Braves alumni help share legacy of breaking color barrier
By Jon Cooper
Special to MLB.com |
Jackie Robinson would have enjoyed the event that took place in his honor on Saturday afternoon at the Braves Baseball Academy at the Villages at Carver Family YMCA.
Some 150 youth from metro Atlanta spent the day pitching, hitting and running around the area's four baseball fields, each sponsored by a former Brave (John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Brian Jordan and Mike Hampton) on a day bathed in sunshine. The sounds emanating from the diamonds worked perfectly in concert with the sounds of the kids, ranging in ages from 6 to 14, who were laughing and cheering each other on.
What better way to help commemorate the 70th anniversary of Robinson's breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball than Jackie Robinson Play Day?
"I think it gives the children in all of our communities, but especially in underserved communities, the ability to keep dreaming but also to believe that they can make a difference," said Monteil Weeks, executive director of the Villages at Carver Family YMCA. "I think that Mr. Robinson continues to give back to the community in reminding us of all the great things that he did, not only for Georgia, because he was born here, but for the children that live here."
"It's a chance for me to reflect on the legacy of Jackie Robinson and all that he did for Major League Baseball," said Ericka Newsome, Braves director of community affairs and the Braves Foundation. "Jackie Robinson Play Day really gives us an opportunity to give back to the community and instill in these kids the legacy of Jackie Robinson. With it being the 70th anniversary of him breaking the color barrier, it's very important for us to bring our players out today to talk about what Jackie Robinson means to them."
Jordan and former Braves catcher Johnny Estrada were special guests at the event that was sponsored by Delta Airlines and Mizuno.
Jordan and Estrada, teammates on the 2006 Braves, got the opportunity to address the kids, and Delta Airlines donated a check for $1,000 to the Villages at Carver. Peach State Health also had a truck at the event, offering free, healthy snacks to kids and information on asthma and other subjects. There also were baseball-related games and bouncy areas for younger children.
Of course, the most important part of the day was remembering Robinson.
"I can't tell you what he means to me and all African-American baseball players," Jordan said. "I just went to an elementary school and talked about Jackie Robinson and the great character. I think [Dodgers owner Branch] Rickey picked the perfect guy to represent African-American communities and players. If it wasn't for [Robinson] being able to endure all that he did, I never would have had the opportunity to play Major League Baseball. He really opened the door for so many."
"He did so many things for our country, for humanity and baseball," Estrada said. "It's important to celebrate this day with these kids and to try to help educate these kids on what it means and the difference he made for us. These kids have it kind of easy compared to the times back then. We just want to help them understand the importance of today and what Jackie Robinson did for everyone."
Getting to don a jersey with Robinson's No. 42 on it, similar to the jerseys the Braves wore Saturday night in their game against the Padres at SunTrust Park, also was special. Wearing 42 is an experience every Major Leaguer had on Saturday.
"It's special," Estrada said. "When I put it on today, I feel extra special."
"It's awesome," Jordan said about wearing No. 42 on the 13th anniversary of April 15 being declared Jackie Robinson Day around Major League Baseball. "That Major League Baseball decided to have every player wear No. 42. I think it is a fantastic idea, and I'm glad that they did it. Every kid should look at 42 on April 15."
As the group assembled on Field One, the two Braves alums addressed the kids, Estrada expressing his admiration for Robinson's courage and Jordan wishing he could have had the opportunity to ask, "How did you do it? How did you endure all that he did?"
One of the kids who enjoyed wearing No. 42 on the commemorative T-shirts handed out at Play Day and certainly has tremendous respect for what the day represents is Simon Kwon.
The 14-year-old shortstop for Team Georgia Elite got to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at SunTrust Park, having won the Overall Pitch, Hit and Run Championship on Saturday.
"I'm very excited because when I was smaller I used to do research papers on Jackie Robinson whenever we got to do a famous person," said Kwon, who was thrilled to meet Jordan and Estrada and hoped to have an opportunity to meet current Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson.
That Kwon and the other metro Atlanta youth had the opportunity to take place in this event made the day worthwhile for the Braves.
"The Braves Baseball Academy is a big part of our baseball outreach efforts, and so we will be out here year-round working with kids in this community," Newsome said. "We have moved 12 miles up the road to Cobb County, but we're still committed to this neighborhood."
Jon Cooper is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.