Nashville Stars honors the past of baseball, focusing on the future

NASHVIL – It is appropriate that Nashville Stars, a team for players under the age of 10, is named after an old team from the Negro League that played in Music City in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. From the aggressive base to the all-black coaching staff and the loudspeaker that blends a mix of hip-hop and R&B from the stands, Stars embodies the energy and excitement that turned black baseball before integration into a cultural phenomenon as well as a sporting attraction. The team also serves as a stark contrast 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 to hold them until the start of the football season or a free activity sponsored by a community organization that may or may not receive financial support from Major League Baseball. For these children, baseball is both a passion and a goal.

As Major League Baseball and the wider sports community celebrate the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the tendency is to look back, to explore what Robinson has accomplished with his pioneering efforts – and ultimately what is not. did. Robinson’s desire to turn the other cheek and his ability to succeed in the face of overt racism may make him an icon and a hero, but that hasn’t made the sport any less hostile to blacks in general.

Today, the number of black players in major football tournaments is at its lowest point since the 1950s, when some teams have not yet signed black players, and the number of black youth 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 in the city. 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 bats for $ 300 and paying extra tuition fees. Here, their children take refuge from other challenges that plague youth play, and thanks to the leadership of black men who are committed to pushing Robinson’s legacy forward, they can play the game they love without compromise.

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

They both grew up with the game – Coleman in Chicago and Merriweather in Nashville – and although they took different paths after high school, they knew they would eventually find themselves back in the community, planting a love of baseball in the hearts and minds of a new generation of blacks. children. They both believed they would be most helpful in providing in-depth training to the children and then sending them to play for other coaches.

Then fate and necessity intervened.

After playing at Kentucky Wesleyan and then at Crichton College in Memphis, Merriwether returned to Nashville and in 2016 launched Beyond the Diamond. The development program provides youth baseball training with a focus on helping children benefit from playing outside of college scholarships or playing professional ball.

“The whole thing for me was not to say that every child will enter the big league,” Meriwether said. “It’s about using baseball to create other ways for children, as it was created for me. To be able to work in a network, to meet many different people from many different places. As I can sit at tables, I never thought I would sit. That’s what baseball did for me. “

In the end, after enough begging from parents dissatisfied with other programs in the city, he decided to assemble a team. He took matters into his own hands, but Meriweder went ahead, noting that he believed that “if he just kept sowing seeds and trying to build baseball around town, some things would eventually come together.”

The connection that changed everything came in 2019, when he was introduced to Coleman and Jarod Parker, a former Premier League pitcher who was selected ninth overall by Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. After rehabilitating his chronically injured elbow for two years later, Parker decided to open a sports training facility, later offering the space to Coleman and the group of training clients he had begun to cultivate.

Coleman, a former graduate of Simeon High School in Chicago, won the national championship with Vanderbilt in 2014, before being selected by the Detroit Tigers last year. Now he says the minors were trifles and with a diploma in hand and no guarantee that he would make it to the major leagues, Coleman decided to hang up and return to Nashville to get on with his life’s work. Like Merriwether, he knew the potential of baseball to have a profound effect on the lives of black children.

“Growing up, my friends and I wanted to be able to make a difference, and we didn’t realize at an early age that we were going to have the impact we have now,” Coleman said. “We just wanted to see more blacks play the game at a high level.”

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

“Seeing another black man in Nashville trying to provide opportunities in the game of baseball for African Americans and other minority children was something special,” Coleman told Merriwether. “It’s the same passion that Jarod and I had when it came to investing in children. He’s a real dude; we vibrated; and just took off. “

The stars started with a team for players under 15 and under (15U) in 2020 and after a successful first season (players have already committed to Vanderbilt, Stanford and some smaller schools), Coleman and crew decided to split teams into 13U and 10U levels in late summer 2021

The 10U decision was just in time for Brandon Hill, who had just moved his family – including his 10-year-old son Brandon – from Hoover, Alabama, to Nashville. Hill says Brendan fell in love with baseball early and from an early age Hill has always looked for teams run by blacks.

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

While experts often discuss financial barriers to youth baseball, these parents know that many of the problems that affect play on a professional level are the isolation that black players feel in teams where few, if any, players look like them, the pressure to move to positions stereotypically associated with black players, as a central field, and unspoken rules and political maneuvers that exhaust even the most resilient athletes – and penetrate the game of young people. In addition to the economic challenges, these are the problems that are preventing more black children from playing sports.

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

“For me, as his father, I had to decide that he had to participate in 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; equal conditions. “

Merriwether moved Austin to second base and now he alternates between pitcher and other positions in the field. Gordon says he also has a lot more fun – and not just because he plays in a different position.

Total fees for the program are about $ 2,400 a year, Coleman said, or comparable to 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 fun while staying competitive sets Nashville Stars apart from other programs in the area. “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 simply improving overall,” said Kristen Menke, mother of field player Max Goetz.

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

Sometimes, however, this exposure is not positive. At a tournament in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, a small town on the Alabama border, the Stars encountered a group of hostile parents from an Alabama team.

“I think they were shocked by the loss of the majority of black teams and did not behave well,” said Menke, who is white. “They had the feeling that the judges were saying things in our favor, when the reality was that things were called the same way.

Although Meriwether said the coaches had not heard anything on the field, the parents said they had heard the opposing team’s parents use the word n ​​and make other rude statements.

It was a wake-up call for Menke, who said she had never experienced anything like it, but then was more confident than ever that she had made the right decision when her son joined Stars.

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

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

“There is community in the team, but it’s also about that team being a reflection of the community.”

Andrea Williams is a freelance writer in Nashville and author of The Leading Lady of Baseball: Efa Manley and the Rise and Fall of Negro Leagues

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