Eight Black players contributed to this year’s Big Ten baseball tourney

SOECharlesHallmansquareThis column continues the Only One series in which this reporter shares his experiences as the only African American journalist on the scene.

 

 

Diversity by the numbers at this year’s Big Ten baseball tournament, held last week at the Twins ballpark:

8 — The total number of Black players in the eight-team tournament field.

4 — One-half of last week’s field (Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan State, Indiana) had no Black players.

4 — The number of runs Michigan sophomore Johnny Slater knocked in, including a three-run home run.

3 — The total number of Blacks who played in the championship game.

2 — Two Big Ten teams had more than one Black player (Maryland and Ohio State with three each).

1 — Iowa junior Blake Hickman was the only Black pitcher, and Dominican-born Kevin Martir of Maryland was the only catcher of color.

Johnny Slater, Blake Hickman, Dana Hughes
Johnny Slater, Blake Hickman, Dana Hughes

Brothers showed out

Maryland’s LaMonte Wade threw out a runner at home. His brother Jamal’s only at bat in the tournament was a ninth-inning, two-out pinch hit single that drove in a run. Johnny Slater hit a three-run blast in Michigan’s tourney opener and later went two-for-four in the title game that all three Black players participated in.

“Being on a five-game win streak is pretty cool,” said Slater, the Michigan sophomore outfielder, while wearing his championship T-shirt as the Wolverines won the 2015 Big Ten title last Sunday. The Wolverines’ only Black player told the Only One, “I can’t remember the last African American player being on Michigan.”

Slater was drafted in the 31st round by Atlanta in the 2013 draft. “It was a nice thing to happen, but I knew I was going to go to school. My parents wanted me to stay in school. I just want to focus on school and get my [general studies] degree.”

“We played three good teams this weekend,” said LaMonte Wade of runners-up Maryland. “We definitely kept fighting and didn’t give up,” added Jamal Wade, a freshman designated hitter. “I didn’t put any pressure on myself — just trying to get the job done,” he admitted on his pinch hit.

Blake Hickman is the only Black player among all three all-conference teams. A first teamer, last year he switched from catcher to pitcher for Iowa. “I think the most difficult part was putting away [catching], because I have been doing it since I was 10 years old,” said the first-team member.

“I take a lot of pride in my defense and controlling the game,” noted Dominican-born Kevin Martir, the Maryland junior starting catcher and third-team All-Big Ten player. He told the MSR that his pitchers “trust me a lot” in calling their games.

 

A hard-to-miss fact

Several coaches said that they are indeed trying to get more Black players. “We do look to target underrepresented kids” in major cities for talent, said Michigan Coach Erik Bakich.

“You definitely want to get more Blacks into baseball. I feel that’s huge for me trying to be the [Black] face of this team,” said Hickman, who’s from Chicago.

Said BTN Analyst Danan Hughes, “I wish Black people would take another stance and invest in it more. Athleticism is overlooked in the game of baseball.”

 

Brothers LaMonte (l) and Jamal Wade
Brothers LaMonte (l) and Jamal Wade

Family feud?

The Wade brothers often compete against each other in ping-pong. “He used to be better than me,” said Jamal, the younger of the two. “Now I’m definitely better.”

“I’m the king of the house when it comes to ping-pong,” countered LaMonte.

 

Finally…

NCAA baseball this season switched to a “flat-seam” baseball, which according to researchers will travel at least 20 feet farther than the old ones. Slater was among 12 batters who reached the Twins ballpark seats last week.

“I like the lower seam ball. I can get more on my fastball and have a better feel on my breaking stuff,” said Hickman.

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.