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HBCU Swingman Classic a proud showcase for players, fans of Black baseball

For Seattle, it meant the world just to be able to be a part of something — anything — focused on bringing Black folks together

SEATTLE — “This is the most Black folks I’ve seen in a stadium here since Beyoncé played at Lumen. I’m not even being funny.”

Omari Salisbury is being completely earnest, standing on the field before the inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic at T-Mobile Park on July 7 as part of the MLB All-Star Game festivities, an event that brought about 10,000 people out to the yard to see these college players face off.

Plainly, it’s the most Black people I’ve ever seen at a baseball game in my life.

The brainchild of legendary MLB outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., this was effectively a college homecoming at a ballpark. The concourse was genuinely activated with Black life, as in the Divine Nine all had information desks out with information and pamphlets. As were quite a few colleges and universities. One guy, a member of Omega Psi Phi, even hit a one-man stroll on the concourse to the cheers of many and bemusement of a few.

The hardest thing to achieve in large settings is letting marginalized groups feel included without being singled out. On Friday on Dave Niehaus Way, the vibes were immaculate, to quote the youth. Folks were there in their best outfits. Junior had a fresh cut. Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, wore some brown mustard-colored gators and he wasn’t even close to playing with y’all.

Former MLB pitcher Marvin Freeman, pitching coach for Team Manuel, was expressly working on his walk to the mound. Not from the bullpen as he once did for many years in the big leagues, but from the dugout to the mound, just to get some extra TV time. In all seriousness, though, there was a “anyone who’s anyone in Black baseball was there”-type energy.

“Going to a HBCU, I graduated from Elizabeth City State University. That’s where I got into radio there, WRVS 89.9,” Salisbury, 43, said. “I knew the potential of what this is, what this was about. And it was crazy because I was telling Major League Baseball, ‘Man, listen, we don’t need nothing. Even though I shouldn’t say that to you. I know how big this is, not only for our community, for Black colleges, for Black people for opportunity and everything in this city.’ I said, ‘Just tell us you can give us a green light.’ ”

And that they did.

“We focused on the psychology off the field,” said Salisbury, who founded Converge Media, a company aiming to be “the world leader in uplifting and telling stories of the Black journey here in the Pacific Northwest, through TV and film.” The Mariners opened the ballpark to the company and let it shoot promos as a way to spread the word about the game.

“I grew up walking from the Central District down to the Kingdome. So, we want to see as many young kids out here. We want to look into their eyes and see them inspired and amazed. You know what I’m saying? In these seats. We want them falling in love with baseball and softball all over again.”

Alabama State infielder Randy Flores celebrates winning the MVP award after the inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic at T-Mobile Park on July 7 in Seattle.

Qwest Courtney/Getty Images

There is no real narrative for the Black baseball experience beyond dusty memories of Negro Leagues in the South and the heyday of superstars dominating magazine covers in the 1990s. The in-between is almost never told with the same vigor as the extremes.

Of course, some of these guys have a decent shot at becoming pro players. Plenty could be coaches, scouts, broadcasters, who knows. Or they could be none of those things, just fans of a game they like playing or watching. 

For this town, it meant the world just to be able to be a part of something — anything — that was focused on bringing Black folks together.

“What I had in mind and then what I saw getting here were two different things. This is much more impactful than what I could have imagined,” said Chardonnay Beaver, who attended with her mother. “Being born and raised here and things just being limited as far as who comes to Seattle for social events, entertainment, opportunities people have here to enjoy prime-time sports, entertainment.

“Also, not necessarily celebrities, but influential people here are really rare. We have people who come out of here who are trying to come back, but not in the same magnitude as other cities. So, for Ken Griffey Jr., to do this, I told him personally, ‘thank you.’ ”

Truthfully, the feelings of earnestness were a touch overwhelming, reminding you that this is something we used to have, but ultimately folded due to so-called progress when the color barrier was broken in the MLB. A stark reminder that we are not the norm, but they are.

Whatever happened on July 7 just felt different. It’s hard to describe it when you see something you’ve never seen before that also at once feels completely normal. Some people might call that feeling “safety.”

