"Think about it," Willie Randolph said, in a tone more amazed than confused. "I'm the first African-American manager in New York. You wouldn't think that, really. People talk about how far we've come. That just shows that we still have a long way to go."
The issue is deeply personal to Randolph, whose very livelihood has depended on a man he's never met, and a battle he's rarely had to fight. By the time Randolph was old enough to fully understand the scope of the civil rights movement, its greatest injustices had already been repaired. Randolph never had to drink from a separate water fountain or sleep in a separate hotel. Yet the fight is not complete, and so Randolph still burns.
He often considers what it would have been like to grow up in that era, when his skin alone would have transformed so many aspects of his life. He cringes at the thought. That's why for Randolph, this Saturday's Civil Rights Game has become so charged with meaning. There, in Memphis, at the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, Randolph will be forced to pause and consider a past he never had to endure.
"It's going to be an education for all of us," Randolph said. "It's something that should be very interesting to go there and get a little knowledge about really what it was like, and to feel it and see it. That's for all my players -- African-American, Latin-American players that we have here. It should be something that we should look forward to."
Randolph's only exposure to King came from the dusty pages of textbooks and the grainy frames of documentaries. That wasn't much. Yet the more he began to discover what this world was all about, the more he realized how much that one man meant, how much that one man's life affected his own. Born into some other era, into some other culture, Randolph might never have seen his big league dream come true.
Standing here in Florida, in his bright blue Mets jacket, Randolph can visualize all that, but he can't help but feel some sort of disconnect. Here, he can open his eyes and see an empty office, some chairs in the corner, the names of his players hanging on the wall. Here, he can consider the past, but snap back to the present whenever he sees fit.
Not in Memphis this weekend, when a different sort of reality will engulf him.
"It's going to be kind of emotional for me to be there, and, in my mind, think about what it must have been like being there back then," Randolph said. "I try to transform myself in my mind, and I think that once I get there, I'll get a better sense for that."
His Mets will travel to Memphis on Friday, in preparation for what's now become an annual event. Created last spring to help honor the movement in which baseball played a noteworthy role, the Civil Rights Game -- scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET with live coverage on MLB.TV and a pregame show on BaseballChannel.TV beginning at 4 ET -- will take place this year between the Mets and White Sox, two teams brimming with minority players and personnel.
Randolph's role in all that remains significant. More than three years ago he became the first black man ever to manage a New York baseball team -- Yankees, Mets, Giants and Dodgers included -- and he's since become an ambassador of sorts for a game that's lost a foothold in the black community. Young blacks are turning to baseball at decreasing rates, and that's a problem Randolph does not take lightly.
When the sport chose to honor Jackie Robinson, its own civil rights leader, last April on the 60th anniversary of his breaking the sport's color barrier, Randolph filed one of the first requests to wear Robinson's No. 42. He spoke that day of what the honor meant to him, of how he hoped that today's children would continue to follow the path blazed by one of baseball's foremost icons.
This weekend will give Randolph, along with the rest of baseball, another outlet to express those sentiments. Taking the opportunity to escort his interested players to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Randolph will view the weekend trip quite differently than he does any other game. This one, clearly, is not about baseball. It's about an issue that has been central to the entire world for centuries, and that will continue to burn long after the Mets pack their bags and fly back to Florida for Opening Day.
"It's something that should be acknowledged and honored and brought to the forefront," Randolph said. "But it should always be there. It shouldn't just be periodically, we just kind of do it and then OK, we wait a little while and do it again. It's something that should always be in the consciousness of people."
Randolph has fixed it in his consciousness more than most, which explains why he's so eager to take part in this game. Why he hopes to find some young black fans in Memphis, to talk to them and attempt to spur their interest in baseball. Every little bit helps.
"I think it's part of my obligation," Randolph said. "It's not about really carrying a torch or anything like that. But I do feel a sense of being a part of Jackie's legacy, and, in a different way, Martin's, because of the impact he made on the society. We're trying to inspire young people to achieve, and to grow and to work toward their goals."
He waved his hands as he spoke, emphasizing the point. Here in his office, amidst tangible proof of his success, Randolph hasn't forgotten what these issues mean to his own life. He worked for this, yes, but he also had an opportunity that other black men never had. That's something he won't soon forget.
"I'm a living example of hard work and perseverance and really just dreaming about what you want," Randolph said. "Martin talks about his dream. I had a dream too, and it came true. It really came true."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less