“We’re having conversations that we never would have had three years ago,” Curtis Granderson said.
When Granderson retired in January after a 16-year major league career, he could not have envisioned the breadth and depth of those conversations. He could not have envisioned, so soon in his post-playing career, being tapped as the president of the Players Alliance, a nonprofit organization of more than 150 current and former Black big leaguers determined to take the discussions that began in 2020 and carry them forward. The group aims to change the way baseball looks, the way it thinks, the way it hires, the way it’s developed.
The truck making its stop in Southeast will have stopped earlier in the Bronx and Brooklyn, in Philadelphia and Baltimore. It will head on to Hampton, Va., and beyond — some three dozen stops between this week and the end of January. With this unprecedented and, in so many ways, unbelievable year coming to a close, it would be easy to put the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the shooting of Jacob Blake — and all the rest that led to all the unrest — into some sort of box, label it “2020,” and sink it to the bottom of the ocean. It’s over. Let’s forget it.
The Players Alliance says it doesn’t want to do that.
“The biggest thing is that it’s 2020, almost the end of it, and the conversations we’re having and that are being had now have not been had in my whole entire baseball career, all those years,” Granderson said by phone this week. “Most of the people I speak to — current players, scouts, front-office people — all said very similar things, that none of this was talked about.
“So it’s crazy to see how it’s all come to this situation. It’s unfortunate because of what happened this summer. But because of it, it’s given the ability for large groups of people to have conversations that we’ve needed to have.”
The Players Alliance tour, which is in partnership with a Black-founded charity called Pull Up Neighbor, will provide communities in need with baseball equipment, with fresh produce and food that has a longer shelf life, and with personal protective equipment, an acknowledgment that we’re still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. The tour began Tuesday outside Yankee Stadium, where former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia helped distribute the goods.
Sabathia is the player who originally hooked up Granderson and the Players Alliance with Pull Up Neighbor. But this entire endeavor has roots in the summer, when protests over police brutality and systemic racism swept the country — just as baseball was making its way back from a pandemic pause. Three veteran players — Dee Strange-Gordon, Cameron Maybin and Edwin Jackson — began talking. All are Black. They had played 41 years combined in the big leagues — Strange-Gordon for three teams, Maybin for nine and Jackson for 14.
“Jax knows everybody,” Granderson said. “Dee, playing in the infield all those years, someone’s going to make it to second base, and he’s going to chat with them. The three of them, with the contacts they had, kept reaching out.”
The question was one baseball hadn’t really dealt with perhaps since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier 73 years earlier: What role should the sport play in furthering the conversation about race in America? Long before Floyd’s death, NFL players made themselves central to the discussion, spurred by Colin Kaepernick’s initial kneeling for the anthem. NBA players have long felt empowered to talk about social issues.
Baseball? Baseball was left with Bruce Maxwell, a catcher then with the Oakland Athletics, kneeling for the anthem in 2017, just as President Trump was stoking the issue, saying an NFL owner should look at a kneeling player and say: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired.”
“But we hadn’t really gotten much beyond that,” Granderson said.
This summer, the players knew they no longer could stand by. They reached out to Black players across MLB. They posted a powerful video to Instagram featuring the game’s most prominent Black stars: Mookie Betts and Aaron Judge, Tim Anderson and Dexter Fowler, Andrew McCutchen and Howie Kendrick, Jason Heyward and David Price, on and on. But then they kept pushing.
“The biggest message that was different this time than any other time before was, ‘I don’t want to just do the ‘blackout’ post on social or just the Black Lives Matter video,” Granderson said. “Players said: ‘How can we do more? How can we keep it going?’ ”
Following Blake’s shooting by police in August in Wisconsin, several MLB games were postponed as players discussed how to respond. In New York, the Mets and Miami Marlins met for the national anthem, laid a Black Lives Matter T-shirt across home plate, then exited the field before a pitch was thrown. Players Alliance members agreed to donate their salaries from Jackie Robinson Day to the organization. By September, MLB and the players’ union chipped in with $10 million for the alliance, which now is pushing to inject the sport with more diversity from the field to the front office.
Which brings us back to the tour. The idea is to have as many major leaguers participate in the three dozen stops — spreading from Florida to the Midwest to California — as is feasible in the midst of a pandemic. That leaves Granderson watching from afar until the truck rumbles into his hometown of Chicago on Dec. 12 and 13. It leaves the Baltimore and Washington stops without a major leaguer because no Alliance member lives locally in the offseason.
A two-hour session to hand out PPE, food and baseball equipment at the Temple of Praise in Ward 8, just across the border from Prince George’s County, might not seem much of a lasting impact. But think of the tour as a rolling commercial for what the Players Alliance stands for and what it hopes to accomplish.
“The one thing I think is forgotten so much when you talk about a celebrity or an athlete is they’re also people,” Granderson said. “They come from a community that’s like yours — with a house or without, with money or not. We all come from somewhere. That gives us the American side of the experience more than just the baseball side of it. The things that affect us affect so many different people that we can touch — people in the fan base, kids that look up to you, people in the community we live in.
“We have those conversations started. Now we just have to keep them going.”