In a moment as stirring as any ninth inning “LoDo Magic” moment, the Rockies tapped into a different kind of comeback Thursday, rewriting the record and making a statement that spoke louder than anything seen in the game in generations that can most generously be described as “silent.”
It’s 2020. Errors abound in life, as in baseball. But on the eve of the celebration of Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day, the Colorado Rockies showed that unlike baseball, even — especially — in 2020, we can accommodate the “do-over.”
A day after Rockies outfielder Matt Kemp took himself out of the lineup in solidarity with the athletes standing up for racial justice, his teammates confronted their feelings, had conversations and a team meeting they characterized as “incredible,” “emotional” and “profound,” and executed a perfect do-over, deciding as a team to stand with Kemp and take themselves off the field, postponing Thursday’s series finale with the Diamondbacks and enlarging the moment when baseball collectively took more meaningful action than any active player has seen in the sport, no matter how long their career.
“Listen, I know the hearts of my team,” Kemp told the Daily Planet Thursday, recalling his lone stance in taking a knee during the Opening Day national anthem and his subsequent solitary protest in scratching himself from Wednesday’s game. “All these guys are very supportive of what I did, kneeling and sitting out yesterday’s game. I know their hearts. We’ve had a lot of good discussions about what’s going on, some emotional discussions. I think guys are beginning to understand what’s going on in this world, and they’ve had my back. 100 percent.”
The NBA led the way Wednesday night, with the Milwaukee Bucks choosing not to play their playoff game in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake was shot seven times in the back while he walked toward his car with his young children inside. The league postponed all its playoff games, and a half dozen baseball teams joined the protest by postponing their Wednesday night games.
“I wish we hadn’t played last night,” Rockies shortstop Trevor Story said Thursday after the team walked off the field before their scheduled Thursday game. “We had a chance to stand up for our guy last night, and we didn’t do that. After thinking about it last night and this morning, having conversations with Matt and the people on our team and the people close to me in the Black community — for me, from my conversations with those people, what I got back was that it’s not too late. It’s not too late to show and stand, and this shows that we see, we hear you, and we stand with you. Maybe we missed an opportunity last night, but we’re doing it tonight.”
STAND AND BE COUNTED
Wednesday and Thursday offered a rare opportunity to see people working out an unprecedented challenge in real time, often on camera with a nation’s eyes collectively cast on its most-heralded athletes. We saw Charlie Blackmon turn a post-game interview about his game-winning grand slam Wednesday into an introspective play-by-play of the ongoing process he’s immersed himself in with all the diligence he invests in flirting with .400 more than halfway through the season.
“First and foremost, it was important for me as a person to understand and have empathy for the people around me and the people that have different experiences than I have,” Blackmon explained. “I’m going to feel a certain way based on what I’ve experienced in my life, and I will generally make decisions based on those experiences. It’s very important for me to understand that other people have different experiences and are going to react differently. So I need to make sure that I am in touch with my teammates, and I did my best to have conversations with those that I felt like our situation today applied to, most notably Matt Kemp.”
If you know much about Blackmon, you know he doesn’t offer lip service, regardless of the question. He’s as frank and honest as they come, and if fans want to find role models to help them navigate the turbulence of 2020, they can watch Blackmon in action.
“I spoke to Matt, and Matt was hurting today,” Blackmon continued regarding Wednesday’s deliberations. “Today was tough for him. Matt did what he felt like he needed to do, and it's important for me to understand that and know where he is coming from. I'll never know exactly where he's coming from, but I try my best. That's the most important thing, whether you’re over here, or over here, if you can't at least try and understand what your fellow man is going through, if you can't put yourself in their shoes, or at least think about what's going on with them, you know, you might be part of the problem.”
Hearing from a handful of players and manager Bud Black, it was clear that Wednesday’s events unfolded faster than the Rockies could fully process. Through conversations and check-ins on Wednesday, they reached a conclusion that playing the game might be the best way to unify people in the moment. Consciously or not, they harkened back to Jackie Robinson and his determination to play despite all obstacles.
But a day later, Robinson’s example came into sharper focus. His barrier-breaking journey earned African Americans a seat at the table in Major League Baseball, but with that seat came the right to walk away from that table and the responsibility to stand up and speak out in the face of injustice.
“Jackie would be wanting us to talk about change,” Kemp said Thursday. “Coming up in the Dodgers organization, I got to wear the jersey that Jackie Robinson wore back in the day. To be around guys like Don Newcombe and Maury Wills, I was blessed to have mentors like that to show me the way, give me their experience about what they had to go through back in those days when Jackie was playing and those guys were playing. Tough situation that they had to deal with. They had to just kind of swallow it all and bear the pain of our community. It’s something that’s still going on to this day, and it’s sad, but it’s the world we live in right now.”
