A special day for Jackie at Shea

A special day for Jackie at Shea

NEW YORK -- The words faded in and out on Shea Stadium's video board like torches illuminating a road out of darkness.

"Courage ... Determination ... Teamwork ... Persistence ... "

As the pillars of Jackie Robinson's life framed a video tribute to the baseball pioneer and emancipator, Brewers and Mets players spilled out of their dugouts and made their slow way to the third- and first-base foul lines, respectively.

"... Integrity ... Citizenship ... Justice ... "

Josh Groban's powerful voice, belting out "You Raise Me Up," escorted the powerful images of Robinson's odyssey from signing a contract with the Dodgers through carrying out his contract with America.

And, still, the testimonials kept coming.

"... Commitment ... Excellence ... "

Shea Stadium public address announcer Alex Anthony greeted a house full of sun-splashed Mets fans to a brief pregame ceremony to honor someone who was "a beacon of hope and inspiration to Americans in all corners of the country."

And so fans stood in ovation to welcome Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, as she strolled to the middle of the infield between her escorts, Bob DuPuy, the president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball, and Mets manager Willie Randolph.

Mrs. Robinson waved her response to all sections of the park, then made way for Adriana Lee, a Jackie Robinson Foundation scholar at Rutgers University, to deliver the ceremonial first pitch to Carlos Delgado.

Then four members of the Christ Tabernacle Youth Gospel Choir delivered an acappella national anthem -- and it was over.

Ceremonies marking the third annual Jackie Robinson Day, observed throughout MLB on Saturday and focused on Queens, were as subdued as the event it celebrates.

When Robinson played in his first Major League game on April 15, 1947, everyone recognized the occasion as groundbreaking. Yet no one could foresee the extent to which one man's noble bravery would revolutionize the sport.

Fifty-nine years later, the extent is evident and was reflected in that pregame video montage. Featured were not only African-Americans who have since endowed the game, but also images of Ichiro Suzuki taking bows and Manny Ramirez sprinting with a mini-flag and glimpses of others in the MLB melting pot.

"He opened a lot of doors," said Mets outfielder Cliff Floyd. "Especially at a time that had to be most difficult to play. It had to be really tough on him.

"I think it's great for baseball to now take the time to embrace someone like that, to let people know why this is someone they should appreciate."

As decreed three years ago by Commissioner Bud Selig, Jackie Robinson Day commemorates the man who carried baseball across the color line, with the entire country gradually to follow.

Given the breadth of Robinson's influence, baseball actually has shriveled to a small part of the day held in honor of his legacy. Sport has receded into the background to the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has aided meritorious scholars for 33 years, and to social progress in the general population.

Thus, the Shea Stadium ceremonies included "silent partners," who seldom hear the overt cheers they deserve.

Such as members of the Tuskegee Airmen, that legendary squadron of 994 African American pilots who helped execute World War II air raids. Three days ago, President Bush awarded to them the same ultimate civilian award presented last year to Jackie Robinson -- the Congressional Gold Medal.

Also attending were Negro League survivors Robert Scott, who pitched for the New York Black Yankees in 1945-50, and infielder Armando Vazquez, who played eight years in the league through 1952.

The mission of Jackie Robinson Day is mainly to recognize, both where we were and where Robinson led us, but also to educate new generations for whom his deed had been faded by time.

For people like Floyd, who is testament that the tributes are working.

Floyd had grown up in Chicago knowing Robinson simply as the man for whom the Little League field on which he played had been named.

"You'd think the coaches would tell you what he had done," Floyd recalled. "But, no, they never said anything. So I really didn't know much about his part in history.

"That's the great thing about this day. It makes people take a new look at what he did, and I think that's important."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.