Jackie Robinson Day a reminder for MLB to embrace diversity, personality

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman. (John Bazemore/AP)

TORONTO — Curtis Granderson spends a portion of his off-seasons working out at a baseball complex in his hometown of Chicago. He’s often joined by minor-league and college players, high-schoolers, and even a few kids from his charity foundation.

Granderson estimates about 35 members of the ensemble this past winter were African-American and when they discovered in late January that he had signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, the youth peppered him over and over again with the same question.

“How’s Marcus Stroman? How’s Stroman? How’s Stroman?” Granderson recalled.

The veteran outfielder had only seen his new teammate pitch once before, during an exhibition game in Montreal years ago, so he didn’t have much to say. But Granderson knew exactly why they inquired about the right-hander.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s cool, goes about his business,’” said Granderson. “I understand why people ask me about him because whenever you do see him, he’s doing something that you’re going to remember and that’s what you want as something that impacts the game.”

As Jackie Robinson Day approaches on the 2018 calendar, Stroman now finds himself in new territory. His production last year cemented his place among the game’s top starting pitchers. It also catapulted him into the exclusive category of baseball’s most prominent African-American pitchers.

It’s a small club, but one with a storied history. Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer is currently there, along with David Price of the Boston Red Sox. Firmly entrenched at the front of that class is 18-year MLB veteran CC Sabathia.

The New York Yankees left-hander considers Stroman a friend, and the two often exchange texts. But race is never a subject that comes up in those messages. That’s because, Sabathia said, the topic doesn’t need to be broached.

“We all know what Jackie Robinson meant to the game,” said Sabathia during his club’s recent trip to Rogers Centre. “We’re aware of how few African-Americans play, so we take it serious. Being that guy and being able to represent our community well.”

Stroman, who turns 27 on May 1, has been criticized often over his four big-league seasons for the bravado he brings to both the mound and social media. The Blue Jays pursued Sabathia this past off-season and there was chatter in some corners that the team wanted to sign the free agent with the hope he could serve as a mentor to Stroman.

“I guess it would have been good if it worked out, but he’s on the right track, headed toward where he wants to go,” said Sabathia, who ended up re-signing with New York on a one-year deal. “I wish him the best and obviously, we’re friends so I always talk to him and give him advice if he needs it.”

Sabathia, 37, called Stroman a “good kid” and “one of the best pitchers in the league.” Asked if the right-hander reminds him of anyone, Sabathia answered no.

“Which is a good thing,” Sabathia added. “He’s himself.”

That original personality is what intrigues Granderson, who grew up during a time when Dave Stewart and Lee Smith were contributing to the rich tradition of African-American pitchers in MLB. Left-hander Dontrelle Willis followed in their footsteps, bursting into baseball’s consciousness as a Rookie of the Year winner in 2003.

“I liked Dontrelle — he was twisting and leg kicking and nobody else was doing that. Last time I saw that was in the Negro League videos,” said Granderson, who played with Willis in Detroit in 2008 and ’09. “I wanted to see Dontrelle throw.”

Granderson sees a lot of the same in Stroman, who was unavailable to speak for this story, and believes players like him hold a key in the effort to draw minority youth to baseball. The numbers suggest a declining interest in baseball from African-American communities. In 1981, when Granderson was born, 18.7 per cent of all MLB players were African-American. To begin the 2018 season, 8.4 per cent of the league consisted of African-American, African-Canadian or black players, according to figures provided by MLB to Sportsnet.

“We need to make sure the excitement is highlighted,” Granderson offered as part of the solution to the multi-layered issue. “Not only African-American kids, but kids in general, like things that excite them. People like highlights. People like silliness. People like crazy things. People like antics.

“If we tone those things down and police those things and I’m watching the game as a kid, this is something that doesn’t interest me as much. So why would I go out there and do these things the way that I want to do it, if you’re telling me I can’t do it?”

On a few occasions, children from his youth organization have asked Granderson why he plays baseball. The sport is boring, they would opine. And Granderson gets it. He grew up a basketball fan in the Chicago area during a time when Michael Jordan and the Bulls commanded attention. Granderson saw Jordan in Gatorade commercials, had Jordan posters on his wall and even the Jordan Jr. Jammer on his door.

“Those things could be done the same with our guys,” said Granderson. “There’s a lot of guys it can be. It doesn’t have to just be the African-American guys.”

Stroman, with all his clippable highlights and GIF-worthy mound moments, is a player well suited for such league advertising. A large-scale push to highlight his uniqueness has already begun on some fronts, including his brief appearance in a recent New Era commercial and his status as Canadian cover athlete for the latest edition of MLB The Show.

That type of exposure helps, says Granderson.

“Show that’s who he is, if he’s one of the best guys in the game. Let’s show everything that makes him who he is. Instead of ‘Oh no, he just throws a fastball — everyone throws a fastball.’

“Well, what makes him different?”

Over the course of the next six months, Granderson will see the answer to that question first-hand. By the winter, he’ll have a few more anecdotes to share when the next round of young baseball players asks about Stroman.

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