the Civil Rights Game, as well as the events leading up to it and the lingering, satisfying aftermath, leaving with a sense of inner peace that comes with fulfilling a lifelong dream.

“I got chill bumps,” he said. “It was very powerful, a very moving experience.”

Manuel, 54, is a rare lifelong baseball man whose interests reach beyond the dugout, to the impassioned speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rousing writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Manuel has listened to King’s words almost since the day the reverend and activist was assassinated 40 years ago at a Memphis hotel.

“I had his speeches on 8-track, then on cassette, and now on CD,” Manuel said. “Dr. King has been an inspiration my entire life. Great leaders are timeless. His words mean as much today as ever.”

If the inconvenience of shivering through a rainy exhibition before a sparse crowd of 7,717 in the nation’s blues capital a day before games count in the standings annoyed any of the Mets or their opponent, the Chicago White Sox, Manuel was oblivious to it.

This was his bliss.

“You could see this meant a lot to him,” Mets third baseman David Wright said. “Jerry is a passionate speaker himself. He’s a great motivator. Heads turn when he speaks.”

The Civil Rights Game was launched last year to celebrate baseball’s pioneering role in integration and to emphasize the renewed need to promote the sport among African-American youth. It was a two-day crash course in a cause central to our nation’s history, and though the 3-2 Mets victory was largely ignored by the baseball establishment, the African-American community rallied around it.

The Memphis Redbirds’ Triple-A ballpark might give way to another location next year, according to MLB executive Jimmie Lee Solomon, who mentioned big league cities Atlanta, Kansas City, Dallas and Washington D.C. as alternatives. Solomon also said the Civil Rights Game might evolve into a regular-season game.

“Memphis has a particular appeal, but there are other cities with the same appeal,” he said. “It’s a year-to-year decision. The game is still embryonic, but babies grow up real fast.”

A roundtable discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum on Friday night had an unmistakable grown-up feel and was attended by an overflow crowd. The panel included Hank Aaron, Martin Luther King III, the daughters of Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X, and Kenny Williams and Omar Minaya, the general managers of the White Sox and Mets, respectively.

On Saturday morning, White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye – one of four African-American players on the two teams – spoke to about 300 Memphis youths. And both teams visited the museum, which is located where King was assassinated April 4, 1968, while in Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers.

“The museum was emotional for me,” Mets manager Willie Randolph said. “It was enlightening and educational. I’m going to go back with my family. It was very much a bonding experience for the team.”

Randolph is one of only four African-American managers, a number not lost on the roundtable panel, which paid homage to Civil Rights achievements while agreeing that more needs to be done.

Aaron, who did not stay for the game because of what Solomon said was an illness in his family, was told by elders while growing up in Alabama that he could never play in the major leagues.

”So you get that inferiority in your mind and you start thinking you can’t do it,” he said. ”But then along came Jackie Robinson.”

The first wave of black players to sign contracts in the late 1940s and early 1950s faced hardships unimaginable today.

”The hard thing, especially in the minor leagues, was that once the game was over, you had to make your own reservations,” Aaron said. “(The team bus) would drive right up to the restaurant and let the white players out and tell (the black players) we had 25 minutes to get a sandwich.”

A topic of consternation among the panelists is the dwindling number of African-American major leaguers. In the 1960s, about 18 percent were African-American; today there are fewer than 9 percent.

”You look at football, which has about a 68 percent rate of African-American players, and you look at basketball and it’s 74 percent,” King III said. “Somehow, we must find better ways to bring young people, particularly black Americans, into baseball.”

Reasons for the decline are complex, the panel said, and must be viewed in context. The percentage of white baseball players has decreased as well because of the dramatic increase in Latino players and recent influx of Asian players. The total number of players of color is about 40 percent, near the all-time high.

Few dispute that baseball is truly an equal opportunity endeavor. If a player puts up strong numbers, he could be covered in purple polka dots and still get a multi-million dollar contract.

Manuel, for one, disputes the frequently repeated notion that African-American youth have turned away from baseball because of a lack of opportunity in large cities.

“I would say it’s a matter of choice,” he said. “Basketball has more charisma than baseball for black kids. I was a three-sport guy in high school. But if I was coming through now, I would be driven to basketball because it would make me more accepted in my own culture.”

Discrimination in baseball exists primarily in the offices and suites above the field. Williams is the only African-American GM. Minaya is the only Latino GM. There are no African-American team owners.

But any team seeking a manager with a full arsenal of inspirational speeches might do well to consider Manuel, who posted a winning record from 1998 to 2003 with the White Sox and was American League Manager of the Year in 2000.

“Martin Luther King Jr. was a great orator, maybe the best ever,” he said. “I’m grateful that for two days, our entire team was able to realize that, and understand how difficult and important the civil rights movement was in this country. I hope the message continues to get stronger and louder every year.”

Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Saturday, Mar 29, 2008