“I think when you possibly look back at this in history, you’ll know if you were here you could feel that something was somehow released in this atmosphere, that was born here tonight,” manager Jerry Manuel said after the game. “What we have to do as people in baseball, we just have to keep breathing life into projects like this. We got to come out in full forces, like these guys did. There’s something I will say, from those colleges — I didn’t go to college — but there seemed to be a nurturing aspect to those Black college people. They seem to nurture the next generation more than our generation.”

Spectators look on during the inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic held at T-Mobile Park on July 7 in Seattle.

Qwest Courtney/Getty Images

“It’s the first event ain’t nobody called me for no free ticket. Because there’s a sense of pride here to say, ‘Yeah, man, I bought my ticket to this Black event.’ ” — Omari Salisbury

Don’t get it twisted, there were plenty non-Black people there. The Swingman Classic by no means was some cultural gatekeeping moment designed to scare other people away. Quite the opposite. Plenty of white folks were in the building with their families. And showing up occasionally on the jumbotron dance cam, which by the way was a major highlight of the evening.

“I was going because this is a great experience, exposure, more people in the community. I’ve listened to Griffey do podcasts, talking about [how] people like Black kids don’t get the ability to, they don’t get to go, they don’t get to participate and they don’t get to see this,” said Amy Parks, who is white, after the game. “It was really amazing. It had such different energy. They were excited. There were little kids who knew nothing, but they were yelling for those players to throw them balls and it was just really an exciting experience to watch these kids get excited about baseball. I can’t throw a ball to save my life — actually, I can throw one. I can’t catch a ball to save my life and I’m never going to probably connect a bat with a ball — but as a spectator sport, I love it.”

While there was some discussion about how this event should be marketed and sold, ultimately the community had something to prove and did it. If it was free, perhaps it would have felt undervalued. So, they charged money and humans bought tickets, as a point of decency.

“Where the original conversations was giving tickets away to Black folk, I was like, ‘Yo, man, we going to buy something,’ you know what I’m saying?” Salisbury explained. “It’s the first event ain’t nobody called me for no free ticket. Because there’s a sense of pride here to say, ‘Yeah, man, I bought my ticket to this Black event.’ ”

The game itself was a doozy. Seven total stolen bases, including a show of force on the dirt in the last frame to end it. Randy Flores, an infielder from Alabama State, doubled in the bottom of the eighth on a ball where he was screaming out the box. He stole third and, soon after, scored a run on a head-first slide on a pitch that got away in the dirt. He was named the MVP. The next day, Elly De La Cruz did almost the same thing for the Cincinnati Reds, to the wonder of much of the baseball world.

For the coaches, the level of mentorship and hands-on help they were able to provide was extremely rewarding. It was just something that everyone wanted to be a part of, to contribute to the larger cause. There’s a whole separate discussion to be had about how historically Black universities fit into the college baseball ecosystem, but nobody was worried about that on Friday.

The truth is that most scouts are lazy. If you aren’t at a showcase event, then people assume you can’t play, which is nonsense. And in total, the system is underfunded yet overwhelmed by the greed and avarice of travel ball culture, which has its benefits but is also overloaded with scam artists who call themselves coaches.

“Now, they get the exposure they deserve, all the HBCUs,” Trenidad Hubbard, a longtime big leaguer who played at Southern University, said before the game. Serving as a coach, he was glad to be able to hang out with his old buddies and offer his insights to the kids. “This is why this event here is so important. The world can see these players do their thing, how good they are — and they’ve always been this good. And MLB can see them. The scouts can see them. They can no longer hide.”

Whatever comes of this event in years to come, it promises to grow. I cannot emphasize enough how wild it was to see that many people in a major league ballpark there to watch non-pro Black ballplayers get after it on the field. Next year, the All-Star Game is headed to Texas, where everything is bigger. Meaning this function will only get better.

“I love it, man. You got a few kids from a certain university or where I played at, but seeing this whole atmosphere …,” said Rickie Weeks Jr., who won the Golden Spikes Award at Southern University and was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022. His kid was running around doing backflips with his glove on his hand all day. “There’s a sense of passion and a sense of wanting to help, too, at the same time. I think coming out here, taking it that way, I think the guys feed off that.”

They call Seattle the Emerald City because of its forests, which dominate the landscape and culture. But everywhere you looked on Friday at T-Mobile Park, all you saw were gems, ready to shine.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.