AN UNCHARTED PATH
You don’t have to be a baseball fan to think of Robinson as a hero, but you’d have to have an awfully low bar to think that Major League Baseball has been heroic in its past “leadership” in civil rights and racial justice issues. The percentage of African American players on MLB rosters is less than 8 percent, barely higher than it was when Robinson retired in 1956. There are two African American managers, one general manager and no majority owners. For all the avid fan can swear to, MLB has historically addressed the issue once a year, on Jackie Robinson Day. For teams like the Rockies, that’s meant a 30-second video honoring Robinson’s courage.
So this generation of baseball players is finding its own way to lead, to give voice and to take action.
“This has definitely been different, this has been tough,” Kemp said. “This is my 15th year in the league, and I’ve never had to think about some of these things that we’re thinking about this year. Of course, growing up, I’ve dealt with racism, my family’s dealt with racism, so we’ve lived it. It’s coming to light. I think more people are aware of it. It takes a lot of courage even to post things on your Instagram about bringing awareness. There are so many negative people out there that just don’t understand. I’m not trying to make this about myself. We just want to be equal. Yeah, I have darker skin, my family has darker skin, but we’re the same people. We just want to be treated the same.”
Among the naysayers has been our country’s tweeter-in-chief, who spoke out Thursday against NBA players becoming a “political organization” by virtue of standing up for racial justice.
“It’s sad that our president is speaking out about sports not being played,” Kemp responded. “But I think a lot of us understand that there’s more to life than sports, and what’s going on in this world is not OK. Sometimes we need to sit back and think about those things and try to figure out changes. The NBA guys are very outspoken about what they feel, and they’ve done a great job of making their voices heard. Me, I’m trying to do the same. Just trying to be a voice for people that no one wants to hear.”
Story took on the “shut-up-and-play” attitude himself, speaking out against those who deny athletes their humanity.
“We’re not just baseball players,” Story pointed out. “We have feelings, we have thoughts, and this is what they are. We feel like we want to not play baseball today to show we have Matt Kemp’s back. We have (third base coach) Stu Cole’s back. We have (senior director of Major League operations) Paul Egins’ back. We have (relief pitcher) Yency Almonte’s back. Even though Matt was the only guy to sit out, he’s not the only one that was affected. To ‘shut up and play your sport’ is very simple-minded, and I don’t think that’s doing a great job of putting yourself in other people’s shoes. We’re all human. I know we’re baseball players and that’s what we love to do, but it doesn’t define who you are.”
There’s an irony that baseball’s collective conscience is awakening at a time when its athletes are more isolated than ever, but the decisions to walk off the field in protest and solidarity represent a gargantuan leap in players taking action to counter the mind-numbing lull of so much empty rhetoric,.
“That’s the thing,” Kemp told the Planet. “A lot of people can talk about things we need to do and how we can make it better, but it definitely comes with actions. Right now we’re in a situation where there’s so many things going on in this world with the pandemic and all these other things going on, it’s hard to show action, because we can’t really go into these communities and pour into people what we want to pour into them because of COVID and these things. So it’s one of these hard times right now. It’s something we hope can get better, but actions speak louder than words.”
It’s been a season of irony, of bringing back baseball for fans who can’t enter the ballparks, of 162-game marathoners suddenly thrust into a 100-yard dash of a 60-game season, and of players who for generations have resisted the mantle of role models to — like or not — being more front-and-center than ever as they publicly navigate everything from the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There isn’t a road map,” Black said Wednesday. “You talk, you communicate to your players, we talk coaches to players, talk to our coaches, people in our organization to get direction, feedback, we communicate. It’s really fluid. From minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour. It’s what we do. We’re out there in a public spotlight. It makes it a little tough, because you really haven’t had to navigate this type of situation before.”
That minute-to-minute navigation was on display Thursday when the Planet informed Black that at least one more game was set to be postponed following Wednesday’s trio of postponements before word had reached the visitor’s clubhouse in Arizona. Black reported the Rockies expected to play, but just hours later, there were seven games postponed in solidarity of the fight for racial justice, and the Rockies stood among those standing tallest. In a 24-hour span, 20 of MLB’s 30 teams had opted to postpone games, and in a world craving the relief brought by professional sports, the games they didn’t play became the biggest games of the year.
“There’s a great deal of respect amongst that group for each other, regardless of differences of opinions,” Black said of the way his team has responded this week. “That’s healthy. The open dialogue today was pretty cool. It shows again what this team’s about as far as how they are united. For me, that might be the biggest attribute a team can have, is unity, and this team has it.”