Cubs coach Willie Harris talks hometown pride and protecting a dream – NBC Chicago
Willie Harris on Hometown Pride and Protecting a Dream originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
DENVER – Just across the Georgia-Florida border, not far from Valdosta, is a small town called Cairo, like the place with the pyramids.
No, says Cubs coach Willie Harris. “Kay-roe, not Ky-roe. It’s in Egypt.
Harris knows a lot about this Cairo, and as he wears number 42 for Friday’s game in Colorado and watches Monday’s pregame events when the Cubs return home, his hometown takes on an even deeper meaning. .
Because he’s one of only three major leaguers ever born in this city – ‘No, two,’ he says, fact-checking base-ball-reference.com for including Ernie Riles among the Cairo natives.
“He’s from Bainbridge,” says Harris, who should know since Riles is his uncle.
Harris only wants to know as much about the hometown he shares with Jackie Robinson before his high school teacher suggests the prep baseball star make a play on the iconic activist and Hall of Fame baseball player.
“That’s when I learned all about Jackie,” he says, “and now I feel like it’s a shame I didn’t learn about it until I was a junior in high school.
“I didn’t know anything about Jackie. I knew nothing of the adversity he was facing,” he adds. “I didn’t know anything about him, not even the best African American player at the time, but that he was best suited for what they needed, what the game needed at that time. Be mentally tough and just go out there and take it on the chin.
“How many times can you take something on the chin? He took a lot.”
Baseball celebrated Friday the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s debut as the first black MLB player of the 20th century – made possible in part by the executive branch of the Rickey Dodgers and in large part by the death of racist commissioner Kennesaw Landis at the end of 1944.
Seventy-five years later – and 25 after MLB’s first Jackie Robinson Day – baseball is taking the upper hand when it comes to diversification efforts on and off the field, African-American players no longer representing only 7% of the game’s players (down from over 20% in the late ’70s) and just two black managers.
Harris, who had huge success in Game 4 of the World Series to help the White Sox win the 2005 championship, came at a time when the numbers were dropping dramatically and attributes some of that to a lack of focus on stolen bases and speed in the game in general.
But he also knows that’s only part of the story.
The fact is that baseball has not only long been at a point of cultural crisis in this country when it comes to the choice of the sport by black athletes, but also when it comes to the interest of young Americans in general.
And Robinson’s celebrations without full context — including his post-career activism and criticism of structural racism in baseball and other American institutions — risk turning the celebrations into eyewash.
In fact, since baseball returned from the 2020 pandemic shutdown following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, a so-called great awakening in America and baseball and the social inflection point in the country have seemed to recede into the background for those who have the luxury of not thinking about such things every day.
Adam Jones in 2016 called it a “white man’s game” that made it harder for non-white players to speak honestly without consequences, and then it started a conversation. Theo Epstein and Kenny Williams were among baseball executives who stood up and promised substantial changes to the front offices especially in 2020.
But for the continued efforts of the Players Alliance formed by players, including the Cubs’ Jason Heyward, in 2020 as a community outreach effort, little seems to have changed in that direction.
Heyward and several other Players Alliance members donated their entire salaries on Friday to charities aligned with the Alliance’s efforts.
“When things happen in the moment, you feel like you have to do something about it, and then people forget about it; you don’t need to talk about it in three years,” Harris says. “I mean, you heard what Theo said. He said he hires people who look like him. He said those words. It’s just one of those things where when you’re in a hiring position, you feel more comfortable hiring who looks like you, I think.
“But I also feel like diversity and having different points of view is also important. I think the game is doing a good job in that area now.
Most of the time, Harris used the Cubs as an example, after adding Johnny Washington to the coaching staff and bringing in free agents Marcus Stroman and Mychal Givens.
“You can’t blame anyone. It’s been that way for a long time,” he says of the general challenges that persist in baseball’s systemic practices.
“You just have to try to treat people with respect, treat people the right way, and hope that when people look at you, they look at you, and they don’t look at what you look like,” he says. “I always thought my dream was to be a major league baseball player. And now my dream is to be a major league manager one day, hopefully.
“And it’s my job to protect that, no matter what. I don’t care what anyone says. I don’t care what other people think.
How does he protect his dream like that when the reality around him is that the only black managers in the game are Dave Roberts of the Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Astros, and in a time in sports where the NFL is being chased by a black coach (Brian Flores) for discrimination?
“I do it by preparing, learning every day from my manager, from the league managers, and then hopefully that opportunity comes along,” Harris said. “If so, I will be ready. If not, I continue to fight for it. But it’s my job to protect him. I’m not going to get carried away with, “Well, there’s only two African Americans running in [MLB]. I don’t get caught up in what people say.
The key to finding solutions could be people in the game like Harris, who embraces differences and seeks common ground, already developing, for example, a good relationship with Japanese free agent Seiya Suzuki (who in turn quickly becoming one of the friendliest players in the clubhouse).
“The more time you spend with someone — it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Puerto Rican, whatever — you’re going to start caring about that person,” Harris says. “But you have to pass the time.
“And you have to want to pass the time.”
Harris planned to think about it all when he dons number 42 again this year, from the recent history of his profession to the rich personal history of his home country.
“When I wear it, I’ll wear it with pride,” he says, “and I’ll think of everything. I’m going to think about how hard it was for him, because if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here right now. In one of his last speeches, he said he wanted to see a black man standing over there coaching third base. And I will be sacred if I don’t have this opportunity right now.
“Not only am I doing it for myself — and I want to do a great job for this organization and for myself — but there’s also a young African-American out there who wants to do it,” he says. “So I have to represent those people as well.”
And to protect this dream. Their dream. His dream.
“Always,” Harris says. “It’s mine. It’s my dream, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks; it doesn’t matter.”