The morning before he became the only baseball player to kneel for the national anthem, then-Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell called outfielder Delino DeShields, then a member of the Texas Rangers, to tell him about his plans.
After President Donald Trump had called kneeling NFL players "sons of bitches" in 2017, Maxwell invited DeShields to join him in kneeling during the national anthem. After conversations with his agent, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and his parents, DeShields ultimately decided that it wasn't the right time to take a stand, especially in a sport with a notoriously conservative culture guided by unwritten rules.
Maxwell continued his national anthem protest as the A's visited the Rangers in Texas, and as the boos rained down on his friend, DeShields felt the regret sinking into his gut.
"I felt like a sellout," said DeShields, now an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians. "I always felt like I should've been out there with him, and now he's not even in the league no more. He's out in Mexico playing. It just sucks that happened to him."
In an attempt to show solidarity with Maxwell's protest, DeShields did not put his hand over his heart, but it didn't feel like enough. As the national anthem played, DeShields heard fans behind the Rangers' dugout booing Maxwell. The same fans who cheered for him every single night didn't seem to understand or care why Maxwell was protesting.
"I just remember hearing everyone booing, people behind me talking s--- pretty much," DeShields said. "Do you guys not see me? I'm black. This could very well be me. How would you treat me if y'all say y'all love me and y'all love watching me play and I'm this, that, the other, what would your reaction be if it was me? That day, I remember specifically I didn't even want to play. I can't play in front of these people today. I felt uncomfortable."
As a black baseball player, DeShields often found himself toeing the line. With the population of black players in MLB declining (7.7% in 2019), DeShields makes it a point to stay active on social media, hoping to inspire black kids to play the sport. In the moment, he stayed silent because he knew what would eventually happen to Colin Kaepernick and Maxwell could happen to him.
"I didn't want to be castrated out the league for something that I believe in while trying to inspire the youth," DeShields, 27, said. "I just didn't want to contribute to that, especially when I'm trying to inspire young African American kids that you can play in the big leagues and look like me if that's something you want to do."
But the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to a boiling point for DeShields. Floyd, a black man, died after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder, and with Floyd's death igniting protests across the United States and around the world, DeShields felt he could not remain silent, even if it meant angering fans or losing social media followers.
"Black people just tired, and we've been tired for a long time," DeShields said. "I think the whole situation with Bruce, it put this weight on me and seeing Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd lose their life, this is why Kaepernick took a knee. This is the reason. I didn't want my voice to not be heard. I don't want to stay quiet no more. It's time for all of us to step up and stand for what we believe in, stand up for what we know is right."
DeShields said he thinks Maxwell's protests "could have played a factor" in the catcher no longer having a job in the big leagues and added that it's bad enough that he has to even ponder the thought. Maxwell plays for the Acereros de Monclova in the Mexican League and has not played in the major leagues since 2018.
"It takes a really strong person to say pretty much, 'F--- what y'all think. This is how I feel as a minority in this sport,' and be confident in that," DeShields said. "I wish I was strong enough at the time to stand with him and show support. I wasn't there yet."
As the son of 13-year major league veteran Delino DeShields, Junior grew up in the baseball clubhouse and around the sport's culture. His father always told him, whether it was on or off the field, black people "always had one strike" against them. He needed to work harder to stand out. And with black baseball players being the minority, especially compared to sports such as basketball and football, being quiet was often part of the job.
"I was always taught to not make the white man mad," DeShields said. "That was how I was raised with whatever I was doing, just respect white people cause white people have the power in America. If I felt like I was disrespecting somebody who was giving me an opportunity to play, who was writing my checks and I disrespected them, well all right, if you disrespect me and how I feel, then I don't want you on my team. That's scary to think of, that people have so much control over your life and way of living."
DeShields said the dwindling number of black players in Major League Baseball makes frank discussions about race with teammates difficult. When in the minor leagues, DeShields never had more than three black teammates and now often finds himself as the only African American player in the major league clubhouse.
"It's easier in the NFL or the NBA to stand up for these things because growing up, even if you're white, when you're around football and basketball, you're constantly around African Americans," DeShields said. "You grow to empathize with them and love them for who they are. I'm not saying that doesn't happen in baseball, but there's a lot of baseball players who haven't played with black players until they got to a professional level. From that standpoint, it makes it harder to have those conversations."
The clubhouse serves as a safe space for DeShields, where every player has the goal of winning a championship, but the lack of black players in clubhouses takes a mental toll when DeShields faces racial harassment from fans. During his rookie year, DeShields said he was berated by two fans at Yankee Stadium while in left field.
"They were wearing me out, talking about my sister, how I would never be as good as my dad, normal stuff," DeShields said.
But the fans kept escalating, eventually, he said, calling DeShields the N-word.
"I turned around and I told them to f--- off. I'll beat your ass," DeShields said. "I was mad as f--- at that point. That's f---ed up. In that sense, you feel very alone. Even if you do say something, how many people are going to do something about it? That's just a situation where you feel alone."
On team trips to Kansas City, home of the Negro League Baseball Museum, DeShields said he usually made the museum visit alone.
"I didn't really have anyone to really go with," DeShields said. "I didn't feel comfortable asking anybody because I knew people would say no."
It's why DeShields says he wants to continue speaking out by sharing his stories of racial discrimination on Twitter. One tweet described the time police searched his Cadillac after he and teammates were playing music "loudly" in an empty fast-food parking lot.
Another personal story of mine. pic.twitter.com/q45xhena2s— Delino DeShields (@LinoDeShields) June 4, 2020
A second detailed a time when police were called when someone saw DeShields and his friends swinging a "sword-like" object on the Georgia Tech campus. The sword was a baseball bat. When the officers asked for his identification, they realized he was the son of a former major leaguer, apologized and asked for an autograph.
A personal story of my mine to give you guys some insight on what it's like being me outside of my uniform. pic.twitter.com/ay4O53ADDz— Delino DeShields (@LinoDeShields) June 4, 2020
DeShields, whose legs feature tattoos of Negro Leagues legends, said Major League Baseball needs to expand its education of the Negro Leagues, specifically mentioning his personal heroes: Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige.
"It's important for people to know that African Americans had their own league in America prior to Jackie Robinson. We should do more celebrating the Negro Leagues and our history," DeShields said. "It's weird that we have Black History Month. It's weird that it's just a month. It doesn't make sense. Once we start putting it out there, we can start having these conversations, help the sport grow and just be more aware about what it's like to be me."