Thursday, May 23, 2024

Jackie Robinson Day 2024: Cardinals’ young Black players are continuing a St. Louis legacy

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PHOENIX – They are three baby-faced players, barely old enough to legally drink, still trying to prove themselves with the St. Louis Cardinals, but at the same time, not only understand the enormous responsibility, but are embracing it.

Right fielder Jordan Walker, shortstop Masyn Winn and center fielder Victor Scott II represent a generation of young Black ballplayers who are trying to turn back the clock.

The Cardinals are MLB’s lone team to have three everyday Black position players under the age of 25 this season, with Scott the oldest at 23. The last time a team had three Black position players 23 or younger in its opening-day lineup was the 2007 Tampa Bay Rays.

“We take a lot of pride, especially being in St. Louis with a large Black population there,” Winn, 22, tells USA TODAY Sports. “It’s definitely cool. Having three Black starters is pretty special for us, and for the team as well. It’s been a while.

“We want to go out there and show that baseball is also fun for the Black community.”

Cardinals legends Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee sat down with the trio before the season, helping them understand the responsibility of bringing the next generation of Black players to the game of baseball.

This is the first time the Cardinals have an opening-day lineup with three Black position players since 2004 with outfielders Ray Lankford and Reggie Sanders and second baseman Tony Womack.

“It was great just talking about what we’re playing for,” Winn said. “Not just the names on our back, but also the generation that we’re inspiring. I know Willie and Ozzie love it. It means so much to them to be able to represent the Cardinals the way those guys did.”

Major League Baseball, which is celebrating Jackie Robinson Day on Monday – commemorating the 77th anniversary of Jackson breaking the color barrier in 1947 – desperately could use an infusion of young players to curb the erosion of African Americans in its leagues. 

The African American population on opening-day rosters and injured lists this season is just 5.7%, according to a USA TODAY Sports study, the lowest since 1955.

Five teams don’t have a Black player on their roster, with 10 others just having one player. It means that half of the teams in Major League Baseball have no more than one African American on its roster.

Even more alarming, for the first time since 1952, there is not a single Black Major League Baseball player on either the Chicago Cubs or Chicago White Sox, despite playing in a city with a metro population of 8.9 million and the largest Black population in the country.

“That is crazy, just crazy,” says Alek Thomas, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ lone Black player, who grew up in Chicago and attended Mount Carmel High School. “At my high school, everyone on team but the catcher was Black or Hispanic. It’s just so weird.”

Players will tell you they grew up playing Little League on teams filled with Black players, but by the time they reach high school and college, those teams turn white. The Black population at the collegiate baseball level is only about 5%.

Baseball cites the rocketing expense of travel baseball and showcase events, costing families nearly $20,000 a year. They talk about the fact there are just 11.7 scholarships for NCAA Division I teams. And, of course, there’s the fact that with so few Black players at the major league level, kids are simply turning to sports where players look like them.

MLB, which has had three Black players called up to the big leagues since opening day, is encouraged there are 23 other Black players on 40-man rosters who are in the minors. They’ve had 74 African Americans participate in their Spring Breakout games, including 30 who were alumni of their MLB development programs like the Hank Aaron International, DREAM Series, the MLB Tour and the Breakthrough Series.

Still, with fewer Black kids playing high school and collegiate baseball, the Cardinals’ trio are determined to make a difference, helping reverse the ugly trend.

“I think myself, Mayn and Jordan can be extremely important for the youth of the game,” said Scott, who graduated from West Virginia University and stole 94 bases in his second professional season last year. “At the end of the day, it’s who are you impacting at the end of the day.

“So my goal is to impact as many young African American players as possible, kind of visualizing themselves being in the major leagues or in college baseball or in the minor leagues. All of that stuff is important.”

It was Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen who not only was Scott’s hero, but the reason he played baseball, he said, knowing there are major league players who look like him.

Winn, who was offered a scholarship to Duke but signed professionally out of high school, says it was New York Yankees pitcher Marcus Stroman who he idolized, knowing fully well that Stroman graduated from Duke.

Walker, born and raised in Atlanta, wasn’t old enough to see Hank Aaron play but heard all the stories from his dad, grandpa and relatives growing up and was in awe of his legacy.

“We want to be an inspiration for the next generation of Black kids, you know, especially coming out of Atlanta,” said Walker, 21. “There’s a lot of Black players in Atlanta, but sometimes, man, you don’t always get the opportunities. Baseball is expensive just to get seen and to go all of the showcases.

“But hopefully just seeing what we can bring to the lineup, especially with that speed from Victor and Maysn, we can do a lot for the next generation, and help them overcome some of the challenges. That would mean a lot to us.”

The trio’s talent, energy, maturity and intelligence have the Cardinals fans dreaming big about the future, and at the same time, resurrecting memories of those great Cardinals teams with Black stars.

“People are excited in St. Louis, not just the Black community, but all Cardinals fans,” says Missouri Sports Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Claiborne, born and raised in St. Louis. “I hear people say, ‘Where are the Black players in baseball?’ I tell them, ‘Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but one-third of our lineup is Black.’

“I’m proud to say that.”

McGee, the 1985 National League MVP and two-time batting champion and now an outfield coach on the Cardinals’ major league coaching staff, takes great pride in the team’s diversity. He played from 1982 to 1999, helping St. Louis win the 1982 World Series at a time when plenty of teams besides the Cardinals were filled with African American stars.

“When we played, it wasn’t really a thing,” McGee said. “Pretty much every team had Black players. It wasn’t as noticeable as it is now.

“But these guys we have now, I’m telling you, they are all good young men. We’re hoping they pass it on and do for the next generation just like Lou Brock did for us.”

The way Walker, Winn and Scott carry themselves, Cardinals manager Oli Marmol has no doubt they will have a great influence on the game. They can make a difference with their actions, their words, performance and maturity.

“I can’t speak any higher of them,” Marmol says.

Certainly, it’s early in their careers. They have combined for only 194 days of major league service, with Scott making his big-league debut on opening day. They’re still trying to establish themselves, but once they do, the impact could be enormous.

“We have this generation playing in an era where African American participation is stagnant,” Claiborne said. “To see these young guys come along, and the way they’re so engaged, they’re going to be great players and role models not just for the Cardinals, but for all of baseball.

“They are exactly what the game needs.”

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