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Mariners’ African-American players telling their stories at a critical time

J.P. Crawford and Shed Long are both on the Mariners' "Black Voices in Baseball" panel. (AP)

“We’re scared to say this. We’re nervous. The reason we’re nervous is we’ve been told our whole life and our whole careers to don’t say anything. Don’t ruffle any feathers. Don’t, pretty much, stand up for yourself as a man and for your family’s name.”

That fear has been put aside by Mariners second baseman Dee Gordon and his fellow African-American ballplayers as they continue to push forward in efforts to find ways to combat systemic racism.

At 11 a.m. Friday on the Mariners YouTube channel, their voices and stories can be heard when the “Black Voices in Baseball” virtual panel hosted by Dave Sims and featuring Gordon, J.P. Crawford, Kyle Lewis and Shed Long premiers.

Mariners coverage from 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer

“It’s a pretty frank and honest discussion and I enjoyed it,” longtime Mariners broadcaster Sims told me in a video interview, “and I think (for) the guys, it was nice to get some stuff off their chest.”

Social media has been one outlet for these players to be heard in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota and the protests that followed, but in the longer format their reality and stories (shared in a press release) hit harder.

“There’s a ball in my locker that says, ‘Learn to swim,’” said Lewis, recalling an incident in the minor leagues. “Nobody said anything. Everybody was sitting around tight-lipped. I wasn’t really getting a lot of support from my teammates, as if none of them supposedly knew what happened and somehow nobody had any idea. The only people that would have had access that deep into the locker room would have been probably a teammate. That stung pretty good.”

For Crawford, there was sting in knowing the playing field was never equal.

“You always have to be one step better, one step ahead all the time because you know, you make one little mistake and you’re done,” he said. “It’s sad to say, but we don’t get the chances, all the other stuff that people get. My dad taught us always stay ready, always stay sharp, don’t let this opportunity slip away, at all, because you get one chance. You get one chance. You’re already down two strikes, this is your last strike. It’s just tough, man.”

Think about a situation where perhaps you have felt that way. Now think about it as a given. Have you ever been perceived as a threat? Think about always being perceived as a threat and the danger that comes with that. These are the stories that need to be heard.

“The vulnerability, we talk a lot about that and about how oftentimes in many environments you walk in and you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent,” said Sims. “You feel like people look at you as if you are a threat. We are just looking for equality. That’s all we are looking for.”

Equality has been hard to find on the baseball field. Of the 882 players on MLB rosters in 2019, only 68 were African-American. For the Mariners, the story has been different with a league-high 10 African-American players on their 40-man roster.

“We definitely don’t take this for granted,” said Crawford. “It’s probably something that’s never been done since the Negro Leagues. I’m proud to be a part of this. I’m proud to be playing alongside each and every one of my teammates right now. Coming up we were one of the two brothers on the team, if that, so being a part of this has been something special.”

In a sport where individuality has typically been pushed back and speaking out generally discouraged, these men are stepping forward and telling their stories at a critical time. Sims believes this Mariners group in particular can be of impact.

“They are going to enjoy this time together and do the best they can obviously as players, but as people in the community in the world we live in now,” he said. “It’s not just the country that has been aggrieved by what has happened recently, it’s the entire world. There are so many things that have to be done. All we are asking is be fair.”

Sims noted that these players have received messages of support (“We’ve got your back”) from a large number of their Mariners teammates.

“If you want to stand with us, then stand,” said Long. “But we fought for so long we know how to fight it. So we’re going to fight and stand up for ourselves regardless whether you stand with us or not.”

Seeing the younger players get beyond what is uncomfortable or what feels safe and use their voices, use their platform, gives Sims hope that perhaps as a society we can take a long overdue and very necessary step forward.

“I was a little kid in the 60s and this is almost as out of hand as it was then,” he said. “It’s an awakening. I hope everybody stays awake to this. I hope everybody gets involved, contributes to organizations that are anti-racist, that are pro all-inclusive Americans.”

The days of athletes being confined to “stick to sports” are over. Their voices are among the loudest being heard as racism in this country is battled. It’s a fight Dee Gordon and his teammates are ready to take on.

“If we’re the grownups that change the world? It will be like Jackie Robinson and what he did all over again,” he said. “I think it’s time for that.”

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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