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Players Not Breaking the History Barrier

June 09, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

LAKE ELSINORE — The relief pitcher with the tattooed biceps and pierced nipple pondered the question.

"The only thing I know is, they named UCLA's stadium after him," Kyle Sebach said.

Across the clubhouse of the Lake Elsinore Storm, another pitcher shook his head.

"He played for the San Francisco Giants, right?" Mike Hermanson said.

In jumped pitcher Heath Haynes.

"It was either the Dodgers or San Francisco, I know that for sure," Haynes said.

The question involved a pretty significant golden anniversary being celebrated this summer.

We made it simple: Who was Jackie Robinson?

It wasn't simple to some of the Class-A Storm players.

"I really don't know too much about him," Hermanson said. "He was the first black American who played baseball?"

Added Sebach: "Was he the first black? Or was that Frank Robinson? I get them confused."

"Wait a minute," Hermanson said. "Maybe he did play for the Dodgers."

Just another summer night at the ballpark, circa 1996, and one drives away wondering about the future of something that has no clue about its past.

This is the 50th anniversary of Robinson's integration of professional baseball--he played for the Montreal Royals of the International League in 1946.

This is also a season during which for every Brett Butler, there is an Albert Belle. For every John Moores, a Marge Schott.

Jackie Robinson's celebration of courage and dignity is being attended by many who somehow sneaked past the doorman.

So we wondered. Heck, maybe people have never heard of the guy.

We brought our question to where all education should begin, the lower grades, with the Angel and Dodger farmhands.

It should not matter that none of the Angels' Storm players were black--a coincidence, we trust--or that the San Bernardino Stampede were more diverse.

"You would think everybody would know about Jackie Robinson, no matter what their color," said Del Crandall, San Bernardino manager.

But when asked, three of seven Storm players whiffed.

"Oh, good, so I wasn't the only one," Sebach said. "But you have to understand, I don't know anything about baseball history."

In the other dugout, as expected, the Dodgers batted 1.000--"You have to remember, we see pictures of Robinson all over Dodgertown," outfielder Chip Sell said.

But the Stampede players have struggled on topics like those involving their own boss, Crandall, the catcher on the great Milwaukee Braves teams in the 1950s.

He was a teammate of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, a batterymate of Warren Spahn, a player whose quiet class set the standard for catchers in that era.

"First thing in spring training, all my players wanted to know what I did," Crandall said. "They would say, 'You were a pitcher, right?' It is a unique player who has any sense of history at all."

And why should they?

Belle makes millions and obviously knows nothing about the dignity of Willie Mays.

Tony Phillips is a fan favorite in Chicago, even though he and Ernie "Let's Play Two" Banks shouldn't even be in the same encyclopedia. Phillips thinks a doubleheader is a nine-inning game followed by a grandstand fistfight.

"A lot of guys don't have the respect for the game like they did years ago," said Leon Durham, Storm hitting coach.

The dozens of players who will begin walking toward the mound this season after being hit by pitches never watched video of Don Baylor. He was hit a record 267 times, yet he usually headed toward first base because he understood.

The dozens of pitchers afraid to throw inside--resulting in this year's astronomical earned-run averages--never heard of Walter Johnson and Don Drysdale. Each is in the Hall of Fame, despite holding his league's record for plunking batters.

Do not think the failing Lake Elsinore players dumb, simply typical.

"Many players today don't read anything--they don't even read the sports pages," Crandall said. "They think everything started with their freshman year in high school."

And every day, another piece of the game's foundation erodes.

To those who teach our children to play baseball, a suggestion:

Before your next practice, put the gloves down. Pull out a baseball history book. Talk about Satchel Paige's sense of humor, Ted Williams' sense of honor, and Roy Campanella's strength. Tell them about the Black Sox and the Whiz Kids.

It will be the best coaching you can do.

The recent Lake Elsinore conversation about Robinson continued until it was finally agreed he had played for the Dodgers.

Hermanson laughed.

"The Giants, the Dodgers," he said. "I knew it was some team from California."

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