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Breaking barriers not lost on Hawkins

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by Jose de Jesus Otero, Houston Chronicle

latroyhawkins1LaTroy Hawkins panned his video camera on the crowd around him at President Barack Obama’s inauguration before one person caught the Astros reliever’s attention.

The sight of a middle-aged black woman sobbing with joy prompted Hawkins to think about Jackie Robinson, his grandparents and other blacks who helped change America so their children could one day see Obama’s election come to pass.

“I was just like ‘wow,’ just sitting in there taking in the moment that (in) our country we came a long way,” he said.

A descendant of slaves, Hawkins let his mind sift through generations. He thought about his ancestors and his children. He connected Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with Obama breaking America’s ultimate glass ceiling.

When the late Lesley Cannon predicted her grandchildren would see a black president, Hawkins didn’t believe the woman he affectionately called Grandma Gorgeous.

He never imagined he would be at the inauguration and even within an arm’s length of the Obamas at some of the inauguration balls, as he was in January in Washington.

“She always told me it would happen,” said Hawkins, who wears No. 42 in honor of Robinson for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. “She died in ’06 and she had always told me, ‘just watch and see.’ I was like, ‘grandma, yeah, right.’ I just thought it was grandma being herself and always thinking on the positive side.”

There has been dramatic change in baseball and politics since Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. After a surge in black baseball stars through the late 1980s, their presence in baseball now is jarringly small.

“With the percentage of African-Americans playing baseball, Jackie would probably be rolling over in his grave,” Hawkins, 36, said. “I think we have to come together as a whole and figure out what the problem is.

“Baseball is a slow game. It’s a thinking man’s game. It’s a game of failure, and kids don’t like failure. … Everybody wants to succeed and do well, and baseball’s not that type of sport. Failure, when you fail in baseball you still can be successful.”

In the past decade, Houston has put several young black players in the majors, including All-Star Carl Crawford of the Tampa Bay Rays, Chris Young of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Michael Bourn of the Astros and James Loney of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Robinson opened the door for Hawkins, Crawford, Young, Bourn and Loney.

“For him, it’s a really, really big deal to be wearing Jackie Robinson’s number,” Anita Hawkins said of her husband.

Robinson’s No. 42 has been retired in baseball since 1997.

“Me getting a chance to wear it for the U.S. in an Olympic setting is pretty cool,” Hawkins said. “I equate Jackie breaking the color barrier in baseball with Obama becoming the first black president of the U.S.”

Wearing No. 42 also gives him an opportunity to share some of the stories he grew up hearing from his grandmother and grandfather, Eddie Williams, who lectured him on the pride he felt when Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers.

As children, Hawkins’ grandparents picked cotton in the fields of Hollandale, Miss., before migrating to Chicago and Gary, Ind.

“My grandfather’s 84 now, and … for him to be able to see (Obama’s election), I mean, he was just as happy as they come,” Hawkins said.

Just like his grandparents relished telling him how they felt April 15, 1947, Hawkins and his family will share with the next generations the emotions they had when Obama became the 44th president of the United States.

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Written by Symphony

March 16, 2009 at 12:58 pm

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