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03/29/08 6:24 PM ET

Fans enjoy being part of history

Civil rights, baseball a perfect mix for enthusiasts in Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Nathan Walters seemed out of place on Saturday.

Walters, who teaches history at a suburban Chicago high school, wandered through the chilled corridors inside AutoZone Park bundled in a Detroit Tigers sweatshirt and a cap with the orange Olde English "D" etched on its front.

He made it clear he wasn't a White Sox fan.

"But I'm absolutely a baseball junkie," said Walters, his girlfriend at his side. "I'm also like a baseball historian, so I follow a lot of Negro League baseball and the civil rights movement."

His dislike for the White Sox didn't outweigh the latter, and Walters couldn't have found a better venue for indulging his interest in civil rights and baseball.

Walters joined thousands more at the ballpark for the second annual Civil Rights Game, sponsored by AutoZone. The event is a remembrance of the historic role baseball played in opening America to equal opportunity for all.

That aspect of it brought Eddie Vera in from Brooklyn, N.Y. But another attraction for Vera, who traveled here with a cousin, was to watch his Mets, who were playing the White Sox in the final exhibition game for both teams.

Standing in the plaza between the ballpark and a nearby office building, Vera described himself as a "huge" Mets fan.

He then set about to prove it, too.

"Look here," said Vera, peeling off his jacket to show a gray Mets jersey. "I paid $360 for this jersey -- with my name on the back."

Yet he wanted to make certain nobody thought he didn't understand the significance of this annual celebration of baseball and civil rights.

"It's the Civil Rights Game, and I had to support the cause -- any cause," Vera said. "I had to come to this."

Bob Wallace echoed Vera's view. Wallace, who moved to Memphis from the Midwest eight years ago, said the history that led to Major League Baseball setting up the game appealed to him. It is that history, he said, that helped draw him to Memphis in the first place.

Wallace said Memphis had always been a city that intrigued him. He liked its diversity. For a year, he said he lived one block from the National Civil Rights Museum, the site of the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

"I'm just a huge baseball fan, so it's just a melding," said Wallace, who is planning a baseball odyssey through the Midwest this summer. "I'm also a people person. I love history, I love sociology and I love baseball.

"It all comes together this weekend."

It did just that for Walters.

"Put civil rights and baseball together, and that's a great concept for me," Walters said. "It's like absolutely perfect."

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.