The Nashville Stars Honor Baseball’s History by Focusing on the Future

NASHVILLE – The Nashville Stars, a team for players ages 10 and under, should be named in honor of an old Negro leagues team that played in Music City in the 1930s, ’40s, and’ 50s. From the aggressive base run to the all-Black coaching staff and the speaker echoing a mix of hip-hop and R&B from the bleachers, the Stars embody the energy and excitement that makes pre-integration Black baseball a cultural event such as a sporting. attraction. The team also serves as a complete contrast to the stereotypical image of baseball among American youth.

For the kids on this team, most of whom are Black, baseball is not a spring stopgap to keep them until the start of the football season, or the free activity sponsored by the community organization that may or may not receive a financial support from Major League Baseball. For these kids, baseball is about passion and purpose.

As Major League Baseball and the wider sporting community celebrate the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the passion is to look back, to check out what Robinson accomplished in his pioneering efforts – and, in the end, what he didn’t do. . Robinson’s willingness to turn the other cheek and his ability to succeed in the face of blatant racism may have made him an icon and hero, but it didn’t make the game less so against the Blacks overall. .

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

This lack of participation has often been attributed to the high cost associated with youth baseball and a general lack of access to the game for Black children within the city. But the Stars aren’t a group of “kids inside the city,” and many of the Black parents in the program have no problem buying $ 300 bats and paying for the extra training fee. Here, their children find refuge from the other challenges plaguing the youth game, and thanks to the leadership of the Black men committed to pushing Robinson’s legacy forward, they are able to play the game. they love without compromise.

If you ask Ro Coleman Jr. and DJ Merriwether, who coached the Stars with Xavier Turner, would 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 find themselves in the community, cultivating a love of baseball. in the hearts and minds of a new generation of Black children. They also both believe they are most beneficial by providing in -depth training for the kids and then sending them out to play for other coaches.

Then fate and necessity intervene.

After playing for Kentucky Wesleyan and after graduating from Crichton College in Memphis, Merriwether returned to Nashville and, in 2016, launched Beyond the Diamond. The outreach program provides youth baseball training focused on helping kids see benefits from the game beyond a college scholarship or shot at playing pro ball.

“Everything for me is not to say that every kid will make the big leagues,” Merriwether said. “It’s about using baseball to create other paths for the kids, like it did for myself. Being able to network, to meet a lot of different people from a lot of different places. To be able to sit in. tables I never thought I could sit in. That’s what baseball has done for me. “

Eventually, after enough begging from parents who were dissatisfied with other programs in the city, he decided to join a team. Doing it all on his own hurts, but Merriwether persists, noting that he believes that if he just continues to “plant seeds and try to make baseball around the city, eventually there will be things to connect.”

The connection that changed everything came in 2019, when he was introduced to Coleman and Jarrod Parker, the former major league pitcher who drafted the Arizona Diamondbacks ’ninth overall in 2007. opening the facility in sports training, later offering the space to Coleman and the group of coaching clients he had begun to develop.

Coleman, a former standout at Simeon High School in Chicago, won a national championship with Vanderbilt in 2014 before being drafted by the Detroit Tigers after his senior year. He says now that minors are a drag, and with a degree in hand and no guarantee of getting into the major leagues, Coleman decided to hang up his cleats and return to Nashville to get into the business of his job. in life. Like Merriwether, he recognizes the potential of baseball to have a profound impact on the lives of black children.

“Growing up, my friends and I wanted to make a difference, and we didn’t realize at an early age that we had the impact we have now,” Coleman said. “We just want to see a lot of Blacks play the game at a high level.”

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

“Seeing another Black man in Nashville trying to provide baseball game opportunities for African American and other minority kids is something special to see,” Coleman said of Merriwether. “It’s the same love me and Jarrod have as far as investing in kids. He’s a real dude; we were shaking; and just left.”

The Stars started a team for players 17 and under (17U) in 2020, and after a successful first season (the players have already made it to Vanderbilt, Stanford, and several small schools), Coleman and the crew decided to field the team at the 13U and 10U levels in late summer 2021.

The decision to join a 10U team was timely for Brandon Hill, who recently moved his family-including his 10-year-old son Brendon-from Hoover, Ala., In Nashville. Hill says Brendon loved baseball early on, and from a young age, Hill was always looking for Black-run teams.

“I don’t want to treat him differently,” Hill said. “I don’t want to be part of the good ol’ boy system, or be in a situation where a coach is like, ‘Well he has to play there, but he can’t because my friend’s son wants to play there and we’ll go out for beers on the weekend. ‘”

While experts often discuss the financial barriers of youth baseball, these parents are aware that there are many issues that affect the game at the pro level-the diversity felt by Black players among team where few, if any, players are like them, the pressure to transfer positions stereotypically associated with Black players as center field, and the unspoken rules and political maneuvers that are exhausting even the strongest athletes-also pervaded the youth game. In addition to the economic challenges, these are the issues that prevent many Black children from playing the game.

Before joining Merriwether’s Beyond the Diamond team and finally landing with the Stars, Christopher Gordon’s son, Austin, played in a mostly white program in a suburb south of Nashville. Even if the team has a strong reputation, Gordon said Austin is pushed out of the field because infiltrators are always the coaches ’kids.

“For me, as his father, I had to make a decision that he needed a program that would really invest in him,” Gordon said. “If he’s an outfielder, he’s an outfielder. But I want it to be fair; a flat game.”

Merriwether moved Austin to second base, and now he switches between pitcher and other infield positions. Gordon says he also has more fun-and not just because he plays in a different position.

The total program fee is about $ 2,400 per year, according to Coleman, or comparable to most travel travel competitions. 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 fun while staying competitive sets the Nashville Stars apart from other programs in the area. “You’ve moved from having parents doing it as a second job to coaches doing it as a profession, and the level of investment and quality of teaching will only improve overall,” Kristen Menke said, mother of infielder Max Goetz.

Gordon agreed. “It’s great to have a program that has coaches of this caliber, and give kids this kind of exposure to the game that, frankly, when I was growing up, I didn’t know existed,” he said.

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

“I think they were shocked to lose to most Black teams, and their behavior was not good,” said Menke, who is white. “They feel like the umpires are calling things in our favor when in fact, things are called the same way.”

Even though Merriwether said the coaches didn’t hear anything on the field, the parents said they heard parents from the opposing team using the n-word and making other negative statements.

It was a wake-up call for Menke, who said he had never experienced anything like that but, after all, was more certain than ever that he had made the right decision to include his son in the Stars.

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

“His dad was there, saying,‘ We’ve been dealing with this the whole time DJ was growing up, ’that this kind of thing has always hit Black baseball,” Menke said. “And I thought, ‘If our mission is to change the culture of baseball, then we can’t do it anymore.’”

“There’s a community within the team, but it’s also about making this team a mirror of the community.”

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

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