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Here's hoping that Willie Mays has a lasting effect on Hagerstown

August 15, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

The folks at the Hall of Fame may wish to revise Willie Mays' career total of 660 home runs. After his performance in Hagerstown this week, his total should read 661.

This event, bringing the Giants' superstar outfielder back to the town where he made his professional debut to scattered, racially based catcalls, certainly had the potential for a mere publicity stunt. Get in, get the check from a town of bitter memories and get out.

Not even close. It's safe to say that everyone in the ballroom of the Clarion Hotel Monday evening already had tremendous respect for Willie Mays the center fielder. It's equally safe to say that by the time he left, everyone had tremendous respect for Willie Mays the man.

Not only was Mays the victim of slurs his last trip here, when the Oval Office was occupied by Harry Truman, he wasn't permitted to stay at the same hotel as the white players, but had to sleep at the old Harmon Hotel on Jonathan Street.

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On his introduction to the crowd, applause for Mays was appreciative, but tentative as well. Was Mays here to address a meaningful issue, or was he simply punching a clock? The answer was quickly apparent. Mays spent a long time offering an insightful analysis of his situation then and now. The first, deceptively simple truth was that wrongs can be righted. This was for the whites. The second truth was that shoulders unencumbered by chips can be carried higher and more proudly. This was for the blacks.

The City of Hagerstown and the Hagerstown Suns were class acts, whose sincerity clearly touched Mays. Halfway through the program he choked up, not on a bat, but on the redemption that was on everyone's mind. Everyone in the ballroom choked up as well, on the knowledge that human spirit in the community had been lifted that day. The polite applause gave way to cheers and whoops.

It would be melodramatic to say that Monday marked a turning point for race relations in Hagerstown. But it would be accurate to say that Mays planted a seed. The nurture of that seed will be up to us.

A woman called the newspaper office this week to offer her disappointment that an article about a shooting had described the location of the crime in relation to its proximity to Jonathan Street. With sadness, she questioned the assumption that negative events must have a Jonathan Street connotation.

From a professional-journalist standpoint, the woman was wrong. Had the shooting occurred "near" Brightwood East, we would have reported that too.

But from a humanity standpoint, the woman was right. What are we doing to change the perspective - what are we doing to bring about a time when a shooting on Jonathan Street is newsworthy not because it is common, but because it is rare?

Despite its negatives, Jonathan Street has positives on which to build: The Buffalo soldiers; the strong community bond, where neighbors know their neighbors; and the fact that it can claim what no white community in Hagerstown can claim: Willie Mays slept here.

Jokingly, Mayor Bill Breichner asked Mays if he could get his godson, Barry Bonds, to come to Municipal Stadium to take a few swings. Not until you build a new stadium, Mays quickly rejoined. Barry Bonds doesn't play in dumps.

A new or renovated stadium is a keystone in an embryonic plan to revitalize a quadrant - a white quadrant - of town that ultimately could include a convention center, upscale homes, a new use for the old hospital site and potentially a stretch of Antietam Creek waterfront.

It is a worthy project, but it raises a salient point: If Willie Mays can endorse a renewal project in a predominately white community, it should be incumbent on white city leaders to be mindful of ways they can endorse and enact improvements on the long-ignored black community of Jonathan Street.

We know, or think we know, the problems of Jonathan Street. What we too often don't know is that Jonathan Street is home to some of the most wonderful, decent and caring people the community has to offer. They hate the storm they are weathering, but through tradition and pride they are weathering it all the same. And they deserve to be acknowledged and rewarded.

What can we do? I don't really know. But I do know that for starters, we can always have an ear out and an eye open for opportunities in which we can make a difference, large or small. This is not a matter of helping the "black community." This is matter of helping people, people who have persevered far longer than most of us would. And it is the right thing to do.

Hagerstown Suns General Manager Kurt Landes saw an opportunity, and he stepped up by arranging Mays' return. Landes is young and new to the community. Silly us. No one thought to take him aside and explain the situation is hopeless.

Instead, Landes, who is as sharp as they come, quickly understood that Mays' return was no mere publicity stunt. Rather it was a community-shaping event to be treated with reverence and dignity. Mays has promised to return, which would be nice if for no other reason than as a reminder to carry on.

The great ballplayer, the great man, has one godson named Barry. It might be appropriate if he, in spirit at least, were to adopt another one named Jonathan.

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