Honor the past by focusing on the future

NASHVILLE — It’s fitting that the Nashville Stars, a team for players 10 and under, are named after a former Negro league team that played Music City in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. the aggressive running base to the all-black coaching staff and loudspeaker pumping out a mix of hip-hop and R&B from the bleachers, the Stars embody the energy and excitement that made black baseball before the integration a cultural phenomenon as much as a sporting event. attraction. The team is also a stark contradiction to the stereotypical image of American youth baseball.

For the kids on this team, the majority of whom are black, baseball is not a springtime stopgap to hold them over until football season begins, or the free community-sponsored activity that may or may not receive financial support from the Major League. Baseball. For these children, baseball is both a passion and a goal.

As Major League Baseball and the wider sports community celebrate the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the trend is to look back, to examine what Robinson accomplished with his efforts pioneer – and ultimately what it didn’t. . Robinson’s willingness to turn the other cheek and his ability to succeed in the face of overt racism may have made him an icon and a hero, but it hasn’t made the sport any less hostile to black people overall.

Today, the number of black players at the majors is at its lowest level since the 1950s, when some teams hadn’t yet signed a black player, and the number of young black people in the sport isn’t much. higher. According to a report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, only 11.1% of black children played baseball in 2018 – a statistic that impacts the number of athletes competing at the highest level.

This lack of participation is often attributed to the high costs associated with youth baseball and the general lack of access to the sport for black children in inner-city neighborhoods. But the Stars are not an “inner city kids” team, and many black parents in the program have no problem buying $300 sticks and paying extra practice fees. Here, their children find refuge from other challenges that plague the game of youth, and thanks to the leadership of black men who are committed to advancing Robinson’s legacy, they can play the game they love without compromise. .

If you ask Ro Coleman Jr. and DJ Merriwether, who coach the Stars with Xavier Turner, there was never supposed to be a real team.

They both grew up with the game – Coleman in Chicago and Merriwether in Nashville – and although they took divergent paths after high school, they knew they would eventually find each other in the community, planting a love of baseball in the hearts and minds of a new generation of black children. They also thought they would be more helpful by giving the kids extensive training and then sending them to play for other coaches.

Then fate and necessity intervened.

After playing at Kentucky Wesleyan and then Crichton College in Memphis, Merriwether returned to Nashville and, in 2016, launched Beyond the Diamond. The development program provided youth baseball education with a focus on helping children find benefits from the game beyond a college scholarship or a chance to play professional ball .

“For me, it wasn’t all about saying every kid was going to make the big leagues,” Merriwether said. “It’s about using baseball to create other avenues for kids, like it’s myself. To be able to network, to meet a lot of different people from a lot of different places. Being able to sit at tables I never thought I would sit at. That’s what baseball did for me.

Eventually, after begging enough from parents dissatisfied with other programs in town, he decided to put together a team. Doing it all on his own was taking its toll, but Merriwether went ahead, noting that he believed if he kept “sowing seeds and trying to build baseball in the city, some things would eventually come together. connect”.

The connection that changed everything came in 2019, when he was introduced to Coleman and Jarrod Parker, the former major league pitcher who was drafted ninth overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. After rehabilitating his elbow chronically injured for two years, Parker decided to open an athletic training center, later providing the space for Coleman and the group of training clients he had begun to cultivate.

Coleman, a former standout at Simeon High School in Chicago, won a national championship with Vanderbilt in 2014 before being drafted by the Detroit Tigers after his senior year. He now says the miners were a drag, and with a degree in hand and no guarantee of big league qualifying, Coleman decided to hang up his cleats and return to Nashville to pursue his life’s work. Like Merriwether, he knew baseball’s potential to have a profound impact on the lives of black children.

“Growing up, my friends and I wanted to be able to create change, and we didn’t realize early on that we would have the impact we have now,” Coleman said. “We just wanted to see more black people playing the game at a high level.”

