Lorenzo Cain played basketball. That was his first love growing up in the small northern Florida city of Madison. But when he tried out for the sport as a freshman at Madison County High, the feeling wasn’t mutual. He didn’t make the team, so he took a swing at baseball as a sophomore.
“My mom wouldn’t let me play football after I got cut from the basketball team,” Cain said. “So honestly, baseball was the only sport left that I could play. I talked to my buddy, Jeremy Haynes. He’s also African-American. He played on the team. I was asking him, ‘Do you think I could go out and make the team?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, come on out. Try out.’ I ended up making the JV team and the rest is history.
“If I had made the basketball team, no, I would not be standing here today, because I know if I had made the basketball team, I would’ve never tried out for baseball, for sure.”
The 32-year-old centerfielder — who signed a five-year, $80-million deal with the Brewers as a free agent in January after starring for Kansas City — was at his locker stall in the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field before Saturday night’s game against the Mets.
But Cain knows he wouldn’t have been standing there if someone else hadn’t opened the door for him.
Sunday marks the 71st anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Cain has a deep appreciation for the Hall of Famer and, weather permitting, will proudly wear a No. 42 jersey like the rest of Major League Baseball, the tradition on Jackie Robinson Day.
“It’s a special moment,” Cain said. “I’m glad MLB is showing respect toward Jackie Robinson and what he went through, things that he had to go through to play this game. He paved the way for African-Americans. It’s good that the league is taking out a full day to allow everybody to wear his number. It’s a special day, a special time.”
His teammate, Eric Thames, feels the same way.
“It’s an incredible honor to honor his life and his legacy,” the 31-year-old first baseman/outfielder said. “I think for any person of color, a person of minority, different country, anything, he was like the first one actually to play through all the adversity and through the hatred and bigotry. He set the path for all of us to follow.”
Not that many African-Americans are following right now in the majors, but there has been a slight increase in the numbers this season. There are some signs that the trend could continue.
“A lot of African-Americans don’t really play baseball growing up,” Cain said. “But definitely a lot of African-Americans are gravitating more toward baseball. It’s a good thing, kind of mix it up, not only just choose football and basketball. It’s fun to see. It’s great to see.”
Last year, there were only 62 African-American players on Opening Day rosters and disabled lists, or 7.1 percent of the total, according to a USA Today sports study. That was the lowest percentage in 59 years.
This year, there were 68 African-American players — or 7.8 percent — according to the annual study, the largest year-to-year jump in 10 years.
MLB has made a number of initiatives toward diversity, including its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and its youth academies.
“It’s definitely trending toward the right direction, getting more African-Americans involved in baseball,” Cain said.
There have been 41 African-American first-round picks dating to 2012, or 20.1 percent of the total.
Thames thinks the concerns about concussions in football will lead toward increased baseball participation and is optimistic overall about African-Americans playing the sport.
“It’s probably easier to pick up a ball, whether it’s basketball or soccer or football, than it is to grab a glove and [find] a partner to play catch with, or find a coach or mentor,” said Thames, who gravitated toward baseball at his prep school in San Jose, California. “So it is a lot more difficult, but yeah, it’s increasing. It has to be cool. Nowadays, it’s whatever’s cool. MLB is doing a great job of expanding and the academies and stuff. It’s going to continue to increase. It dropped for a little bit, but it’s going to start going up.”
The Jackie Robinson Rotunda at Citi Field is dedicated to his life and legacy. Scholars from the Jackie Robinson Foundation will give a tour before Sunday’s game to young people from the Five Towns Community Center in Lawrence and The WANTED Project, a mentorship program based in Valley Stream for young men of color.
Robinson’s widow, Rachel, who is 95, is scheduled to be on hand for pregame ceremonies along with daughter Sharon and son David.
The Mets currently have no African-American players other than Dominic Smith, who’s on a rehab assignment with Las Vegas and might stay there when that’s complete.
Asked if that lack of African-Americans seems strange, the Mets’ Todd Frazier said, “I really didn’t even think about that. I don’t know. There’s a lot of great African-American baseball players. It’s a tough question to answer.”
But Frazier, the white third baseman from Toms River, New Jersey, relishes the thought of doubling his number from the usual 21 to the iconic 42 for one respectful day.
“It means everything,” Frazier said. “Jackie Robinson was not only an upstanding gentleman, he stood up for his rights. You could only commend a person for that. I don’t know what I would do. The times were crazy, and he’s a guy that helped out baseball so much in so many different aspects of the word ‘baseball.’ It’s truly an honor to wear that number.”
“It’s an incredible honor to honor his life and his legacy . . . He set the path for all of us to follow.”
— Eric Thames