Martin Fennelly Columns
A day to salute baseball's best pioneer
TAMPA - Today is Jackie's Day. In major league stadiums across the country, all ballplayers will wear his number: 42. It's now tradition. On April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, baseball remembers. It gives me goose bumps, those 42s. Today, they will be all over Fenway Park as the Rays play the Red Sox. "It feels good when you see everyone out there representing Jackie Robinson …" Rays pitcher David Price said. "It's a special day. He changed the game. He changed more than baseball. He was a humanitarian. He's everything. Without Jackie Robinson, I probably wouldn't be here today." Yes, 65 years ago today, Jack Roosevelt Robinson walked pigeon-toed onto a ball field in Brooklyn. I've said it before and I'll say it again: His footsteps are as intact as Neil Armstrong's on the moon.Someone had to go first. Someone had to break baseball's color line. Someone had stand in there and take it for everyone who'd follow, take all of it, with courage and dignity, with humanity. We're all better for it. Today is Jackie's Day. He died 40 years ago. But there are still his words, the ones on the stone at his grave. A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives. Rays senior baseball advisor Don Zimmer talked about his friend. Zimmer and Jackie Robinson were Brooklyn Dodgers teammates. "Players today, they don't know what happened," Zimmer said. "I got there after Jackie had been through a lot of it, but he went through hell. I remember spring training, the bus dropping Jackie and the other black ballplayers off, and they'd go their way and we'd go to the white hotel. ... You wouldn't think that could happen, but it did. Jackie could have fought. Man, this was a tough man. But being first, you see, he knew, he had the courage not to fight. Let me tell you: Jackie Robinson still matters." Today is Jackie's Day. "He pioneered a road for so many others," said Brad Horn, director of communications and education at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., where Jackie Robinson was inducted in 1962. "He opened a door for equality … not only in baseball, but in America. When you look at his commitment, his selflessness in the name of changing the world _ and he was an amazing ballplayer _ it's a story that can't be told enough, to 90-year-olds or 9-year-olds." Today is Jackie's Day. "This man was a beacon of hope," said Lecia Brooks of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., a nonprofit civil rights organization that fights intolerance and hate. "Jackie Robinson stood in there. He served as a role model for what followed: the civil rights movement. Hate usually steps up when huge strides are made in equality. That's true today. It was true then. Jackie Robinson shouldered it. He stood his ground and we all moved forward." Today is Jackie's Day. "We still have a lot of work to do, and we still draw on Jackie's legacy and commitment to equaling the playing field," said Della Britton Baeza, president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, founded in 1973 by Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, who is another study in human dignity. The foundation has raised funds to sponsor and mentor more than 1,400 students through four years of college, awarding $50 million in scholarship aid and support. Today is Jackie's day. "I think if you look at what's happened in sports the last 50 years, 60 years, and how far sports has come, those steps wouldn't have been taken without Jackie Robinson," said Tony Dungy, the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl and a beacon of hope in his own right. "Absolutely I owe something to Jackie. We all do." Dungy thought of Jackie and quiet strength. "To keep it all inside, to block it out, all in the name of this mission … I'm going to compete. No matter what people say or do, I'm going to make the Dodgers win. To do that at the level he did, it's amazing to me. "My dad told us about Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson a lot. He told us if you're talented and you're determined, nothing can hold you back. That was his lesson about Jackie Robinson. It resonated with me. Jackie always has." Today is Jackie's day. Ivana Simpson, from Fort Lauderdale, is a senior at the University of South Florida. She's a Jackie Robinson scholar, sponsored by Major League Baseball and the Rays. Two years ago, she threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Tropicana Field on Jackie Robinson Day. "I'm inspired by the way he lived," Simpson said. "He was not only a leader on the field, but in the community. It's important to be part of his legacy." She has a 3.81 GPA at USF, where she majors in biomedical science and sociology. She'll attend medical school at Florida State next fall. She does community outreach, teaching middle school students under-served or at risk. "I think it's important to give back," Simpson said. A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives. Today is Jackie's Day.