TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was 1975 when a standout basketball player from Watts entered Tony Reagins' life and his small family home in Indio, Calif. The 18-year-old man, attending a nearby college, befriended the 8-year-old boy, who'd had few African-American role models since his father's death.
"I called him 'Starchild,' " says C.D. Jackson, who at the time was dating Tony's oldest sister, Pam. "He had that bright personality, always inquisitive. ... His personality was golden."
It is Reagins' personality, character, strength and faith that have helped him persevere. Those qualities have propelled him from marketing intern in 1991 to general manager of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2008. When Reagins, 40, took over for Bill Stoneman last fall, he became the 10th GM in team history. He's one of four minorities who currently hold that role in the major leagues.
For a position that historically had been occupied by older, white men, Reagins saw impetus for change when in 2000 the Chicago White Sox hired GM Kenny Williams. Only Bill Lucas (Braves) and Bob Watson (Astros and Yankees) had preceded Williams as African-American GMs.
"Being able to get in this position 10 years ago was mostly unheard of," Reagins says while sitting on a golf cart at the team's spring training complex. "Kenny kind of paved the way for me and others like Michael Hill (Marlins) and Omar Minaya (Mets). ... Once Kenny reached his position, doors started to open. You have to give credit to their ownership for being open-minded and giving someone of color an opportunity."
But Reagins' skin color is not why he holds his position, and he resists the idea that he earned it through anything other than hard work. For that matter, so does his owner, Arte Moreno, who hired Reagins, the former director of player development who never played baseball past middle school. (Instead, he played football and basketball.)
"Does it matter?" Moreno says when asked about race. "It matters if you want it to matter. ... Recognize someone because they came from a single-parent home or they worked hard to get their education. You celebrate [his promotion] as a person, not so much as race."
Moreno says he hired Reagins because, as the person who oversaw the minor league system, he had worked with the core of the Angels organization. After all, Reagins has been there for nearly all of Garret Anderson's 18-year tenure with the organization, and Reagins greeted Francisco Rodriguez nine years ago when the pitcher first stepped off the plane from Venezuela. You cannot substitute that type of continuity, Moreno says.
In the nearly five years that Moreno has owned the team, he has observed how Reagins has effortlessly conversed with players and coaches from all backgrounds. While he has treated people with respect, Reagins has also been able to look at his job through a business model and with objectivity.
Reagins learned respect from his mother, Polly, who worked three jobs, making about $20,000 a year to support her four children. Jackson, the basketball player, says that she was known as a jolly person who would playfully chase her children, and even Jackson, around the house. He also remembers that Polly, who passed away in 2002, would cook some mean soul food -- collared greens, black-eyed peas, corn bread, cakes and chicken -- for anyone who visited. Polly's three jobs were needed after her husband, Dalter, passed away; at 4 years old, Tony was the youngest child when he lost his father to cancer.
A haze surrounds Reagins' memories of his father. Though he remembers tagging along as his dad cleaned the local high school as a janitor, or sitting down and eating dinner in the home his father built, or scenes from the funeral, the images piece together like bits of a dream.
Over time the image of the father was built more by those who knew him, and Tony learned his father was a good man, respected in the community and beloved as a local Baptist church singer. Every Monday, Wednesday and Sunday, the Reagins family would go to the traditional Baptist church, where there was a whole lot of singing, energetic preaching, and "Hallelujahs."
Jackson also was a singer at church and worked at the Boys and Girls Club, where Reagins was a frequent visitor. A superb basketball and football player, Jackson preached education, not athletics.
"He inspired me to go to college and get a degree," says Reagins, who went to Cal State Fullerton. "I thought that was important and I saw it in him. He's just a great human being, a great person."
Jackson has two master's degrees and is currently a professor at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif. He has written a few books, including one on John Carlos, the 1968 gold medal Olympian who, along with Tommie Smith, raised his fist with a black glove at the awards ceremony as a silent civil rights protest.
Jackson laughs often when recalling memories of Reagins, and he ends every phone call by saying, "Straight ahead." He considers Reagins a little brother and is amazed, though not surprised, at Reagins' rise. When he first learned Reagins got the Angels GM job, he says it was "incredible, simply incredible." Then, emotion overcame him.
"I was in tears," Jackson says. "I'm very proud of him. He's going to be under a lot of stress and duress, but he's a believer in himself and his creator. He has the knowledge and wisdom to handle it all."
Reagins displayed wisdom at an early age while working in baseball. He was still just an intern when he had a racist encounter with a ballpark employee, who Reagins says called him a derogatory name. Instead of reacting with anger, Reagins thought about the source of the slur -- an elderly man raised with certain prejudices -- and he moved on.
"You have to be real comfortable with who you are and understand that people are going to be people," Reagins says. "This environment isn't the only time I've experienced racism. I've been black my whole life. You learn how to deal with it; you have to be very comfortable with who you are."
I'll work harder than anybody, black, white, polka dot. At the end of the day you hope you're judged on your performance.
And who is he? He's a man who speaks with an easy pace, looks you in the eye when he talks, relies on his faith but doesn't preach it, and says he'll work harder than anyone to do his job. And if he doesn't do well, he says, he doesn't deserve it. Angels third baseman Chone Figgins, who grew up in Leary, Ga., and whose parents were also raised in the South, says he appreciates that Reagins was rewarded after rising through the ranks.
"I've learned to understand what really Dr. Martin Luther King [preached]," Figgins says. "I understand that it's not so much about who's getting the right opportunity; it's that you're getting the opportunity and you're making the best of it. And if you're not moving [up], then it's an issue."
Yet since he's been on the job, questions have been raised about how much autonomy Reagins has, with Moreno saying manager Mike Scioscia would contribute to personnel decisions. Reagins has heard the questions, and possibly what he calls "covert, not overt" racism about whether he's fulfilling a quota.
"I think it runs across a lot of minds, not only in the game but outside of the game," says Reagins, who pauses and then adds, "My whole thing is, I can show you better than I can tell you. I'll work harder than anybody, black, white, polka dot.
"At the end of the day you hope you're judged on your performance."
The success or failure of the Angels will hinge on that. For now, Reagins will continue to guide the organization with the dedication and values largely learned in his small home in Indio.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com.