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Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Jackie's Day calls, but few players listen

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

Della Britton-Baeza, a woman of indefatigable energy and high optimism, dutifully followed the instructions of her GPS system Monday afternoon to arrive in Flushing, N.Y., in time for the official opening of Citi Field, the pristine new home of the New York Mets.

She made the trip in an official capacity as president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the nonprofit founded a year after Robinson's death in 1972 by his widow, Rachel. Before Monday's 6-5 loss to San Diego, the Mets unveiled the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, a sprawling marble and granite tribute to Robinson that adorns the entrance of the new $800 million park. Much of Citi Field serves as an architectural homage to Robinson's home park, Ebbets Field.

These are optimistic days for Britton-Baeza and the foundation, for it seems -- thanks to a major break in position by Major League Baseball -- that an opening finally has appeared through the dense fog of big-money fundraising and an odd cultural apathy toward the foundation by the sport. For years, despite the Robinson imprimatur and the success of its programs, the foundation has found itself for the most part unable to penetrate the consciousness of baseball's teams and players.

Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson, who won the NL MVP award in 1949, would appreciate the kind words as baseball observes a day in his honor. But chances are he'd rather see action as it relates to the foundation in his name.

Wednesday is officially Jackie Robinson Day. His signature No. 42 is retired throughout baseball, and every player on every team will wear it in his honor on his day. But until recently, the commemoration unfortunately has involved high-energy talk and low-watt action. Of this, Robinson would not be particularly proud.

For of the actual work of making life better for young people, which is the foundation's mission, the facts dilute the gestures. Only one major league player -- New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter -- reinforces his words of praise for Robinson with the financial support the foundation seeks.

The foundation asks for real money -- to sponsor a four-year scholarship for a select number of students at $15,000 per year, or $60,000 total -- to reach its goal of creating leaders for today and tomorrow instead of reflecting only on the accomplishments of yesterday.

Jeter doesn't just sponsor a Robinson scholar. He endows a scholarship in his name, in perpetuity, at the $250,000 level. Every four years, when steroids and police rap sheets overwhelm sports, Jeter, silently, has put another kid through college.

All teams celebrate the Robinson name and legacy, of course. They say the right things. They run the touching video tributes on the Jumbotron. They invite Rachel Robinson -- or Sharon Robinson, Rachel and Jackie's daughter -- to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. But for years, when the foundation asked teams to help do the real work -- underwrite scholarships to put a select number of elite students through four years of college -- virtually every team was hiding in the dugout.

Five years ago, in 2004, only three teams -- the Dodgers, the Mets and the Yankees -- supported the foundation financially. The hollowness between words and deeds still hasn't been completely filled in: Today, on their own, spending money from their own budgets, less than half of the teams have taken the initiative to support the Robinson mission in the most meaningful way.

Thirteen teams back up their speeches with action -- Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, the Yankees, Tampa Bay and Texas in the American league; Cincinnati, Colorado, the Dodgers, the Mets, Philadelphia and Houston in the NL. The rest put on a pretty show.

After some internal muscle-flexing by Bud Selig, the commissioner's office committed $1.2 million to sponsor a scholar in the name of all 30 teams, $300,000 annually for four years. The Mets (who stand out as the most active of all the clubs) and Yankees each committed $1.5 million to the foundation toward a planned Jackie Robinson Research Center and Museum, and to sponsor a scholar.

On Monday afternoon, Selig boarded a flight from Milwaukee to be on hand for the ceremonies in New York, the opening of Citi Field as well as the Robinson Rotunda. He was reading "Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman," the biography by Lee Lowenfish. Selig has always marveled at Robinson's courage and Rickey's vision.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter is the only major leaguer who has funded a scholarship for the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

"I've said it over and over. I'm teaching a course at Marquette and I've said it there: Jackie Robinson entering the major leagues was the most significant moment in baseball history," Selig said. "Think about it. He was 15 years before the civil rights movement, seven years before Brown versus Board of Education, a year before Harry Truman integrated the military."

It is during moments like this when Selig is at his best, fusing history with the immense power he holds. On the steroid issue, integrity lost badly to money. With Robinson, Selig has made a comeback.

And so the teams are represented, bridging the gap between speeches and action. But the players are a different, more disappointing story. Though Gene Orza, the Players Association second-in-command, is a member of the Robinson Foundation board of directors, it is Jeter who stands alone.

So Britton-Baeza has felt trapped between two narratives. One is the historical aura of Jackie Robinson himself. The other is the idea that sports do not matter as they once did, that a perfect storm of too much money, too much exposure and too little accountability has created a runaway species of moneyed anti-heroes who are tone-deaf to the law, to the economy, to the people whose interest in them made them important in the first place.

Both narratives are legitimate. Robinson is appropriately iconic, yet reflection about his history rather than mobilization for the future has unintentionally transformed him into little more than a ceremonial figure. He is a name to be trotted out for a mid-April day or during Black History Month only, while the sports page often mimics a police blotter, shouting headlines about Donte' Stallworth being charged with killing a pedestrian while driving drunk, about Matt Jones and his drug issues, about Marshawn Lynch and his drug/gun issues, about Plaxico Burress and his gun/jail issues, about Michael Vick and his bankruptcy/prison issues.

