Race matters. We may not agree as to how or when. We may not agree to the degree or extent. You may look in the mirror and believe it does not matter to you, but concede that it may matter to others. We may believe it shouldn't matter. We may even express we are all one race. But it still matters.
I was drafted in 1991 by the Chicago Cubs, and, by far, the person I met in my career who most lived and breathed a life that showed us that we are all one was Ernie Banks.
I had my share of trials and tribulations around race or culture. As a player coming up in the Cubs system and ultimately having the good fortune of playing in the major leagues, my journey was not without bumps in the road -- some of which I attributed to race.
Certainly, that did not embody my entire experience, but it was part of it. And by the time I got to the big leagues, I had thicker skin but also a layer of defense. Maybe it came from the number of advisers in the minors who told me not to trust anyone. Or from mentors who warned me about things like the perils for my baseball future in interracial dating because the powers that be would disapprove.
It was baffling to me because I grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, a town that seemed to celebrate diversity and cross-cultural exchange. On draft day, I was optimistic because I was heading to an environment that was our country's pastime -- a place that I expected to be progressive. Yet it still had many growing pains around diversity.
Then there was Ernie Banks. I am not even sure when I first met him, but that is irrelevant to the experience of knowing Ernie Banks. All I can think about was how he always pointed you toward the good in people. He didn't even have to be specific in his advice to you. This man had an aura that you understood was your call to be better, to get perspective that you are probably worrying about something small in the grand scheme of things.
And so this brings me back to race. I looked at Ernie Banks and immediately accepted that my walk was not hard. No matter what experiences I had that frustrated me, that made me question if our country was living up to its tenets. I understood that he was a symbol of hope and that there was a lot to be thankful for.
I began to ask myself, "How upset can I be?" There was Ernie Banks who had played in the Negro Leagues, served our country, endured segregation, lived when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and saw some of the darkest days in civil rights our nation has ever known -- and he was still smiling.
Then I began to wonder if I was the one who needed a new perspective.
All players need mentors, but African-American professional baseball players from my era looked for direct examples, for leaders. We needed them so as not to feel alone, to see that the path was even possible. We saw many teams in spring training that had diverse faces and colors from all over the world until we got to Double-A, then the rainbow of color was gone. That was my era. Conspiracy theories were sparked, bias and racism were brought up as to why certain players advanced and why others did not. Provable or not, it could be a toxic exercise. It could make you want to stop right there.
The advice we got was often worse, ranging from how to fit in, to how to deny your history, to how not to make people uncomfortable, to how to just be so good that you are undeniable, to how not to mess it up for the next group of African-Americans. But Ernie Banks scoffed at such apologetic and passive advice.
That mattered a lot to me. To see someone who endured much worse circumstances yet still be more positive and more optimistic than I was, even after I was living generations of better privilege later. It felt selfish to hold on to that pain and not find a way to be constructive with it. Ernie Banks made you see that we are the ones who are petty and live in artificial constructs of our own making. The game, life, the opportunity, the joy of the moment, the potential for tomorrow do not need to be spoiled by ignorance or bias, humanity or insecurity.
You cannot stay negative when someone like Ernie Banks is around you. And quite frankly, this has been my universal experience with his generation of African-American players. From Buck O'Neil on down the line, these players are remarkably resilient, optimistic, thankful, happy. Even when they served our country and endured second-class citizenship on their return. It made me understand that no matter how justified your reasons, being around these legendary people made you see the light of possibility, of how we have so many gifts even when people fall short of your hopes because they beat you down for your beliefs or your color or maybe even your height.
His smile told that story. It made me not worry. It made me proud, and maybe most importantly, it made me see baseball as being one of our greatest assets. And that even when race matters, we still have the power to encourage our country to live out its best, to be bigger than race.
Ernie Banks always knew we would ultimately get to a place of harmony, and amazingly, Mr. Cub didn't even have to say a word for you to understand that. He made you feel it. Always.