The term “inflection point” became so common this summer that it almost became a cliche in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police and protests across the country demanding justice, police reform and recognition of the lived reality of Black and brown Americans.
It seemed especially common in professional sports as players from the NBA, WNBA and Major League Baseball in particular took stands — and knees — and as baseball faced its own longstanding cultural rifts and blind spots from its clubhouses to its front offices.
Inflection point? How could we know, much less trust, that this moment — however powerful and full-throated — might have staying power when so many of the conversations today seemed to echo from past generations that found their own woke moments during the 1960s Civil Rights movement or the aftermath of Rodney King’s videotaped beating by police and subsequent acquittals in the 1990s.
Those past “awakenings” did little for Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Botham Jean or Ahmoud Arbery.
But Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said he felt optimism this summer for real change. And as he stood before a gleaming, black tractor-trailer filled with baseball equipment, alongside a “popup pantry” of boxed food and COVID-19 safety essentials, he seemed to be delivering on his own faith.
“There’s still a lot of optimism there for me,” Heyward said, “because we’re pulling together and using our resources and using our networking to do things like this.”
“This” was the first of two stops in Chicago Sunday — one of four total over the weekend in the city — by the newly formed Players Alliance to promote baseball in largely Black communities and, this winter, to provide essentials during the pandemic for those in need.
The Players Alliance is a first-of-its-kind organization of 143 current and former Black MLB players using the strength of its collective voice — and economic muscle — “to create increased opportunities for the Black community in every aspect of our game and beyond.”
MLB and individual teams have signed on in support, including matching donations of money and equipment, and the “Pull Up Neighbor” national tour of 40 cities and neighborhoods over 33 scheduled days through late next month is the first major initiative.
“It’s amazing to see what The Players Alliance has done in six short months,” said T.F. South grad and three-time All-Star Curtis Granderson, one of its founding directors. “We want to see more equality in the game, from the top down, all the way to the little babies that are playing, to ownership. We also want to see it in our community.
“This year highlighted a bunch of inequities, from people that had and people that had not, to people who are getting sick to schools being closed, food insecurity and all those different issues.”
Heyward and Granderson don’t expect to fix all the world’s problems with one new organization and a tractor trailer — no matter how well designed or well intentioned their operation.
But they may have found their right voice at the right time to effect change in their own world in baseball — with executive-pipeline initiatives already in the works and advisory boards that include six members of MLB ownership groups and eight execs, including Kenny Williams of the White Sox and former Cubs president Theo Epstein.
“To be able to come together right now, at this time, just felt like the right thing to do,” Heyward said. “We feel like we have a platform. Other people are out here doing something. You’ve got first responders when it comes to COVID doing things and helping out. We want to do something in our communities and during a tough time.”
Among those joining Granderson and Heyward helping deliver baseball gear and essentials to young players and families at Chicago stops over the weekend were second baseman Nico Hoerner, 2020 first-round draft pick Ed Howard, second baseman Jason Kipnis and free agent pitcher T.J. McFarland of Palos Hills.
The tour, which rolls on to Wisconsin, St. Louis and Cincinnati this week, has players from the cities at each stop lined up to host events.
It’s that kind of support and the support from teammates and the Cubs organization over the summer that helped give Heyward his optimism that an inflection point has finally arrived through all the pain and upheaval of 2020.
“It’s a long way to go. I’m not complacent. I’m not saying all the work is done, of course,” he said. “But just being able to have conversations and have people listen to our discomforts and things that we’ve held in for so long and not been sure how to speak up on — at the end of the day, myself included, a lot of us don’t want to complain.
“We don’t want any special treatment or anything like that, but there are things that we’ve seen for a long time. Not comparing us to women, but also like women, who feel like, ‘Hey, we’re not getting treated the same way.’ It’s nice to have that support.”
As one of the highest paid players in the Alliance, Heyward also has been one of its biggest financial backers.
But just as important to him, if not more important, is his newfound voice — and being on the ground to do the work in his adopted city.
“I know I’m not the first person to come out here and do this,” Heyward said. “Curtis Granderson’s been doing this for years. Other people have been doing this for years.
“But you can’t complain about something and then not go out there and physically try and be part of the change. That’s why it’s huge for me to come out here and make it happen.”