Trials of an Only One | 2016 Central Regional Tournament

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

In August, Cincinnati will host the 2016 Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series. The Minnesota Twins RBI program last weekend hosted this year’s RBI Central Regional tournament in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, with 15 teams from six RBI leagues competing in the junior baseball, senior baseball and softball divisions from Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis and host Minnesota.

The teams with the best records after a three-game tournament schedule played in Monday’s championship games (softball at Dunning in St. Paul, and the Twins stadium for baseball).

(Onika Nicole Craven/MSR News)

Both Minnesota teams in softball and senior baseball reached the championship games, but both fell short in their bid for a berth in Cincinnati next month. The Twins softball team lost to St. Louis’ Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club RBI 15-1, and the local senior baseball team fell to Milwaukee 6-0.

And the Only One was there.

Minnesota Twins RBI Director Frank White told the MSR that both squads had impressive tourney runs. “Our girls have always competed but this is a down year for us,” he explained. “It’s good that they played in the championship game.”

As for the local senior baseball team, “It really helped our boys because this is the second time we played in the [regional] championship game in 16 years,” continued White. “To beat Chicago White Sox and the [Chicago] Cubs in the same tournament because usually one of those teams is playing in the finals.”

Opie Ajhenu
Opie Ajhenu Onika Nicole Craven/MSR News

“We’ve never beaten the Chicago White Sox in our existence,” reported legendary coach Billy Peterson after his team’s 3-2 victory at Parade Stadium last Saturday. “We played a great game and so did they. That was one of those classic games in which both teams deserved to win.”

Also a couple of local Only Ones talked to us last weekend as well. “I enjoy being with this group of guys,” said 16-year-old Opie Ajhenu, a St. Paul Central junior, the only Black player on the Twins RBI senior baseball team. He scored the go-ahead run in that win over the Sox. “I know I’m fast and I like to use that,” admitted the speedy, and aggressive outfielder.

“He’s got some tremendous physical talent,” noted Peterson on Ajhenu, who also plays high school football.

D'Asia Burrell
D’Asia Burrell Charles Hallman/MSR

“I’m the only…Black woman” on the Twins RBI softball team, noted 16-year-old D’Asia Burrell, who also plays softball at St. Paul Johnson. It certainly was eye-opening for her to look across the diamond at the St. Louis club that defeated them twice and see that the majority of players looked like her.

“This is the first time I’ve seen an actual team of color. It’s really weird to me,” she admitted between games.

“Playing in St. Paul and playing baseball, you don’t see a lot of Black teams,” added Ajhenu of the sport that was his first choice. “I’ve played it my whole life growing up.”

Said Burrell, who began playing softball as a six-year-old, “I can play anywhere but they had me in the outfield this game. I used to catch, and pitch.”

Timeah Stotts
Timeah Stotts Charles Hallman/MSR News

“I really enjoyed my time here,” noted Timeah Stotts, a 17-year-old recent high school graduate,  and a second-year player on the Milwaukee softball RBI team. She plans to attend Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee this fall, with possibly studying sports management or sports medicine, but she is currently undecided. Her team, like the champion St. Louis squad, was mostly Black.

Burrell said she also enjoyed her first season in RBI, which she contrasted with her Johnson team: “This team is more mature . . . I don’t think Johnson plays to win, not real serious out there.”

This is what White wants to hear: “It let other people in our area know that RBI is becoming a competitive program. Kids can know they can play at a high level in RBI,” he pointed out.

While watching the senior baseball finals at the Twins ballpark, we learned that the parent team made a “difficult decision,” according to President Dave St. Peter. At a press conference Monday that the Only One attended, it was announced that GM Terry Ryan was fired. Owner Jim Pohlad told the press that Ryan wanted it to be known he was “relieved of his duties”— a politically correct way to say he was fired and replaced by Rob Antony, on an interim basis.

“I believe we need to look at the way we were doing things,” announced Pohlad, pledging that changes will be seen throughout the organization. When the MSR asked the Twins owner if these changes he promised included improving the diversity in key management positions he replied, “This is a huge issue for baseball. They are committed to it. We echo that.”

No one, as expected, asked Pohlad what that really meant, and the owner didn’t elaborate.


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