Friday's event at Kasberger Field featured a Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) clinic and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an indoor training facility backed by MLB's Baseball Tomorrow Fund. It was all part of a 64th anniversary celebration around the Majors in recognition of Robinson breaking the color barrier not far away at what once was Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, MLB executive vice president Tim Brosnan, Jackie's daughter Sharon and local city officials also were in attendance for an event symbolizing inclusion and equality.
"The number one thing Jackie talked about, it wasn't about acceptance and what he was trying to do as far as the color barrier goes; it was about respect," Washington told the crowd ranging from ages 5 to 18. "I want you kids to understand one thing: Respect isn't something that is given to you. It's something you have to earn. I think we all know that Jackie has definitely earned that respect. You respect your teammates, you respect your mom, your dad, your sister, your brother. And you find out that if you can do that and do it within your heart, a lot of things that you want to accomplish in life you can.
"Right now you're at the point in life where you can have fun. You can enjoy. You've been coddled, you've been led, and all you have to do is follow the lead of the people and experience that's ahead of you, and there isn't much in life that you can't accomplish. Sometimes it doesn't look like things are rosy on the other side, but if you believe, a lot of things that you never thought could happen, will happen.
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"I'm a prime example," Washington continued. "Here I am, a minority managing a Major League club. Through all the years that I was at your age playing the game of baseball, I played it for one purpose -- the love of it, the passion of it. Things happen. You never know where you will end up if, number one, you respect; number two, you believe; and number three -- and not so much in this order -- don't give up on getting your education, because that's important also."
Girardi was obviously the crowd favorite in these parts, but those in attendance saw the unique significance in being addressed by the managers of the last two AL champions. The Yankees' skipper took the podium and began by asking the kids two questions:
"Kids, how many of you know what peer pressure is?" Some raised hands.
"How many of you know what it's like to be put down?" Some raised hands.
"What I want you to remember is, Jackie never gave into that," Girardi then said. "If you can take anything from today, kids, remember that Jackie Robinson, people didn't want him to succeed. People didn't want him to cross the barrier line. Some people didn't want to be his friend. Some people didn't like him. But you know what, Jackie followed his dream, and his dream was to be a Major League baseball player, who I believe played in six World Series, was a six-time All-Star, the first African American broadcaster in baseball. Jackie never gave in. People picked on Jackie, and he was strong.
"School was important to Jackie and he went to UCLA. He played different four sports at UCLA -- imagine that, he lettered in four sports. Jackie didn't let people get to him. Kids, there's a lot of peer pressure for you. It's hard. Jackie probably didn't have a field like this. Think about the things we do have and how blessed we are. Not sometimes the things we don't have. One of you, or maybe more, might be playing for the New York Yankees one day, or the Texas Rangers."
Girardi was interrupted by a loud chorus of "Me."
"If you have a dream, don't let people get in the way of your dream," he said. "Continue to follow it, work hard in school like Jackie, and be what you want to be."
After the event, Girardi said it was "really nice that Ron came out. We have a game tonight and Ron's done a wonderful job with the Texas Rangers. He talked about things he took from Jackie Robinson, and we all did. That's how important he has been to our world.
"It's always great if you can try to share a message with them. Hopefully the kids get something from today about Jackie and the courage it took to stand up against people not wanting him to be successful or people not liking what he was doing. Life is not always easy, and Jackie showed that you can stay focused on the goal at hand. You hope that you can reach all of them. Jackie didn't succumb to the peer pressure, and all of the ridicule he had to face every day. He stood tall in the face of adversity."
Last October, Washington's Rangers eliminated Girardi's Yankees in six games, reaching their first World Series in club history before falling to the Giants.
"I know everyone here is a Yankee fan, and I'm fine with that," Washington said amid laughter from the kids and their parents. "But what I also want to say is, do come out to the ballpark and just enjoy a ballgame. Because I know the Yankees will definitely give you everything they have, and I can guarantee you the Texas Rangers will give you everything they have. And at the end of nine innings we'll see what happens. That's the toughest thing about baseball, you can't predict. You've got to play it between the lines, and I think you guys will see a tremendous amount of great baseball this weekend."
Host Harold Reynolds of MLB Network said: "Ron, you hear that applause? It's the last one you're getting this weekend -- in New York."
Washington said it was "definitely a day that I'm proud of. I certainly hope that something that was said here today, or something that was done here today, can make an impact on your life, because I think that's exactly what Jackie Robinson would have wanted."
Cashman also was among the dignitaries in attendance, helping with the ribbon-cutting as a new indoor training facility was unveiled thanks to a grant of more than $33,000 by the Baseball Tomorrow Fund from MLB and the MLB Players Association.
"Anytime you have a chance to open up a new facility, this is just a nice addition to what's an already awesome field. To have a place where they can come indoors, when the weather is not good, to continue to give people in the community a place to go play. Learn the sport, gravitate to it, spend quality time with other children. I feel privileged to be here and at least be a part of it.
"Jackie deserves all the recognition in the world. This was a difference-maker in society. It wasn't just about baseball, clearly. What he had to do, he's just an example of someone who overcame a lot of obstacles, provides a lot of hope that you can accomplish anything if you work hard enough. The fact that Major League Baseball continues to promote the heroic efforts of what Jackie Robinson did when he was alive, and how he persevered, it's one of the great American stories of all time."
Sharon Robinson, MLB's educational programming consultant, looked out at the next generation of ballplayers as they sat on an artificial-turf surface and told them: "Yes, we want you to have good baseball skills, but we also want you to have strong character.
"My father was selected to be the first African American to break the color barrier," she said. "When Branch Rickey sent out his scout, he wasn't just looking for the greatest talent. He was looking for someone with a really strong character who was going to be able to still be a great baseball player, in spite of enormous pressure. People wanting him not to be successful. Wanting Branch Rickey not to be successful. Wanting baseball not to be integrated. So you're still under these same kind of pressures today. You still have to be excellent against great odds."
PepsiCo and Gatorade donated products for the event. The clinic for baseball and softball players was operated by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. The equipment for the clinic was donated by Pitch In For Baseball.
All home ballparks were to host pregame ceremonies Friday (away teams would host those at home on future dates), and all on-field personnel are wearing No. 42 for the day. In addition, MLB created a website called IAM42.com loaded with videos of players and celebrities talking about Robinson, and it will be a live site leading up to the 65th anniversary next year.
"Jackie Robinson Day has become the most meaningful day on our calendar -- and if we do it right we're going to make it one of the most meaningful days on the country's calendar as the years go by," Brosnan said. "Commissioner Selig often says that Major League Baseball is a social institution with social obligations, and we're pretty proud that we met one of our bigger social obligations by partnering with Jackie Robinson and having him join the Major League Baseball family on April 15, 1947 -- and really setting the stage for the end of a really tough and difficult time for our country.
"At the very end of the day, this is what Jackie Robinson would have been all about. Today we're going to have a clinic for boys and girls in a community that might not have been otherwise served by baseball. That's done under the auspices of RBI. It's baseball's commitment to under-served communities. As we stand here today, we have over 200,000 kids across the country who are going to participate in RBI programs, and we've had over a million kids go through our RBI program.
"We're really proud of what we have here," Brosnan added. "At the very end of the day, what Jackie Robinson was all about was inclusion, and what today's gathering is all about is the inclusion of us and this community."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.