Combined, the two narratives have created a dangerous reflex toward nostalgia. Where have all the heroes gone? What would Jackie say today? And it explains why, privately, Rachel Robinson, Britton-Baeza and the others at the foundation say they have grown tired. The work that people like to say isn't getting done, the spirit that the narrative suggests is a quaint relic of yesterday, exists right there in full-blooded radiance, at the foundation. And yet Jeter is the only one.

"I didn't really know who Jackie Robinson was. I mean, I had a basic knowledge of him," said Jeffery Moss, a Robinson scholar from 2002 to 2006 who is now a branch manager at Citi in Brooklyn and works with United Neighborhood Houses, a New York foster care program. Moss graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta and is candid about his background. He fled a physically abusive stepfather in San Antonio when he was 17, did Internet research looking for grant money for college and connected with the foundation. He wasn't a sports fan at all.

Bud Selig and Rachel Robinson
Bud Selig, shown here with Rachel Robinson two years ago, used his clout to get major league teams to support the foundation.

"I can honestly tell you I would not be the person I am today," Moss said. "There would be no Morehouse. I probably would have been at a community college in Texas, and Lord knows where from there. I was striving for a diploma. I was trying to change the world. This was more than just a check. Who else can say they have complete access to Rachel Robinson and her family?"

The two narratives have squeezed the identity of the foundation, and the casualty -- at least in terms of attempting to balance the discussion about players who beat up their girlfriends -- is its buried counterpart: service.

"Our scholars are required to perform community service. That doesn't mean go talk to a few kids at a school. We have reports that codify what they've done, so we can create metrics on the lives they touch," Britton-Baeza said. "When we try to explain philanthropy, we extend it to the amount of time you put into another person's life. Maybe one day you'll be able to write a big check, but this has a lot of value, too."

But like Robinson himself, the foundation has appealed to baseball by prodding, cajoling and fighting, just in the boardroom instead of on the base paths.

The mission of the foundation is to prepare children of color for the future. Forty percent of African-American students complete an undergraduate degree within six years. Meanwhile, 97 percent of the 1,300 Robinson scholars to date have graduated within the same span. That means mentoring, partnerships, internships and paying for college. The foundation demands service from its scholars.

That means money. The foundation had asked the commissioner's office, individual teams and players to support individual scholars, a $15,000 annual scholarship for four years of college. Teams had long balked at the $60,000 commitment.

Then Selig flexed his muscle.

"I don't think it took very much," Selig said Monday. "The clubs understood the value of the program, and there was not great objection. And I can honestly say that we should have done this years ago."

Selig is understating the resistance; without his prodding, it is unlikely such comprehensive action would have occurred.

CC Sabathia
Can players such as CC Sabathia be blamed for not helping fund the Jackie Robinson Foundation when they have so many other charitable obligations?

More vexing is the foundation's relationship with the players.

Jeter is the only one. He has written the check. The white players do not financially support the Robinson legacy, nor do the Latino players. Most disappointingly, nor do the black elders -- Gary Sheffield, Torii Hunter, Ken Griffey Jr., Jimmy Rollins -- who have long lamented the fading future of the black baseball player.

"I'll be honest: I don't have any problem getting involved," said Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia as to why he hasn't yet connected with the foundation. "But you also have to understand some of the pressure that we're under to give to our hometowns, to our families, to everybody. I always want to make sure I'm supporting my high school, and programs that support the neighborhood that I grew up in. If there was a way for me to sponsor a kid going to my high school and put them through college, I'd do that, too."

It is easy to vilify the players, especially big-money signees such as Sabathia (eight years, $161 million), but players aren't obligated to give to any charitable foundation. Dusty Baker, the Cincinnati manager, believes players don't lack the willpower or interest in supporting the Robinson Foundation; more at issue, he says, is communication and coordination about how to cooperate.

"You say the name 'Jackie Robinson' and that gets everyone's attention," Baker said. "You have to make it easy for the players. They have people hounding them all the time, always for money. But I think if a coordinated effort was made, I have a hard time believing anybody, especially a black player, would stand up and say no to anything involving Jackie Robinson."

Britton-Baeza acknowledges the foundation must do a better job of outreach to the players, to appeal to them that it is worthy of support amid the constant requests they get from other worthy causes.

"The things we hear from the players are 'I have my own foundation,'" she said. "It is frustrating for us when we see how driven and motivated these students are. They get it. They're going somewhere.

"The thing for us is that it would be such a win-win, because they would know that we know what we're doing, and they get to be tied to the most important name in the history of the sport. We tell our students they have a heavy legacy they're carrying around. Your name is now tied to a historic icon. So you have a responsibility to carry that name with a sense of pride and the right sense of values."

Still, the police blotter will likely win out. It always does. Arrests are sexier and far more newsworthy than community service, but the work of service is being done. There is no reason to have to look to yesterday to find the greatest example of the Robinson will. The opportunities to get involved are available. The word is out. The teams have been nudged into service. Perhaps the players, beyond Jeter, will do the same.

The only question now is who will put up and get in the game, and who will prefer to practice another empty speech for next April 15.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.