Dee Gordon reached into his locker and grabbed an Under Armour shoebox. He opened it to display a pair of brand-new spikes in the colors of off-white, royal blue and gold with the No. 42 on the soles and the letter “B” in script and the word Bruins on the back.
No, these weren’t for the Mariners’ Sunday alternate home uniforms. The occasion was much more important than a marketing ploy to sell more swag. These shoes were made special by Under Armour for players to wear for the celebration Monday of Jackie Robinson Day. The blue and gold are the colors of UCLA, where Robinson was a standout four-sport letterman in baseball, basketball, football and track.
“They did a good job with them,” Gordon said. “They gave them to all the players who represent Under Armour.”
But for Gordon, Jackie Robinson Day is more than just a chance to wear fancy spikes or wrist bands. It’s about honoring the man who broke the color barrier in baseball, positively altering the landscape of the game forever.
“He changed everything,” Gordon said.
The Mariners currently have three black players on their 25-man roster — Gordon, Tim Beckham and Mallex Smith. They also have infielder Shed Long and pitcher Justus Sheffield on their 40-man roster and top prospects Justin Dunn and Kyle Lewis at Class AA Arkansas.
“That’s not as common as it used to be,” Gordon said of the Mariners roster. “It’s pretty cool to see that. Hopefully we have some more coming up.”
That hasn’t been typical for the Mariners or other teams as the number of black players on MLB rosters has decreased steadily over the years. According to MLB, black players made up 8.4 percent of the opening-day rosters in baseball (750) players, which is the highest since 2012.
On the Mariners’ recent trip to Kansas City, Gordon, Smith and Beckham took a tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Gordon also went there last season when the team was in Kansas City.
“You are supposed to go,” Gordon said. “As a black baseball player, if it wasn’t for those guys, there wouldn’t be this. It’s just repaying my debt to the guys that came before me.”
Beckham knew all about the story of Robinson and his importance to the game. But the museum offered a reminder and some enlightenment.
“We see a lot about it, but we don’t really know all the stories behind it,” Beckham said. “We don’t really know all that he went through and what he endured for us to play the game that we love. It speaks a lot about his character and the way he went about it. It takes a special man to go about it and to take as much backlash as he did and still do it in professional manner.”
But the slight increase in black representation at the MLB level isn’t enough. Gordon and Beckham both acknowledged that the game isn’t as popular or as available for black children. MLB has had some success in its RBI programs, focusing on growing the game in inner-cities across the country.
“It’s so hard,” Gordon said. “It’s so expensive. I can’t take care of every kid, which I wish I could, but it’s just kind of impossible. We’ve got uphill battle for funding, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s not just going to play Little League anymore.”
Mariners manager Scott Servais announced that right-hander Erik Swanson will take Wade LeBlanc’s spot in the starting rotation Wednesday against the Indians.
After not being used in relief Sunday in the Mariners’ 3-2 defeat against the Astros, Swanson threw a bullpen session following the game to prepare for his first MLB start.
“We’ll fire him out there and hopefully he’ll give us five or six competitive innings,” Servais said.
Swanson made his big-league debut earlier this month in Kansas City, pitching in relief. He allowed two runs on three hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He made one start with Class AAA Tacoma, pitching five shutout innings, allowing six hits with eight strikeouts.
“I think he’s ready,” Servais said. “We brought him up early and he handled coming out of the bullpen fine. I like how his stuff plays. I don’t think he’s going to overthink it or get too complicated. It’s ‘Here’s what I do’ and we’ll see how they react to it.”