MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Santana, Lowery stand out at Beacon Awards

Santana, Lowery stand out at Beacon Awards

Santana, Lowery stand out at Beacon Awards
ATLANTA -- At the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Banquet on Saturday night, there were any number of nice enough moments, but there were at least two outstanding performances.

This event has become the star-studded precursor to the Civil Rights Game itself. It lasted three hours, 29 minutes unofficially, which meant that it was actually three minutes longer than the Yankees-Red Sox game played in roughly the same time slot.

For me, and for plenty of other people, based on audience reaction at the Omni Hotel's Grand Ballroom, two of the night's many speakers stood out -- Rev. Joseph Lowery, the keynote speaker, and Carlos Santana, the "Beacon of Change" winner.

No, this is not Carlos Santana, the young catcher for the Indians. This is Carlos Santana, who expanded the very boundaries of Rock 'n' Roll, who played a global kind of music that changed, and improved, the possibilities of popular music. He is still making music, but he has also been involved in numerous charitable causes.

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It is good to report that Santana has not lost a spiritual, intellectual step. He gave a heartfelt address that was pro-people and anti-war. He said things nobody else in the building was going to say such as: "Once you perceive that you are a beam of light, you will carry yourself differently." Indisputable, really.

He was very gracious about the award. But at the end of his remarks, he had some pointed advice about the choice of house music for this event.

"I know who I am," Santana said. "I know what time it is. Next time you invite me, play John Coltrane. Leave Kenny G in the elevator."

Santana received both a huge laugh and a standing ovation. OK, he was going to get the standing ovation anyway, but impressive nonetheless.

Lowery, a longtime leading Civil Rights activist, was consistently entertaining and thought-provoking as the keynote speaker. "I am not a Republican or a Democrat. I am a Methodist," Lowery said, although it will be noted that he delivered the benediction at President Barack Obama's inauguration. And a powerful benediction it was.

Lowery spoke after Rev. Al Sharpton had presided over a tribute to the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, those brave souls who, in the struggle for change, rode the buses and risked their lives in the Deep South. Lowery's theme was "the ride ain't over," meaning that, even though much progress has been made in the cause of Civil Rights, there is still a great distance to be traveled. Lowery used the references to the tribute to the Freedom Riders as a reason to jokingly not "remember" Sharpton's name. The repeated use of this device became increasingly hilarious, as Lowery, of course, knew it would.

There was a tribute to Henry Aaron, who had previously won a Beacon Award. But here especially, in his adopted hometown, there cannot possibly be too many tributes to Aaron. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who was among a few speakers that reflected on their time spent with Aaron, recalled that when he played against Aaron and the Braves while with the Reds, "If he hit one homer, I wanted to hit one. If he hit two homers, I wanted to hit two. If he hit three, I let him go ahead."

And Ernie Banks won the "Beacon of Life" Award, given to an individual who "embodies the soul of the Civil Rights Movement through his life's pursuits." Mr. Cub is a natural for this. As Rev. Jesse Jackson said in his introduction of Banks: "Being a baseball fan in Chicago is not always the best of times, especially on the North Side." But, as Jackson noted, Banks' unfailing exuberance and good cheer have been the antidote to that situation.

Banks, who has added so much to the game simply by being genuine, was as humble as usual in his brief remarks.

"It has been a joy, a privilege and an honor to play the game of baseball," he said. "God bless you and may we continue to fight for equality for all people."

Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, who has been so good so often on screen, was the event's last honoree, with the "Beacon of Hope" award. Preceding the presentation of the award was a video segment detailing how Freeman sparked his hometown of Charleston, Miss., to integrate their high school prom by paying for the entire event. The school had separate proms for African-American and white students up until 2008.

Freeman once again showed flawless timing when he concluded his concise remarks by saying: "It's late. I know you're saying, 'I hope this clown doesn't have a lot to say.' And I don't, apart from, thank you very much."

Billye Aaron, wife of Henry, and mistress of ceremonies for this event, closed the evening by asking for prayers "for a very dear friend." The friend in this case was Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, suffering from esophageal cancer, recently entering hospice care. It was a note of caring and humanity, exactly what this event should present to all of us.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.