It was one of the worst moments any baseball player could experience. Backup infielder Brooks Conrad had made his third error of the game, which would eventually cost his team a critical playoff game, leading to the loss of a series that would end the baseball career for his manager, the legendary Bobby Cox of the Atlanta Braves.
Boos rained down on him from Braves fans at Turner Field, justifiably outraged that their team could lose when only a strike away from victory. Thrust into the harsh glare of national television only after injuries to key starters Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, the 30-year old rookie seemed destined to join the Fred Merkles, Ralph Brancas, Stan Williamses, Donnie Moores, Bill Buckners, and other players whose fame, or infamy, is tied to baseball failure.
“That’s the loneliest feeling ever for a player,” an announcer quipped. And it seemed to grow longer as Braves manager Bobby Cox made a pitching change, which meant more time for fans to vent their frustration on Conrad.
Aware of how crushing the pressure must have been for the distraught infielder, Turner Field’s crew showed a montage of season highlights on the giant outfield television screen, including a come-from-behind home run that Conrad smashed. But that image seemed to make the crowd madder, instead of soothing their anger toward the luckless Conrad.
At that moment, teammate Derrek Lee, who had just joined the team in a trade a short time earlier, came over to Conrad, patted him on the back, and offered a few words of encouragement. “There’s probably nothing he really wanted to hear, and there was not much you can say,” Lee told reporters afterwards, according to ESPN. He couldn’t even remember what he said.
However, that moment spoke volumes in a way most Americans probably don’t even realize. It wasn’t just about doing the right thing, as it was also paying back kindness from a long time ago.
When Jackie Robinson was about to shake America’s race relations to their foundation by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, some members of the team circulated a petition claiming they would not play with this African American. But team captain Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, a native of Kentucky, refused to sign the petition. He later explained his refusal to sign the petition didn’t mean he thought of himself as “the Great White Father.” He simply felt Robinson “had a right to be there too.” Such acceptance was vital to the first player to break the color barrier.
At a game in Cincinnati, the crowd rained racial taunts down upon Jackie Robinson. The popular Reese, as aware as anyone of the town’s racial tensions, responded by walking over to Robinson. Reese put his arm around him, assuring Robinson he wasn’t alone, which seemed to quiet the stadium. That moment is immortalized in a statue unveiled a few years ago at a Brooklyn park. It’s one of those moments I call “an American Experience” that transcended a simple sporting event, foreshadowing greater progress and tolerance beyond the athletic realm. That friendship was for life, as Reese served as one of Robinson’s pallbearers.
There’s a connection between both tales. You see, Derrek Lee is an African American player, and Brooks Conrad is white. By sticking up for a guy who suddenly became the least popular person in Atlanta since William T. Sherman, Lee paid back the debt Robinson may have owed Reese. It says a lot, not just for race relations, but the importance of sticking up for one’s fellow man,, even when it’s not the popular thing to do.