NLBM's Legacy Awards link present to past

Gala returns to highlight Negro League pioneers

By Dick Kaegel / | 01/29/12 1:10 AM EST

KANSAS CITY -- Rangers manager Ron Washington was having a great time on Saturday at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, his destination to receive the C.I. Taylor Award as American League manager of the year. But he was really looking forward to his next visit to Kansas City.
That will be on July 10 when he'll manage the AL in the 83rd All-Star Game in a rematch against Tony La Russa, who'll return to direct the National League despite his retirement as St. Louis Cardinals manager.
"What I'm looking forward to doing is beating a National League manager. I haven't been able to do that. [San Francisco's Bruce] Bochy got me, La Russa got me," he said. "What I'm really looking forward to is that I can bring from the American League the best players."

Ron Washington accepts the C.I. Taylor Award as American League manager of the year (G. Newman Lowrance )

That was a reference to baseball's move to tighten the rules against bailouts by players from the All-Star Game which determines the home-field advantage for the World Series. And Washington knows how important that is -- his Texas Rangers lost the last two World Series, both of which started in NL parks at San Francisco and St. Louis. And the Rangers were just 1-5 in games at those hostile venues.
This time around, Washington has the prospect of having two former NL tormentors, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, on his AL team by virtue of their signings with the Los Angeles Angels and the Detroit Tigers, respectively. Fielder, in fact, smacked a three-run homer last year at Phoenix in the NL's 5-1 victory over Washington's squad.
Of course during the season, Washington and other managers will have to contend with the two sluggers invading the AL, and Pujols, in the West Division, will be a frequent challenge for the Rangers. They certainly felt his wrath in the World Series last fall.
"What I'll do with Pujols is the same thing I do with [Detroit's Miguel] Cabrera," Washington said, wiggling four fingers. "Take a walk. You don't mess with him, you don't mess with Cabrera. The three times we pitched to Albert, you saw what happened -- he hit three bombs."
Washington joined a group that toured the NLBM in advance of the Legacy Awards presentations on Saturday night at the Gem Theater. The group also included LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, winner of the Sam Lacy Award as baseball writer of the year, and Reggie Sanders, former Major League outfielder and one of the award presenters.
NLBM president Bob Kendrick, reviving the Legacy Awards gala after a one-year absence, was dealt a setback when the only active player scheduled to attend the ceremony, Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, bowed out on Friday. He was to pick up awards as the NL home run leader and as the NLBM's choice as NL Most Valuable Player. Kemp softened the blow by donating $20,000 to the museum.
"It's disappointing, but we're appreciative of his contribution and hope that this will serve an inspiration for other players to support the museum financially," Kendrick said.
It's been a continuing problem over the 12-year history of the Legacy Awards to convince the award-winning players to attend the ceremonies in Kansas City.
Hall of Famer Lou Brock also was honored in absentia at Saturday night's program with the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award from Wendy Lewis, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances.
"Jackie Robinson had just broken baseball's color barrier when Lou was only 9 years old and growing up in a little town in Louisiana with an eye to all that was happening around him," Lewis said. "He had an ear to the radio every night that he could to listen to St. Louis Cardinal baseball games, and he believed there were opportunities available to him."
Brock, who would break Ty Cobb's basestealing records as a member of the Cardinals, forwarded a statement about Robinson that noted: "From the day he walked onto a Major League baseball field, I became a witness and I witnessed the moment that would change the world."
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin attended to receive his second Rube Foster Award as NL Executive of the Year and said he'd studied the career of Foster, one of the Negro Leagues founders in 1920. He found that Foster was an innovator in the business side of dealing with players.
"I just lost my best player, Prince Fielder," Melvin said. "Rube Foster, where are you? I could have used another $100 million this week."
Washington received a standing ovation when he received his award from Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball development. A video was shown featuring the Rangers skipper's vibrant gyrations in the dugout.
"The enthusiasm I show on the baseball field is the enthusiasm I had as a young man, and I don't see why I should lose it simply because I'm a manager," he said to applause.
The museum itself, headed for many years by baseball icon Buck O'Neil, continues its efforts to preserve the story of the Negro Leagues, which flourished before Robinson broke the Major League color barrier and to become a destination point for Kansas Citians and visitors. The All-Star Game on July 10 is seen as a great opportunity for the NLBM, located in the historic 18th & Vine District.
Washington laments the fact that today's high-paid players often overlook the history of the game.
"Not only do I deal with millionaires, but I deal with millionaires whose minds haven't caught up with their pockets yet and don't realize why they are able to have the opportunity that they have," Washington said. "And if they ever want to find out why they have that opportunity, they have to come down to 18th & Vine and this will give it to them."
Washington, Neal and Sanders, at a question-and-answer session on Saturday, viewed with concern the decline in recent years of African-Americans playing pro baseball. It's a different era from when Washington was growing up.
"When I played the game, I played it with anything -- sticks, broken mops. I got whippin's because I broke mops that I shouldn't," he said. "We'd get a baseball and we'd go out and play. We'd play 'strikeout,' and do all those type of things. Well, I think the youth today have more [to do.] And they don't understand that baseball is a process. You don't just come into [Major League] baseball unless you're special. ... It takes work, it takes dedication, it takes effort, it takes attitude. Sometimes it takes, as you go through this museum, what it took these guys to get recognized. It costs to play baseball, you need balls, you need gloves, you need fields to play on. And in the inner cities, there are very few fields that are good enough that these kids can go out and play."
Sanders, who ended his career with the Royals in 2007, sees the appeal of other sports as cutting into baseball's allure.
"African-Americans are identifying with basketball and you got Jay-Z and you've got all hip-hop artists and you listen to the music because that's what you're geared toward. All you need is a basketball and a goal and some shoes and you can play the game, it doesn't cost that much," Sanders said. "It's just really trying to advocate and put it out there and letting our kids know that baseball is a way out as well."
There's an absence in the press boxes as well; Neal noted that he's the only African-American baseball beat writer for a newspaper in the Major Leagues.
"At the root of it all is that we've got to keep planting the seeds and spread the gospel about this great sport and that there are people from all walks of life and from all ethnic backgrounds that love it and enjoy it and want to be a part of it," Neal said.