The alert popped up on Jan Weisberg’s phone and then the text messages poured in, and before Bruce Maxwell’s college baseball coach had time to learn anything about his school’s newly famous alumni, he was scared.
Maxwell came to Weisberg’s small liberal arts school as a talented, but headstrong teenager. He had a powerful bat and a strong arm. He was athletic enough that Weisburg moved him from first base to catcher his junior season, and major league ballclubs liked his offense so much that the Oakland Athletics took Maxwell, from Division III Birmingham-Southern College, in the second round of the 2012 MLB draft.
In four years, he rose through the minors and became a steady part of the A’s catching platoon. Weisberg saw him last week in Detroit. Maxwell was chipper. He was living his childhood dream. He was set to donate his star-spangled catcher’s gear from Oakland’s Fourth of July game to the Birmingham-Southern baseball team. Weisberg would auction it off as a fundraiser.
Then President Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Maxwell’s hometown of Huntsville, Ala., on Friday night.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ” Trump said.
The next day, Maxwell knelt during the national anthem before the Athletics’ 1-0 win against Texas in Oakland. Texts and calls poured into Weisberg’s phone.
“That’s Bruce,” friends, alumni and former players said, not always fondly. “That’s our Bruce.”
When Weisberg recruited Maxwell, he told him Birmingham-Southern was different. Being a black student-athlete, maybe especially a baseball player, in the South isn’t always easy. But Birmingham-Southern is different, he told the player. Grades are important here, Weisberg said, you have to want to be at this school. And Maxwell did. On campus, Weisberg said, he had a quiet social life between baseball and class. He kept up with current events and stayed plugged into Black Student Union events, but he was not an activist.
And Weisberg was an old-school coach. That’s the way college ballplayers ought to behave, he says, with quiet, respectful workmanlike determination: Follow the rules, go to class, put the work in at practice. Don’t make a show of yourself.
And then Bruce Maxwell knelt down during the national anthem.
“That was my first thought,” Weisberg said. ” ‘Oh no, what are you doing?’ ”
He sent Maxwell a text Saturday night, and Maxwell called back Sunday morning.
The national anthem is a time to step away from sports and reflect on the blessing of living in this country, Weisberg said. Why did you do what you did?
“Our fearless leader right now is expressing that it’s okay to judge people by the color of their skin,” Maxwell told Yahoo columnist Jeff Passan. Weisberg said Maxwell told him something similar. “It’s okay to separate people by their differences. That’s not okay. There’s not been one time Donald Trump has tried to sit in our seat.”
“Racism has been going on since this country was founded,” Maxwell told Passan. “But stepping up and recognizing the fact that people in this country are being treated unjustly is a big problem when it comes to mankind, and I’m pretty sure people who died for this country fought so I could do this.”
Look at how I knelt down during the anthem and what else I did, the 26-year-old told his coach.
He faced the American flag in center field, held his ball cap over his heart and looked up at the flag.
“The point of my kneeling was not to disrespect our military or our constitution or our country. My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve,” Maxwell told reporters after the game. Maxwell was born in Germany while his father was stationed there with the U.S. Army. “At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here, but my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.”
Weisberg hung up the phone after 20 minutes. Maxwell was respectful. He was earnest. In kneeling, he showed deference and patriotism, Weisberg said. He thought if a player on his team at Birmingham-Southern now wanted to do something similar. Do it like Bruce, he told himself. That’d be all right.
“He’s taking a knee, but his hand is on his heart. He loves his country. He loves our flag,” the coach said. “After talking to him, my fear is gone.
“I guess, it’s a different feeling until it hits home when you know someone who’s going through it. I’m a bit old fashioned. I thought [the anthem] was something where it was a time to step back and respect the flag and the country. But if you want to start dialogue, maybe that’s the time to do it. I hate to say it, but I do see both sides of it. I just told him my first reaction was, ‘I don’t like that, I don’t agree. But the more I hear you talk about it, I understand.’ “