Cliff Floyd kneeled down at his locker to adjust his sock. He was on one knee, but he wasn’t genuflecting, he wasn’t praying.
But he could have been. The topic of conversation was close to his heart, the day was a special one.
Saturday was Jackie Robinson Day at Shea Stadium and throughout major-league ballparks around the country. Two years ago, baseball commissioner Bud Selig made April 15 – the day of Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 – a day to remember the first African American player in modern history.
“I’m just happy the game hasn’t forgotten about what he accomplished,” said Floyd, the New York Mets left fielder. “Definitely, being an African American, you would never forget. [Most people] tend, just like society, to forget about it sometimes. And it’s a shame that happens but it’s the way life is.”
Mets manager Willie Randolph certainly won’t forget anytime soon. He doesn’t need it to be Jackie Robinson Day to remember the man who allowed him to become the first black manager in New York baseball history.
“I got pictures of Jackie in my office,” Randolph said. “I reflect on and think about that every day.”
No, the legacy of Jackie Robinson has nothing to do with St. John’s. Actually, it has nothing to do with baseball or sports either. It’s about life and love and peace. Without the man, who knows where the world – sports or real life – would be? He might not have had the impact of Martin Luther King, but for many he was much more.
In 1947, my grandfather, who has since passed, was two years removed from returning from the Philippines, where he was stationed in World War II.
He had grown up a Dodgers fan and, much like a lot of Italian immigrants in Brooklyn at the time, his racial views were less than tolerant. It wasn’t that he was an outright racist, but the culture of the era didn’t allow for open-mindedness.
There was something different about his beloved Bums in 1947. There was a player not like the others – a player of color.
Now this struck him as more odd than something that would cause him rage and hate, like it did so many others.
Of course, it’s well documented the death threats and racial slurs that rained down onto the psyche of Robinson that year like poison-tipped arrows.
They came from every angle imaginable: fans, opposing players and managers, even teammates.
“No way in hell could I imagine that,” Floyd said. “Everybody feels like racism is still big and this and that. The stuff that we may endure through our career is peanuts compared to what they went through.”
But my grandfather and many others like him were not the ones shouting the ‘N’ word at Ebbets Field or telling Robinson to “go back to the jungle” like an umpire allegedly told him that year.
My grandfather didn’t have a problem with Robinson. Why? “Because he was a Dodger,” my grandmother so simply told me Sunday over Easter dinner.
Of course, he couldn’t be alone. For as many catcallers and hate mongers, there were white baseball fans all over the country being introduced to African Americans for the first time – and not caring at all.
That’s how sports can unite. That’s how Jackie Robinson left his mark.
So when Floyd was bent over at his locker in the Mets clubhouse Saturday morning, one could have easily mistaken him for showing worship.
He said he wouldn’t know what to say to Robinson if he met him today.
He could not explain in mere consonants and vowels the inspiration Robinson has given him and every other African American baseball player.
There was only one thing he could muster, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound professional athlete reduced to a grateful, indebted child.
“If you ask for two words,” Floyd said, “it would just be: ‘Thank you.'”