Letter To A Rookie

Will Venable
100 Park Blvd
San Diego, CA. 92101

Dear Will

The other day I received an e-mail from a writer who had interviewed me a couple of years ago for Black History Month. We’d kept in touch, and he was writing to inform me of your promotion to the major leagues.

He also told me that you are the second African-American Ivy Leaguer to make it to that level. And he confirmed something I had suspected but had never fully explored: I was the first.

Putting aside our nasty Penn-Princeton rivalry, I want to congratulate you on your big-league call-up. I remember my first game, in 1996 with the Cubs. It is something you never forget.

I hope you don’t mind me sharing with you a little of what this experience has meant to me.

For the whole of my career, I knew that being an Ivy League graduate in major league baseball made me something of an anomaly. Certainly there have only been a handful of Ivy League baseball players of any culture or race. In the minor leagues, that pedigree wasn’t considered a badge of honor, or even much of an asset. Quite the opposite. The fact that I’d gone to a school like Penn caused question marks to swirl about my “focus” and my “commitment” to the game. After all, I was seen as someone who could walk away at any time (as one of my teammates who’d gone to Stanford did after a demotion).

I had critics say in print that I was “too smart for my own good” or that I “spent more time philosophizing than working.” I recognized that I often asked a lot of questions to get a deeper understanding of some techniques, but I always found it curious that I was accused of thinking I had all the answers and asking too many questions at the same time. I suspect that your path wasn’t a rose-petaled stroll in the park, either. A writer friend of mine, describing how my Ivy league degree was perceived in my minor league experience, referred to my experience coming up in minor league baseball as “Poison Ivy.”

But, unlike the minors, the major leagues can be a great equalizer. Unique backgrounds are seen as points of interest and color that stand out from the usual package. In marketing-friendly America, unique can be a great selling point. I don’t know much about your road to San Diego, but if you carry any resentment at all about being isolated in the minor leagues because of the simple reality of who you are, I hope you can keep that in mind. It got a lot better for me as time went on.

When I was in the thick of feeling alone, I focused on the common path of what we all as players were trying to achieve: loving to play this game and a dream of the major leagues. And despite everything, there was a lot more that brought us together as players than not. I also needed to believe that performing well can trump everything.

Somehow, the bookend of your achievement makes my own experience more tangible. I no longer feel like this phantom of impossibility, as I did from the day I was drafted and signed as a junior in June of 1991. (I did go back to school to get my degree, much to the consternation of some of the powers that be.) What seemed at times to be the equivalent of lightning striking twice has finally happened.

In some ways, embarking on a baseball career is a lonely walk for all players — young men who are often leaving home for the first time — but I knew from the moment I showed up for my first professional game, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., that there weren’t a lot of people who shared my particular experience. I was fortunate to have been raised in a town (Teaneck, N.J.) that embraced ethnic, religious and economic diversity. Otherwise it would have been much more challenging for me to find common ground with my teammates and coaches outside of that ball with the red stitches.

My minor league outfield instructor was the retired major leaguer Jimmy Piersall, and it took the two of us years to figure out how to deal with each other. He would tout his “painter’s son” background while referring to college graduates like me with a word I’d rather not put in this letter. But we found a space where we could connect: in the work ethic required to make it to the top of the profession we both loved. In the end, he became my number-one advocate, despite our diametrically opposed experiences.

I also spent a lot of my minor league career shaking off the exhausted “black athlete” labels of laziness, natural talent and nonchalance. I could only turn to mentors, my family and history to find my path, because there was no one else around who had my specific kind of challenge: bridging diversity, race . . . and academia. So I tapped the same source of strength that helped get my mother and father out of bed every day: they expected a degree of unfairness but knew that the people who had paved the way carried bigger burdens in much more difficult circumstances, enduring challenges just to find a job or to be able to vote.

It was a lot to juggle, but the saving grace was that, in the end, we all had to try to hit that baseball. We all had to perform. In some ways, that is what makes our game so great, it begs people to look beyond certain things because when they don’t, they miss some of its beauty.

I cannot close this letter without emphasizing that we must remember that our Negro League predecessors set the stage, turned on the lights and paid the bill, and now we were able to enjoy performing in the theater they constructed. We need to always keep alive their precious story — which is about baseball, for sure, but also about sacrifice and humility, patience and faith, forgiveness and perseverance. They represent everything baseball should want to be. Everything America should want to be. We are part of their legacy.


Doug Glanville

New York Times 12/23/200


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