Thursday, April 05, 2007

"That quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."

Most of my friends know that I think Bud Selig is an idiot, not to mention the worst baseball commissioner in history. There are many reasons for my feelings toward Selig, reasons that can be enumerated at a later date. But one thing I will give Selig credit for is recognizing the achievements and the importance of Jackie Robinson. Robinson was not the best player in baseball history, but as the man who broke the color line in the major leagues on April 15, 1947, at a time when African Americans still were considered inferior by a large portion of white people in this country, the Brooklyn Dodger likely was the most important player in baseball history, if not sports history. More than once, in fact, I have called Robinson the originator of the American civil rights movement, starting his campaign when Martin Luther King was still in college.*

Ten years ago, at a ceremony in New York's Shea Stadium marking the 50th anniversary of Robinson joining the Dodgers, Bug Selig declared April 15 to be known as Jackie Robinson Day throughout baseball, and permanently retired Robinson's #42 throughout the big leagues, an unprecedented act for any major sport. Since then, only players who were already wearing 42 at the time have been allowed to sport the number. (Today there's just one player, Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera, wearing #42.) But now, to mark the 60th anniversary, another idea - Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who wears #3, went to Selig to ask permission to change his number to 42 for one day, the 15th, a week from this coming Sunday. In a somewhat surprising move, not only did Selig approve Griffey's request, but he subsequently announced that any player who wanted to do the same would be allowed to do so.

As a result, there has been a flood of superstars who have revealed plans to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson's legacy by bearing the jersey number he wore with pride six decades ago. The players who will make the one-day shift include the Cubs' Derrek Lee, Minnesota's Torii Hunter, Detroit's Gary Sheffield, San Diego's Mike Cameron, Boston's Coco Crisp and Washington's Dmitri Young. So will New York Mets manager Willie Rudolph and even baseball's active home-run king and active grump, San Francisco's Barry Bonds. Oh, and the entire Dodger squad will sport #42, which could give the official scorekeeper at that game a major headache.

It pains me to give Selig props for approving all this, but really, what choice did he have. If he had turned down Griffey's request, word would have leaked out and he would have come across as the myopic muckymuck that he is eight times out of 10. And once he said yes to Griffey, that opened the floodgates, so he decided to go with it. I also won't be surprised to see "Griffey 42" and "Bonds 42" jerseys being sold at for a pretty penny. But if this huge gesture gets more kids asking about why their favorite player is wearing that strange number - and parents telling the story of the man who changed his sport and his world - then I can live with the extra commerce.

*Strong words? Perhaps. But if you don't believe me, then believe Dr. King, who told Robinson's teammate Don Newcombe that they - along with another African-American Dodger, Roy Campanella - made it "possible for me to do my job." King told Newcombe this one week before his assassination in 1968.

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