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03/29/08 9:38 PM EST

Baseball the real winner in Memphis

Mets, White Sox embody history and progress in the game

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The second annual Civil Rights Game had all the right symbolism in its choice of teams.

The New York Mets and the Chicago White Sox were here directly on merit in the cause of diversity. Both of them have turned over the leadership of their organizations and their on-field operations to highly qualified non-Caucasian individuals.

The Mets are led by general manager Omar Minaya, who was born in the Dominican Republic, and by manager Willie Randolph, an African-American. The White Sox are led by general manager Ken Williams, an African-American, and manager Ozzie Guillen, a Venezuelan.

The prominence of the White Sox in the cause of baseball diversity was officially recognized on Friday night at the Beacon Awards dinner, when a special award was given to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for his enduring contributions to equality, both on the field and in the front office.

On the field Saturday at AutoZone Park, the splendid facility of the Memphis Redbirds, the Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, these two teams were perfectly positioned for this event. Their commitment to diversity had gone beyond rhetoric to reality.

And they had both enjoyed success with this approach. The White Sox won the 2005 World Series. The Mets, after three straight losing seasons, have had three straight winning campaigns after the arrival of Minaya and Randolph, including winning the NL East in 2006. Both of these teams obviously had disappointing seasons in 2007, but they have just as obviously made dramatic overall improvements under their current leadership.

"Both the Mets and the White Sox, if you look at their leadership from the field manager and general manager standpoint, you look at the success that both teams have had, I think that the storylines are very obvious," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations for Major League Baseball.

"It's heartwarming, though, to know that even the [White Sox] ownership, Jerry Reinsdorf, and the Wilpon family [that owns the Mets], both of them are actually from Brooklyn. Brooklyn guys are always ahead of their time, I guess."

That, of course, is where it all started, 61 years ago, with the arrival of Jackie Robinson in the uniform of the Dodgers. And that is both the core of the celebration and the hope that is embodied in the Civil Rights Game.

Robinson's arrival was baseball's finest and most important moment, better than any home run, better than any perfect game, better than any World Series heroics. It was a moment when baseball took the lead in pointing the way toward the better possibilities of an integrated society, before society itself had integrated either schools or the armed services.

And the hope remains that baseball can continue to lead in the cause of diversity. The influx of players from Latin America and, more recently, East Asia, supports that hope, but the decline in the number of African-American players is troubling for Major League Baseball.

This game ought to be the symbol of a nation that is open to anyone who can succeed on individual merit. This issue is hardly confined to the playing field. And this is why the Mets and the White Sox provide helpful examples.

This event brings to mind simultaneously baseball's hopes for the future along with a portion of its past, its part in the struggle for civil rights in America. Baseball's pioneers in this area made it all possible and their heirs in the current generation never forget it.

"I always appreciate where I'm at," Randolph said after the game. "I always give thanks to the forefathers who really paved the way for me and a lot of other people of color."

Randolph said that the entire experience this weekend, from touring the National Civil Rights Museum as a team to catching the ceremonial first pitch from Martin Luther King III, was all of value to him.

"It's been a great experience," Randolph said. "The trip to the museum was very enlightening, very educational, very informative. To see my players really react to what they saw was something I'll never forget. It was very moving, and I felt like it was very much a bonding experience for us, too, because the guys were very attentive, they were very much into it, and they really got a lot out of it.

"I'm going to go back, take my family and take five, six hours to go through it and really absorb it all. I recommend anyone to go over and experience that."

In the on-field experience, the Mets defeated the White Sox, 3-2. But the real winner, in remembering the best part of its heritage, and in featuring these two teams in the Civil Rights Game, was baseball itself.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.