Parker was completely sold on Coleman’s vision, and Merriwether proved to be a missing piece of the puzzle that allowed Coleman and Parker to reach an even wider audience. And in 2020 – after partnering with Music Baseball, an organization working to bring an MLB expansion team called the Stars to Nashville – the Nashville Stars youth program was born.

“To see another black man in Nashville trying to provide opportunities in the game of baseball for African American and other minority kids was something special to see,” Coleman said of Merriwether. “It’s the same passion that Jarrod and I had when it came to investing in kids. He’s a real dude; we vibed; and it just took off.

The Stars started with a team for players 15 and under (15U) in 2020, and after a successful first season (players have already committed to Vanderbilt, Stanford and some smaller schools), Coleman and his team have decided to form teams at the 13U and 10U levels in late summer 2021.

The decision to field a 10U team was just in time for Brandon Hill, who had just moved his family — including his 10-year-old son, Brendon — from Hoover, Alabama, to Nashville. Hill says Brendon fell in love with baseball at an early age, and from an early age Hill always sought out black-run teams.

“I didn’t want him to be treated any differently,” Hill said. “I didn’t want to be part of the good ol’ boy system, or be in a situation where a coach is like, ‘Well, he should be playing there, but he can’t because my friend’s son wants to play. the low. and we go out for beers on the weekends.

While experts frequently discuss the financial barriers in youth baseball, these parents know that many of the issues that plague the game at the professional level – the isolation that black players feel on teams where few or no players look like them , the pressure to move to the stereotypical positions associated with black players like center field, and the unspoken rules and political maneuverings that wear down even the most steadfast athletes — also permeate the youth game. In addition to the economic challenges, these are the issues that are keeping more black kids from playing the sport.

Before joining Merriwether’s Beyond the Diamond team and eventually landing on the Stars, Christopher Gordon’s son Austin played in a predominantly white program in a suburb just south of Nashville. Although the team has a solid reputation, Gordon says Austin was pushed into the outfield because infielders were often the coaches’ children.

“For me, as a father, I had to make the decision that he needed to be part of a program that was really going to invest in him,” Gordon said. “If he’s an outfielder, he’s an outfielder. But I want it to be fair; a game level area.”

Merriwether moved Austin to second base, and he now alternates between pitcher and other field positions. Gordon says he’s also having a lot more fun – and not just because he’s playing a different position.

Total program fees are about $2,400 per year, Coleman said, or comparable to most competitive travel teams. The Empowerment Pursuit Foundation works with parents to offset the costs as much as possible.

According to parent after parent, black or white, the focus on having fun while remaining competitive sets the Nashville Stars apart from other programs in the area. “You go from having parents doing it as a second job to having coaches doing it as a profession, and the level of investment and the quality of coaching just gets better overall,” said Kristen Menke, mother of infielder Max Goetz.

Gordon agrees. “It’s great to have a program with coaches of this caliber and to be able to give kids this kind of exposure to the sport that, frankly, when I was growing up, I didn’t even know existed,” he said. he declares.

Sometimes, however, this exposure is not positive. During a tournament in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, a small town on the Alabama border, the Stars encountered a group of hostile parents from an Alabama team.

“I think they were shocked to lose to a mostly black team, and they didn’t do well,” said Menke, who is white. “They felt like the referees were calling things in our favor when in reality things were being called the same way.”

Although Merriwether said the coaches didn’t hear anything on the pitch, the parents said they heard the opposing team’s parents use the n-word and make other rude statements.

It was a wake-up call for Menke, who said she had never experienced anything like it but, afterwards, was more certain than ever that she had made the right decision in having her son join the Stars. .

At the same time, Merriwether’s past experience allowed him to guide the team and focus on “controlling the controllable elements”.

“His dad was there saying, ‘We dealt with this all the time DJ was growing up, this stuff has always plagued black baseball,'” Menke said. ‘And I think, ‘If our mission is to change baseball culture, then we can’t take this anymore.”

“There is a community within the team, but it’s also about making this team a reflection of the community.”

Andrea Williams is a freelance writer in Nashville and the author of “Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues.”.”

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