It will come as a shock to no one that Jackie Robinson is a hero of mine. The things he achieved, the obstacles - and the ignorance - he overcame, the intrinsic grace that imbued his every action ... He changed the world, and the fact that he did it playing for my favorite team is, of course, a bonus.
In the 60th anniversary issue of Sports Illustrated, Steve Rushin (my favorite SI writer) penned an opus celebrating how much sports have changed while fundamentally remaining the same. Rushin chose an apt lens through which to view a half-century of humanity: Vin Scully.
Scully, whose voice makes me believe in the possibility of peace on earth, told Rushin several stories. One involved Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel, and an impromptu skating session in which Jackie, who had never skated before, laced 'em up to join Scully on the ice because, Robinson reasoned, doing a thing seemed an expedient way to learn it.
I could hear Scully telling the story, the low, rumbling smile in his voice, the warm certainty that comes from having been there and done that.
Scully brought up Robinson a few other times in the article, including an instance in which I could hear that smile fading from his voice. He talked about Robinson's legacy - or rather, the sad lack thereof. On Opening Day 2014, just 8.3 percent of MLB players were African-American. In 1986, that number peaked at 19 percent. We're going backward, Scully said, and he's right.
Which brings me to a bit of a conundrum. It's been difficult to avoid watching the Little League World Series this year, what with Philadelphia's Mo'Ne Davis proving so inspiring - and unflappable - in becoming the sixth girl in LLWS history to get a hit, the fourth to record an RBI and the first to pick up a win on the mound. I had to watch, at least once, even though I have mixed feelings about close-ups of crying 12-year-olds and I am convinced that kids with still-developing growth plates should never be allowed to throw breaking balls.
I had to watch yesterday, too, and probably will again today, even though Davis' remarkable run is over. The Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago will play for the championship against a team from South Korea. The JRW kids scrapped and fought against a Las Vegas club full of sluggers whose frames had Twitter wags demanding birth certificates, rallying from a deficit in the next-to-last inning and refusing to quit.
That would make Jackie Robinson proud, I suspect, as would a few other things about this team. It bears not only Robinson's name but also something resembling his likeness. The JFW roster is filled with black kids, which only matters because it's such a lamentably rare sight on a baseball field. (Davis is also African-American, which I mention for the same reason.)
There have been far too many recent ugly instances that prove how far our supposedly enlightened nation still has to go in fulfilling its lofty "all men are created equal" promise. It's no doubt weak of me, but I had to stop clicking on the vile sentiments being expressed on the Facebook page supporting the Ferguson, Missouri cop who shot unarmed Michael Brown six times. I've kept talking about that shooting, in conversations and on social media, but that can feel futile. The revelation that police report was not released because it did not exist has touched off new worries as a grand jury prepares to take up the case. What if there's not enough evidence, because the people involved made no effort to provide it, to bring charges? The unsettling, un-American images of tanks and tear gas and citizens - including journalists - exercising their First Amendment rights being harassed and handcuffed will return, with a vengeance, and those who still insist racism does not exist in this country will be very hard-pressed to make that case.
So it may be small, but I choose to take some comfort in these Chicago kids. I choose to find hope in their big smiles and indomitable spirit, both for their crime-ridden hometown and for a country that is in danger of cracking down the middle, rent in half because of demonization and denial.
I also choose to hope that today will one day have an impact on the game I love, that reverberations from Willamsport will be felt in much larger ball parks throughout the country. The actions of players such as Carl Crawford and B.J. and Justin Upton, who donated money to pay the sizable travel expenses of the JRW families, fan that hope.
Eight percent, in 2014, is shameful. We can do better. We can reach out to kids who gravitate toward basketball or football for any number of cultural and socioeconomic reasons through programs such as MLB's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, which has helped bring the game to more than 1 million kids since its 1989 founding and has produced alumni such as Crawford, Jimmy Rollins, Coco Crisp and James Loney.
We can try to honor the legacy that Jackie Robinson worked so hard to begin and leave. We can educate kids about that legacy and the man - men - behind it. One thing I do appreciate about the Little League World Series is that it truly encompasses the world, with kids from Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America demonstrating in vivid color all the best baseball has to offer. It's only fitting that the U.S. champion is a more accurate reflection of all that makes America great. It would be fitting if the diversity that has always made this country better could be better represented in its past time.
That would make Vin Scully happy.