The Nashville Stars pay homage to baseball’s past by focusing on the future

NASHVILLE – It is appropriate that the Nashville Stars, a team for players aged 10 and under, be named in honor of an old black league team that played in Music City in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. From an aggressive base running to a coaching staff of all blacks and a speaker trumpeting a mix of hip-hop and R&B from the stands, the Stars embody the energy and excitement that made black baseball a cultural phenomenon as much as a sporting attraction before integration. The team also serves as a stark contradiction to the stereotypical image of American youth baseball.

For the kids on this team, most of whom are black, baseball is not a spring stop that keeps them until the football season begins, or a free activity sponsored by a community organization that may or may not receive financial support from Major League Baseball. For these kids, baseball is both a passion and a purpose.

As Major League Baseball and the wider sports community celebrate the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, it’s a penchant to look back, to examine what Robinson has accomplished with his pioneering efforts – and, ultimately, what he hasn’t. Robinson’s willingness to turn the other cheek and his ability to succeed in the face of overt racism may have made him an icon and a hero, but that didn’t make the sport any less hostile to blacks as a whole.

Today, the number of black players is at its lowest point since the 1950s, when some teams had yet to sign a black player, and the number of black youths in the sport is not much higher. According to a report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, only 11.1 percent of black children played baseball in 2018 – a statistic that affects the number of athletes competing at the highest level.

This lack of participation is often attributed to the high costs associated with youth baseball and the general lack of access to sports for black children downtown. But the Stars are not a team of “kids from the city”, and many of the black parents in the program have no problem buying sticks for $ 300 and paying additional training fees. Here their children find refuge from other challenges that plague youth play, and thanks to the leadership of blacks dedicated to pushing Robinson’s legacy forward, they can play the game they love without compromise.

If you ask Ro Coleman Jr. and DJ Merriwether, who coach the Stars with Xavier Turner, there should never have been a real team.

They both grew up with the game – Coleman in Chicago and Merriwether in Nashville – and although they took different paths after high school, they knew they would eventually return to the community, instilling a love of baseball in the hearts and minds of a new generation of black children. Both also believed they would be most helpful if they provided children with detailed training and then sent them to play for other coaches.

Then fate and necessity intervened.

After playing in Kentucky Wesleyan and then at Crichton College in Memphis, Merriwether returned to Nashville and in 2016 launched Beyond the Diamond. The development program provided baseball training for young people with a focus on helping children find the benefits of play other than a college scholarship or playing professional ball.

“The whole thing for me wasn’t to say that every kid is going to get into the major leagues,” Merriwether said. “It’s about using baseball to create other ways for kids, like it was created for me. Being able to connect, meet many different people from many different places. Since I could sit at tables, I never thought I would sit. That’s what baseball did for me. “

In the end, after begging parents dissatisfied with other programs in the city, he decided to put together a team. Doing everything on your own took its toll, but Merriwether moved forward, noting that he believes some things will eventually come together if he just keeps “planting seeds and trying to build baseball around town”.

The relationship that changed everything came in 2019, when he was introduced to Coleman and Jarrod Parker, a former first-division pitcher chosen by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007 for ninth place overall. After two years of rehabilitating a chronically injured elbow, Parker decided to open a sports training facility, later offering space to Coleman and a group of clients for the training he began to cultivate.

Coleman, a former prominent player at Chicago’s Simeon High School, won the state championship with Vanderbilt in 2014 before being drafted by the Detroit Tigers after last year. He now says the minors were having a hard time, and with a degree in hand and no guarantee of qualifying for the major leagues, Coleman decided to hang up his football boots and return to Nashville to pursue his life’s work. Like Merriwether, he knew of the potential of baseball to have a profound impact on the lives of black children.

“As we grew up, my friends and I wanted to be able to make a difference, and we didn’t realize in our early youth that we would have the impact we have now,” Coleman said. “We just wanted to see more blacks playing the game at a high level.”

