ROSENBERG, Texas -- More than 35 years have come and gone since Jimmie Lee Solomon walked the halls of Lamar Consolidated High School outside Houston, where he was an all-district running back and dreamed of playing in the NFL. On Tuesday, Solomon was back at his alma mater speaking to students on the school's Career Day. Signed by the Houston Oilers as a free-agent wide receiver out of Dartmouth College, Solomon's NFL career was rather brief. "I was cut after two weeks," he said. A couple other rookies that year lasted a little longer, namely Earl Campbell and quarterback Gifford Nielsen.
Solomon enrolled at Harvard Law School, and after 10 years at a Washington law firm, where he worked his way up to partner, he left to become director of Minor League operations for Major League Baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig later promoted Solomon to senior vice president of baseball operations and then promoted him again in 2005 to his present role as executive vice president of baseball operations.
"I hated every second," Solomon said of his career in law. "I decided to get back into sports."Solomon, now 53, had considered working with the NFL before meeting then-Commissioner Fay Vincent at a party in 1991. Within two weeks, he was beginning his career in baseball, leading to his key message for the students: Being prepared when the right opportunity comes along to lead to success. It is a lesson that Solomon has put into practice in his 19 years with Major League Baseball. With the full support of Selig over the past 12 years, Solomon spearheaded the creation of the All-Star Futures Game in 1999, the opening of the Urban Youth Academy in Los Angeles in 2006, and the launching of the annual Civil Rights Game in '07, among many other initiatives. It was an emotional homecoming for Solomon, Lamar Consolidated Class of 1974. His four brothers and sisters still live in the area, and his mother is in a nearby nursing home, but he had not been in the school since visiting a few times while in college. "It's been a long time," Solomon said during a break between speaking to groups of 25 students in the auditorium. "It hit me a little bit. It's the same building, the same chairs. I'll bet you I have cousins in the school." All his teachers are gone, but he related well to today's teenagers, his warm personality and perpetual smile making the students eager to ask questions. On Tuesday, he asked the students what they wanted out of their future professions, and he seemed pleased when they told him they wanted a career they could enjoy or one in which they could help others. Solomon, whose playing career in baseball amounted to four games in Little League, had another important lesson to impart: You never know which way life will take you. "There is no right or wrong path" in a career, he told them. "You'll change in five years. Be passionate about what you do." Solomon certainly has been that. He is now the highest ranking African-American in baseball, and one of the most influential men in the game. In his former job as MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations -- a role in which he was charged with overseeing Major League, Minor League and International Baseball Operations, as well as the Major League Scouting Bureau and the Arizona Fall League -- it was only natural that his first major initiative was the Futures Game, now an All-Star Weekend staple. "I went to the All-Star weeks," Solomon said. "I saw the celebrity games, the old-timers games, the Home Run Derby. I said, 'Something's missing. We've got the old-timers; we've got the present. How about the future? We've got some guys playing great baseball at the Minor League level. Why not bring up our top prospects and showcase them?'" Solomon fondly remembered Alfonso Soriano, after hitting two homers over the Green Monster, being named MVP of that first Futures Game at Fenway Park. Be passionate. Be prepared when opportunity arrives. After moving into his current role as executive vice president of baseball operations in 2005, he created, in 2007, the annual Civil Rights Game, which will be played May 15 this year in Cincinnati. He is extremely proud of the role baseball played in integration, beginning with Jackie Robinson in 1947. "Baseball [integrated] before the armed forces did, before Brown vs. Board of Education," he said. "The grand experiment was baseball. We needed to take credit where we were in the whole forefront of the civil rights movement. "The Commissioner has created diversity, on the field and in the board room. We have vice presidents who are Latino and female. We had an uptick last year [in the number of black players in the Majors]. We went from 8.5 percent to 10.2 percent." Major League Baseball became concerned in recent years about the shrinking number of African-Americans in the Majors. Solomon spearheaded a change. MLB opened an academy last year to introduce kids to the game in Compton, Calif. Another camp will open in April in Houston. The third one will be in Miami, with others in the works for Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Cleveland. "Commissioner Selig wanted us to focus on bringing back baseball to urban America," Solomon said. "The problem is you don't have equipment, green space, people who know how to teach it. People say African-Americans are dropping out of baseball because of basketball and football. Quick riches are readily available, because you don't have to worry about the Minor Leagues. "Success in baseball is based less on athleticism than the other two sports. Baseball is a collection of skills, learned early in life and usually taught by a male member of the family. If you look at African-American families in urban America, that male member is not there." The camps will hopefully develop coaches and scouts, groundskeepers and trainers as well as players. Be passionate. Be prepared when opportunity arrives. Just about everything in the game falls under Solomon's umbrella, from the Minors to umpires to on-field discipline. "I get far too much credit, and criticism," Solomon said. "I don't do all the work. I've got great VPs that do the work." He believes in baseball, and he believes in Selig. "There's a lot of life lessons learned in baseball," Solomon said. He taught a few of them Tuesday: Be passionate. Be prepared when opportunity arrives.
Gene Duffey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.