It's hard to imagine a better script for Saturday's
inaugural Civil Rights Game, right down to Mother Nature turning off the
waterworks thirty minutes before game time. (The late, great Buck O'Neil -- one
of three Beacon Award honorees, along with Vera Clemente and Spike Lee -- must
have had something to do with this.) There were goosebump moments galore.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend delivering a baseball to Benjamin Hooks for the
ceremonial first pitch?
You've got to be kidding me. With African American
luminaries like Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Joe Morgan, and Frank Robinson
watching this exchange, a lump in the throat was all but assured. The civil
rights movement has, indeed, brought us to a better place. And if Martin Luther
King, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente couldn't be in attendance Saturday,
having the names Hooks and Kennedy carrying the torch more than sufficed.
The details -- as coordinated by Major League Baseball
and the host Memphis Redbirds -- meant everything to this glorified exhibition
game. The bunting had an off-white, aged look that gave historical weight to the
added color. The video tributes to black ballplayers who have "paved the way" --
men like the Robinsons, Bob Gibson, Bill White, and Curt Flood -- were on point
and touching in their brevity. And the uniforms worn by the world champion St.
Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians -- classically simple to reflect the style
of the Negro Leagues -- allowed a fan to daydream, and consider a time when the
beauty of a ballplayer was underneath the jersey, and had nothing to do with
As for the script, the play on the field hardly
disappointed. The last time Cardinal fans saw starting pitcher Adam Wainwright
-- one of five former Memphis players in the starting lineup for St. Louis -- he
was striking out Brandon Inge to clinch the Cards' 10th world championship. He
pitched five solid innings against Cleveland and gave every indication a
starringrole -- as a starting pitcher -- awaits. There was brilliant defense, a
bare-handed assist by Cardinal third-baseman Scott Rolen among the finest. And
the feature attraction -- Albert Pujols himself -- delivered a line-drive home
run that appeared to move the leftfield bluff back about, oh, three feet.
My favorite moment on the field, though, was the diving
catch in centerfield made by So Taguchi -- another former Redbird -- to end the
fifth inning. Think about it. An exhibition game the day before Opening Day. A
soggy field. His team up by four runs. And Taguchi lays out to make a catch that
brings the crowd to its feet. On a day to honor various minorities who have
helped shape the national pastime, a backup outfielder from Japan reminded all
in attendance what puts the big-league in a big-leaguer.
Before Friday's game between the Cardinals and
Redbirds, I asked Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst -- a world champion as a
Cardinal player in 1946 and manager in 1967 -- about the nature of defending a
championship. "A lot of concentration is needed," said Schoendienst, "because
there are so many distractions. When you're world champion, there's always
someone congratulating you, or asking if you can do this or that. It's hard to
repeat, no matter what. A lot of clubs, and only one winner. In 1967, we had
good players and they played together well. Then in '68, they just kept going."
Those Cardinals returned to the World Series, but lost to Detroit in seven
I asked Cardinal TV analyst Al Hrabosky about the
unique circumstances that brought the entire Cardinal bench back from 2006. The
Mad Hungarian had an interesting reply. "Not everyone can play for [Cardinal
manager] Tony LaRussa," said Hrabosky. "Those who are here have bought into his
system. They want to be here." It was, of course, one of those reserves --
catcher Gary Bennett -- who drilled the eighth-inning grand slam onto a packed
leftfield bluff that gave St. Louis a 6-2 win Friday night.
Perhaps the best development of all was the word from
baseball commissioner Bud Selig that the Civil Rights Game is all but sure to be
back in Memphis next year, and beyond. A shining tribute to American heroes, the
game of baseball, and not least, the city of Memphis