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Mariners, Angels players honor Jackie Robinson

It was a heartbreaking evening

Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

There have been innumerable tributes to Jackie Robinson in the 73 years since he became the first Black player to play in the modern era of Major League Baseball. There isn’t anything meaningful I could add, nothing I could say that hasn’t been said. If you want to read something about Jackie Robinson Day, read this. But I’m recapping tonight, and I’d be remiss not to talk about the reason every player was wearing number 42 tonight.

Jackie Robinson Day was supposed to take place on April 15, the anniversary of the day he made his MLB debut. No games were played on April 15 because of the season delay, so the annual honoring of Robinson’s legacy was rescheduled to today. Today marks 57 years since Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington and told over 200,000 people that he had a dream of a better world. It also marks 75 years since the day that Robinson first sat down with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey to discuss the prospect of Robinson playing the MLB.

For all of the progress we’ve made in those 75 years, this is still where we’re at today.

As of tonight, twenty-one teams have gone on strike for at least one game to protest the widespread racial injustice that still plagues our society 57 years after MLK marched on Washington, and 73 years after Jackie Robinson played in his first MLB game. But Dee Gordon’s comments reveal the trepidation with which so many players approach a potential strike. Colin Kaepernick hasn’t taken a snap since 2016.

Dee’s comments also reveal a fundamental disconnect between organizations and players. On paper, the Mariners would seem to be doing all the right things. They have the most Black players of any team in baseball. They’ve announced several social justice initiatives. They made a public statement in support of the players’ decision not to play on Wednesday.

Despite those actions, the fact that Dee feels that the players have to toe the line speaks volumes. It was with this in mind that the Mariners and Angels took the field today, every player wearing number 42.

The game started innocuously enough, with Andrew Heaney and Nick Margevicius working quickly and trading goose eggs. But it was just half an hour into the game that we received the shocking news that Chadwick Boseman died today of colon cancer. Boseman, who portrayed Jackie Robinson in the biopic 42, had been reportedly battling the illness for four years. As Dee and other Black players silently carry the burden of racial injustice, so too did Boseman keep his illness a secret.

Perhaps more famous than his role as Robinson was Boseman’s portrayal of the titular character in Black Panther. As is the case with Jackie Robinson’s story, more as been written about the significance and importance of Black Panther than I could hope to add, but to say that it’s a cultural touchstone would be an understatement.

So many Black icons have passed away in 2020: Kobe Bryant, John Lewis, Little Richard, and Bill Withers, among others. Boseman’s death feels particularly devastating. The figures he portrayed — the Black Panther, Jackie Robinson — were larger than life. Heroes. Off the screen, Boseman was just a man. When we watch the Mariners, it’s easy to see them as players in uniforms. As batting averages and ERA’s. When Dee Gordon takes off his uniform, he’s just a man. Recognizing the reality of his life as a Black American off the field is as important as recognizing anything he does on the field.

When the news of Boseman’s death was published shortly after 7:00 PM, the continuity of a baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels felt surreal. In part it felt pointless, insignificant. In part it felt as significant as anything, a defiant expression of integration and normalcy.

Margevicious ended up throwing 6.0 above-average innings to Heaneys 7.2 excellent innings as the Mariners found themselves outdueled. A ninth-inning rally was docked by a José Marmolejos TOOTBLAN at third base with one out. Both teams walked back to their clubhouses and removed their number 42 jerseys. They won’t wear them again until April 15, 2021. Dee’s comments echo as Major League Baseball sits down to the overdue task of confronting racial injustice more than once a year.

That’s a task for the organizations. That players feel hesitant to speak out for fear of professional repercussions is unacceptable, and the need for the organizations to build a culture to counteract that fear is non-negotiable.

As for the players themselves, their human selves off the field are doing important work. But their larger-than-life presences on the field keep giving us the energy we need to move forward.