Black players continued a mentoring tradition amid a pandemic

By James Wagner

Early in his major league career, Curtis Granderson never went hungry around Dmitri Young, particularly in Kansas City, Mo.

Whenever the Detroit Tigers traveled there, Young, one of the elder Black players on the team, would invite his younger Black teammates — outfielders Nook Logan, Marcus Thames, Craig Monroe and Granderson — to his hotel suite to enjoy a catered buffet usually made up of macaroni and cheese, cornbread, collard greens and barbecued meats. They would fill their bellies, laugh and talk about life and baseball for hours.

“We’d all just be hanging out and fighting over the last piece of oxtail,” Granderson recalled recently. Added Young: “That good old soul food.”

Without realizing it at the time, Granderson was participating in an unofficial tradition that has been handed down through generations in the sport: The older Black players are responsible for looking out for the younger ones.

It has often involved gifts or meals, but those simply provide opportunities to get together, to offer support and to make the newbies feel welcome in a sport where the presence of African American players has shrunk over the past several decades, to just 8 percent of the major leagues this season. Just one Black American player — Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers — is playing in this year’s World Series.

“Man, that’s ridiculous,” said Young, 47, who last played in the majors in 2008 and is now the head baseball coach at Camarillo High in California. “For the history of the game, it dwindles down to this.”

This year complicated the pay-it-forward practice. When the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor league season, recently drafted Black players’ orientation into professional baseball was put on hold as they missed out on the camaraderie of a clubhouse.

So Granderson, 39, and the others leading the Players Alliance, a nonprofit formed after the killing of George Floyd that now includes more than 100 former and current Black players, looked for a modern way to carry on the tradition.

That is why, not long after the Major League Baseball amateur draft in June, Granderson, the president of the nonprofit, was sitting at his computer at his Chicago home with a notepad and his cellphone. He researched the list of 160 players selected in the five rounds and found that 15 of them were Black. Then he reached out to each one of them — via text message or direct message on social media — with an invitation.

“Thank you very much, Instagram,” Granderson, who retired earlier this year after 16 major league seasons, said in a phone interview.

After Granderson welcomed the draftees into the nonprofit — which was created this summer to build Black participation in the sport — he sent them each a Zoom link. As soon as the outfielder Baron Radcliff, the Philadelphia Phillies’ fifth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, joined the video call from the link, he was floored when he saw the faces of players he had idolized or watched on television — C.C. Sabathia, Andrew McCutchen, Delino DeShields Jr. and Torii Hunter.

“Whoa, this is crazy,” said Radcliff, 21.

Radcliff was one of nearly a dozen draftees who joined the hourlong chat. After an introduction, they broke into small groups, many of them paired with current and former players of the same organization or city. The New York Mets’ draftee Isaiah Greene talked to Dominic Smith, a current Mets first baseman and outfielder, and Sabathia, the longtime New York Yankees pitcher who retired last year.

Ed Howard, the Cubs’ first-round pick from Mount Carmel High in Chicago, asked current and former major leaguers about what to expect in spring training and about their paths through the minor leagues. He was encouraged to connect with Cincinnati Reds pitcher Amir Garrett and prospect Hunter Greene, he said, because it meant that when he was in Arizona for spring training or instructional league, “I got people I can count on and talk about things.”

“There’s not a lot of Black players in the game,” added Howard, 19, “and just [having] a mentor helps me feel more comfortable on this new journey, going around different places to play, being around different people and things like that. They talked a lot about being myself and being a good example for people coming up behind me.”

Radcliff said he already had some idea of what to expect because his father, a former Royals minor leaguer in the 1990s, had passed along his experiences. (Back then, African American players made up as much as 19 percent of the major leagues.) Still, Radcliff said, it was jarring to arrive at Phillies’ instructional camp last month and see only two other Black players, out of the nearly 60 present. On the Zoom call, he said, he tried to be a sponge.

“They talked about making sure you’re hustling,” said Radcliff, an Atlanta native, “because there are stereotypes of Black players in pro ball and they don’t want us to fall into that trap. It was all good advice.”

The young players were also all added to a large GroupMe message chain with all of the players in the nonprofit, from Yankees star Giancarlo Stanton to Sabathia.

Howard already had Granderson’s number (the two had crossed paths before in Chicago), and he said he has stayed in touch with Jason Heyward, a Black outfielder for the Cubs who reached out after Howard was drafted by the team, and Tim Anderson, a Black shortstop for the Chicago White Sox. Since the Zoom meeting, Radcliff said, he has talked frequently with two others from Georgia in the group: Edwin Jackson, who last pitched for the Tigers in 2019, and Dexter Fowler, a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder.

“It’s crazy having all these guys’ phone numbers in my phone,” Radcliff said, adding later, “I don’t want to be a bother — ‘Oh, hit me up.’ But every time I’ve hit somebody up, I always get a response and it’s always cool.”

Cameron Maybin, a 14-year veteran outfielder who played for the Cubs and Tigers this season, said the Zoom call was also “an incredible platform” for the draftees to share their own experiences with racism, as well as an opportunity to ask questions about entering professional baseball before even stepping foot on a major league field.

“I wish I would’ve had that going in and been able to reach out to C.C. Sabathia and some of these older guys and ask, ‘What am I in for? What is this going to be like?’” he said in a phone interview.

When Maybin first reached the major leagues with the Tigers at 20 in 2007, he said older players such as Gary Sheffield, Thames, Young and Granderson took him under their wings. They told him to “be seen, not heard” — a common piece of advice Black players give each other in professional baseball.

“They were teaching me from a young age how I needed to move,” said Maybin, now 33, who helped found the Players Alliance. “And I didn’t realize it until I got older. Then you’re like, ‘Damn, these dudes were really trying to help me make sure I didn’t stub my toe on the way.’”

The acts of kindness by one teammate in particular during Maybin’s rookie season have forever stuck with him. Granderson, who was 26 at the time, let Maybin sleep on his couch in Detroit for a week after his call-up, then took him out to eat in every new city they visited that season.

“This dude took me everywhere,” Maybin said. “Everywhere.”

Granderson took the mentorship tradition to heart throughout his career. He sent equipment to minor league, college or youth players who were in need and would bring teammates along to meals. He hosted an annual cookout, mostly for his Black teammates, at his cousin’s home in Florida during spring training.

“It was stuff that was happening all around us that you just didn’t say was mentoring,” he said. “It’s just what you did.”

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