Honoring the Past by Focusing on the Future

NASHVILLE — It’s becoming that the Nashville Stars, a staff for gamers ages 10 and beneath, are named in honor of an outdated Negro leagues staff that performed in Music Metropolis within the Thirties, ’40s, and ’50s. From the aggressive base operating to the all-Black teaching employees and the speaker blaring a mixture of hip-hop and R&B from the bleachers, the Stars embody the power and pleasure that made pre-integration Black baseball a cultural phenomenon as a lot as a sporting attraction. The staff additionally serves as a stark contradiction of the stereotypical picture of American youth baseball.

For the youngsters on this staff, nearly all of whom are Black, baseball isn’t a spring stopgap to carry them over till soccer season begins, or the free exercise sponsored by the group group that will or could not obtain monetary assist from Main League Baseball. For these children, baseball is each ardour and objective.

As Main League Baseball and the game’s wider group celebrates the seventy fifth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the inclination is to look to the previous, to look at what Robinson achieved together with his pioneering efforts — and, finally, what he didn’t. Robinson’s willingness to show the opposite cheek and his means to reach the face of overt racism could have made him an icon and hero, nevertheless it didn’t make the game much less hostile to Black folks on the entire.

Right now, the variety of Black gamers within the majors is at its lowest level for the reason that Nineteen Fifties, when some groups had but to signal a Black participant, and the variety of Black youth within the sport isn’t a lot greater. In accordance with a report from the Sports activities and Health Trade Affiliation, solely 11.1 p.c of Black children performed baseball in 2018 — a statistic that impacts the numbers of athletes competing on the highest degree.

This lack of participation is usually attributed to the excessive prices related to youth baseball and a common lack of entry to the game for Black inner-city children. However the Stars aren’t a staff of “inner-city children,” and most of the Black mother and father in this system don’t have an issue shopping for $300 bats and paying for additional coaching charges. Right here, their kids discover refuge from different challenges that plague the youth sport, and due to the management of Black males who’re dedicated to pushing Robinson’s legacy ahead, they’re in a position play the sport they love with out compromise.

If you happen to ask Ro Coleman Jr. and D.J. Merriwether, who coach the Stars with Xavier Turner, there was by no means imagined to be an precise staff.

They each grew up with the sport — Coleman in Chicago and Merriwether in Nashville — and although they took divergent paths after highschool, they knew they’d finally discover themselves again in the neighborhood, planting the love of baseball within the hearts and minds of a brand new era of Black children. In addition they each believed they’d be most helpful by offering in-depth coaching for teenagers after which sending them off to play for different coaches.

Then destiny and necessity intervened.

After taking part in at Kentucky Wesleyan after which at Crichton School in Memphis, Merriwether returned to Nashville and, in 2016, launched Past the Diamond. The developmental program supplied youth baseball coaching with a give attention to serving to children discover advantages from the sport past a university scholarship or shot at taking part in professional ball.

“The entire thing for me was not saying that each child goes to make the foremost leagues,” Merriwether mentioned. “It’s about utilizing baseball to create different avenues for teenagers, prefer it’s created for myself. With the ability to community, to satisfy numerous completely different folks from numerous completely different locations. With the ability to sit at tables I by no means thought I’d sit at. That’s what baseball has accomplished for me.”

Ultimately, after sufficient begging from mother and father dissatisfied with different applications within the metropolis, he determined to place a staff collectively. Doing every thing on his personal was taking its toll, however Merriwether solid forward, noting that he believed if he simply stored “planting seeds and making an attempt to construct baseball across the metropolis, finally some issues would join.”

The connection that modified every thing got here in 2019, when he was launched to Coleman and Jarrod Parker, the previous main league pitcher who had been drafted ninth general by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. After rehabbing his chronically injured elbow for 2 years, Parker determined to open a sports activities coaching facility, later providing the house to Coleman and the group of coaching purchasers he’d begun to domesticate.

Coleman, a former standout at Chicago’s Simeon Excessive Faculty, had received a nationwide championship with Vanderbilt in 2014 earlier than being drafted by the Detroit Tigers after his senior yr. He says now that the minors had been a drag, and with a level in hand and no assure of creating it to the large leagues, Coleman determined to hold up his cleats and head again to Nashville to get to the enterprise of his life’s work. Like Merriwether, he knew the potential of baseball to have a deep influence on the lives of Black children.

“Rising up, my pals and I wished to have the ability to create a change, and we didn’t understand at an early age that we’d have the influence that we do now,” Coleman mentioned. “We simply wished to see extra Blacks play the sport at a excessive degree.”

