Isaiah Paige, a 21-year-old man in Southern California, a ballplayer, a student and the son of a Jamaican father and Mexican mother, looked into the smoke, the tears and the rage, looked into himself, and had something to say.
His dad, Roy, a Los Angeles fire chief, had reminded him often, “Selfless before self.”
In that spirit, perhaps.
His mom, Laura, an elementary school receptionist, had once led him to a proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
He’d taken that with him too, from his home in Diamond Bar to adulthood, and to Michigan, where he pitched for last year’s College World Series runners-up, and into a society straining to grow great and showing that wear. It’d been eight years since he’d heard the name Trayvon Martin, the night his parents asked him to be careful, to be smart, to understand that black men and boys like him had to see parts of that society for what they were. That sometimes it was the only way they’d survive it.
So he’d tried to be careful and smart. He’d played ball. Some years, he was the only black kid on those teams, and that didn’t bother him much. He still wanted to be like John Lackey, who played nearby for the Los Angeles Angels. He still wanted to be like Sandy Koufax, about whom Isaiah’s grandfather — Carlos — would tell him stories, from when Koufax was unhittable and Carlos was a Dodger Stadium security guard. So he’d love the game no matter what, because it generally loved him back, and at the end the final score made no mention of who was white or black or whatever, and who was not. That could be a pretty good world.
So maybe Isaiah Paige could say something about that.
He, too, was angry. He, too, found the video of George Floyd’s death, he said, “gruesome.” He, too, watched as a nation sought its collective soul on streets unified and divided. He, too, felt it heaviest in his heart and in his stomach, places where a man’s empathy reveals itself. Then, he would come to a conclusion, and that was, “I have hope for the world.”
After a week’s thought, and when the words seemed to him about right, he made a 60-second video in about an hour. He tacked together some photos and clips. A simple piano piece. As of Thursday evening, almost two days after it was posted, the video had more than 265,000 views and 62,000 likes on TikTok.
Young white, brown and black men play ball. Together, they play ball. It’s not everything. But, it’s something. In its simplicity, its naivety, its message and its hopefulness, in its sweetness, it is something:
“I’m an African American baseball player
Which makes me a minority in the sport.
A lot of times people ask me
What it’s like playing a white person sport.
I laugh, because they don’t get it.
Every team I’ve ever played for, color never mattered.
We played together.
We supported each other.
And we loved each other.
The game has given me some of my best friends
And my greatest mentors.
I don’t have all the answers but I do know
If we love everyone how we love our teammates
Everything will be OK.
RIP George Floyd”
Isaiah is home from school. The coronavirus took out all but 15 games of his sophomore season. His sister, Madison, a softball player, graduated last month from Minnesota State University Moorhead. The ceremony took place virtually, so the Paige family gathered around a computer and Madison wore her gown.
He doesn’t have all the answers. How angry is angry enough? Who leads us from here? Who follows? His aunt is a retired police lieutenant in a city nearby. And so what are the boundaries? And who sets them? And who crosses them first?
What Isaiah knew is he had something to say.
“I wanted to let everything digest,” he said. “I didn’t want to make an emotional decision. I listened to some smart people. A lot of the athletes that were outraged, I look up to them. And I saw signs of hope. So I wanted to make it about hope. I mean, something’s wrong and we need to fix it.
“It’s always scary to kind of put yourself out there. With this thing, people would form an opinion about you. But I wanted to say what I needed to say. … In the end, I’m happy I did it.”
Selfless, after all, before self. He said he’d be attending protests this weekend, marching to the memory of George Floyd, of Trayvon Martin, of all that — and who — has gone by. For the teammates he has and the teammates still to come. And for that tree not yet grown. Somebody’s got to tend to that.
“It describes how I want to live my life,” he said.
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