By Michelle Hiskey
As the Atlanta Braves open the 2015 season this week, an 11-year-old boy in my neighborhood had a mini-“Field of Dreams” story unfold over the winter.
Like Kevin Costner in that famous movie, fifth-grader Cole Deschenes-Worboy was driven by curiosity in the history of his favorite sport. He followed his passion ended up with a surprise message from a major league manager about the state of baseball today.
If you build it, he will come.
Cole and all fifth graders at Fernbank Elementary, a public school in DeKalb County, must complete a major project as part of the school’s International Baccalaureate curriculum. “Do it on something you think about all the time,” he said his teachers advised him.
That was easy: baseball.
Cole has played since he was four. He plays outfield in the Druid Hills Youth Sports league at Medlock Park. He likes the Braves, but his favorite teams are on the West Coast, where is mom is from. His dad is coaching his younger brother Cooper’s team in the same league.
Because West Coast games are played after his bedtime, Cole gets up at 5:30 am to watch ESPN highlights. He has the MLB At Bat phone app, and it pings so much with baseball news that his parents tell him to mute it. He also reads Sports Illustrated, especially baseball features.
“So I like to think about baseball, and we had also talked a lot about discrimination and taken a field trip to Birmingham to see the church that was bombed and the civil rights museum,” he said. “Before that, I never had thought about not seeing a lot of African-Americans in the major leagues. So I chose my topic: the Negro Leagues and discrimination in baseball.”
Part of the project was sharing knowledge with the community.
“I found out the only African-American manager who was left was Lloyd McClendon,” Cole said. “So I wrote to him to see what he thought about discrimination and what he had been through. It was fun to write to him, but it was hard to do it, too. Reading some of the examples about discrimination against the players was hard.”
Ease his pain.
McClendon, 56, manages the Seattle Mariners. He played eight MLB seasons, mostly as an outfielder like Cole. At Cole’s age, McClendon starred in the Little League World Series, homering in five straight at bats. His team from Gary, Ind. was the first all-African-American team to reach that level of play. When McClendon got his first manager position in Pittsburgh, he was that city’s first African American coach of a major league franchise.
In January, a few days after the King holiday, a note arrived in the Deschenes-Worboy mailbox. It was addressed and written by hand in blue ink, on Mariners stationery.
“I was so excited to open it,” Cole said. “I had never written to someone that big and gotten a response back. When I did read it, I smiled the whole time.”
“Dear Cole,” the letter began.
Thank you so much for your interest in baseball and in particular African American ballplayers….
First, I don’t think the game has gone backwards. Of course the game provides challenges for your minorities at a young age. For one, the economic demands on minority families can be hard.
Second, basketball and football as well as soccer has caught the attention of a lot of young kids in the inner city.
Lastly, I think MLB is very committed to bringing baseball back to the inner city. (RBI Program).
All of us in MLB must be more willing to give our time, money and resources to helping. And with more young people like yourself, I think we will succeed! Thank you Cole for caring… Go Mariners!
Go the distance.
The letter pumped up Cole, who wants to be an engineer or scientist when he grows up. After all the research he had put into his project (final grade: 96), now he had a real life connection to major league baseball.
“It made my project even more exciting to think that someone that has that much power and popularity would respond to an 11-year-old,” he said. Regarding discrimination in major league baseball, “Not everything is perfect now,” he added, “but I think as kids, particularly people in different races, wonder about the past, they can understand it. It’s cool to wonder why things happened and how they happened.”
For his part, Cole affirmed McClendon’s call to action by continuing to give his time and resources to the issue of discrimination in baseball. One dirty tactic used against Negro Leaguers was to freeze the baseballs pitched to them, and Cole tested that for another project: the school science fair. He determined that modern baseballs traveled about 68 feet less when they are frozen. “That’s the difference between a home run and a fly out,” Cole said.
The letter turned Cole into a Mariners fan, and throughout spring training, the MLB app has been alerting him to roster moves and other news from Seattle. He is excited that veteran outfielder Nelson Cruz will join the Mariners in a trade from Baltimore.
“That’s probably the biggest team for me right now, because of the letter,” Cole said.
He likes the Braves, though after the Easter trade of Craig Kimbrel, Cole only has one favorite player left on the Braves (Freddie Freeman). “I liked Jason Heyward, but he’s gone,” Cole noted.
With much disillusionment around the national pastime, McClendon’s hand-written response is a well-timed reminder that sports can help connect us to our best (and worst) selves, and to one another. We should never forget history, especially the struggle for equality and fairness, and when those values are challenged, don’t stand on the sidelines. Question those who benefit—and those who should. When you give your time and resources to do the right thing (as McClendon urged), you’ll never know what you might receive in return.
“The players today are never going to experience the same things as these players [in the Negro Leagues],” Cole said. “If something like this [discrimination] does ever happen again, you have to stand up.”