Parker was utterly offered on Coleman’s imaginative and prescient, and Merriwether proved to be a lacking piece of the puzzle that allowed Coleman and Parker to achieve an excellent wider viewers. And in 2020 — after partnering with Music Baseball, a company working to carry an M.L.B. enlargement staff referred to as the Stars to Nashville — the Nashville Stars youth program was born.

“Seeing one other Black male in Nashville making an attempt to offer alternatives within the sport of baseball for African American and different minority children was one thing particular to see,” Coleman mentioned of Merriwether. “It’s that very same ardour me and Jarrod had so far as investing within the children. He’s an actual dude; we vibed; and it simply took off.”

The Stars started with a staff for gamers 15 and beneath (15U) in 2020, and after a profitable first season (gamers have already dedicated to Vanderbilt, Stanford, and a few smaller faculties), Coleman and crew determined to discipline groups on the 13U and 10U ranges in late summer time 2021.

The choice to discipline a 10U staff was proper on time for Brandon Hill, who had simply relocated his household — together with his 10-year-old son Brendon — from Hoover, Ala., to Nashville. Hill says that Brendon fell in love with baseball early, and from a younger age, Hill has at all times sought out Black-run groups.

“I didn’t need him to be handled in another way,” Hill mentioned. “I didn’t wish to be part of the nice ol’ boy system, or be in a state of affairs the place a coach is like, ‘Nicely he ought to be taking part in there, however he can’t as a result of my good friend’s son desires to play there and we exit for beers on the weekend.’”

Whereas consultants ceaselessly focus on the monetary limitations to youth baseball, these mother and father know that most of the points impacting the sport on the professional degree — the isolation Black gamers really feel on groups the place few, if any, gamers seem like them, the strain to modify to positions stereotypically related to Black gamers like middle discipline, and the unstated guidelines and political maneuvers that exhaust even essentially the most steadfast athletes — permeate the youth sport, too. Along with financial challenges, these are the problems stopping extra Black children from taking part in the game.

Earlier than becoming a member of Merriwether’s Past the Diamond staff and finally touchdown on the Stars, Christopher Gordon’s son, Austin, performed in an predominantly white program in a suburb simply south of Nashville. Although the staff had a strong status, Gordon says that Austin was pushed into the outfield as a result of the infielders had been usually coaches’ children.

“For me, as his dad, I needed to decide that he must be in a program that basically goes to spend money on him,” Gordon mentioned. “If he’s an outfielder, he’s an outfielder. However I would like it to be honest; a degree taking part in discipline.”

Merriwether moved Austin to second base, and he now alternates between pitcher and different infield positions. Gordon says that he’s additionally having much more enjoyable — and never simply because he’s taking part in a distinct place.

The entire program charges are about $2,400 per yr, Coleman mentioned, or akin to these for best journey groups. The Empowerment Pursuit basis works with mother and father to offset prices as a lot as doable.

In accordance with guardian after guardian, Black or white, the emphasis on having enjoyable whereas remaining aggressive differentiates the Nashville Stars from different applications within the space. “You progress from having mother and father who’re doing it as a second job to having coaches who’re doing it as a career, and the extent of funding and high quality of teaching simply improves general,” mentioned Kristen Menke, mom of infielder Max Goetz.

Gordon agrees. “It’s superior to have a program with coaches of this caliber, and to have the ability to give the youngsters any such publicity to the game that, frankly, once I was rising up, I didn’t even know existed,” he mentioned.

Typically, nonetheless, that publicity isn’t constructive. At a match in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., a small city on the Alabama border, the Stars encountered a gaggle of hostile mother and father from a staff from Alabama.

“I believe that they had been shocked to be dropping to a majority-Black staff, and so they didn’t behave properly,” mentioned Menke, who’s white. “They felt just like the umpires had been calling issues in our favor when the fact was, issues had been being referred to as the identical means.”

Although Merriwether mentioned the coaches didn’t hear something on the sector, the mother and father mentioned they heard the mother and father from opposing staff utilizing the n-word and making different crude statements.

It was a wake-up name for Menke, who mentioned that she’d by no means skilled something like that however, afterward, was extra sure than ever that she’d made the suitable choice in having her son be part of the Stars.

On the similar time, Merriwether’s previous expertise allowed him to information the staff and give attention to “controlling the controlables.”

“His dad was there, saying, ‘We handled this the entire time D.J. was rising up, that this sort of stuff has at all times plagued Black baseball,” Menke mentioned. “And I’m pondering, ‘If our mission is to alter the tradition of baseball, then we are able to’t take this anymore.’”

“There’s a group among the many staff, nevertheless it’s additionally about having this staff be a mirrored image of the group.”

Andrea Williams is a freelancer author in Nashville and the creator of “Baseball’s Main Woman: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues.”

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