Parker was completely sold out to Coleman’s vision, and Merriwether proved to be a missing piece of the puzzle that allowed Coleman and Parker to reach an even wider audience. And in 2020 – after partnering with Music City Baseball, an organization working to bring an MLB expansion team called Stars to Nashville – the Nashville Stars youth program was born.

“Seeing another black man in Nashville trying to provide an opportunity in a game of baseball for African Americans and children from other minorities was something special to see,” Coleman said of Merriwether. “It’s the same passion that Jarrod and I had when it came to investing in children. He’s a real guy; we vibed; and it just took off. ”

The stars started with a team for players under 15 and younger (15U) in 2020, and after a successful first season (players have already dedicated themselves to Vanderbilt, Stanford and some smaller schools), Coleman and his team decided to include teams in 13U and 10U levels in late summer 2021.

The decision to set up the 10U team was in time for Brandon Hill, who had just moved his family – including his ten-year-old son Brandon – from Hoover, Ala., To Nashville. Hill says Brandon fell in love with baseball early on, and from a young age, Hill has always looked for black teams.

“I didn’t want to be treated any differently,” Hill said. “I didn’t want to be part of the good old boy system, or be in a situation where the coach said, ‘Well, he should play there, but he can’t because my friend’s son wants to play there and we go out for a beer on the weekends.’

While experts often discuss the financial hurdles of youth baseball, these parents know that many of the problems that affect play on a professional level – the isolation that black players feel in teams where few, if any, players like them, pressure to they are shifting to positions that are stereotypically associated with black players, such as the central court, and unspoken rules and political maneuvers that exhaust even the most persistent athletes – permeate the game of young people. In addition to economic challenges, these are problems that prevent more black children from playing the sport.

Before joining Merriwether’s Beyond the Diamond team and eventually landing in the Stars, Christopher Gordon’s son, Austin, played in a predominantly white program in the suburbs south of Nashville. Although the team had a solid reputation, Gordon says Austin was pushed into the field because the players on the field were often the children of coaches.

“For me, as his father, I had to make a decision that he should be in a program that would really invest in him,” Gordon said. “If it is external, it is external. But I want it to be fair; a level playing field. ”

Merriwether has moved Austin to another base, and is now switching between pitchers and other positions in the field. Gordon says he has a lot more fun too – and not just because he plays second.

Total fees for the programs are about $ 2,400 a year, Coleman said, or comparable to those for most competing tour teams. The Empowerment Pursuit Foundation works with parents to recoup costs as much as possible.

According to parent after parent, black or white, the emphasis on entertainment while maintaining competition distinguishes Nashville Stars from other programs in the field. “You are moving from parents who do it as a second job to coaches who do it as a profession, and the level of investment and the quality of coaching is only improving overall,” said Kristen Menke, mother of infielder Max Goetz.

Gordon agrees. “It’s great to have a program with coaches of this caliber and the ability to give kids this kind of exposure to a sport that, honestly, when I was growing up, I didn’t even know existed,” he said.

Sometimes, however, that exposure is not positive. At a tournament in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., A small town on the Alabama border, Stars came across a group of hostile parents from the Alabama team.

“I think they were shocked to lose to the majority black team and they didn’t behave well,” said Menke, who is white. “They felt like the judges were calling things in our favor, and the reality was that things were called the same way.”

Although Merriwether said coaches heard nothing on the field, parents said they heard parents from the opposing team use n-word and make other harsh statements.

It was a wake-up call for Menke, who said she had never experienced anything like it, but after that she was safer than ever that she had made the right decision to have her son join the Star.

At the same time, Merriwether’s past experience has allowed him to lead the team and focus on “controller control”.

“His dad was there and he said, ‘We’ve been doing this all the time the DJ was growing up,’ that stuff like that has always bothered black baseball,” Menke said. “And I think, ‘If our mission is to change the culture of baseball, then we can’t take this anymore.'”

“There is community among the team, but it is also important that this team is a reflection of the community.”

Andrea Williams is a freelance writer in Nashville and author of Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Black League.. ”

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