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04/16/08 12:14 AM EST

No. 42 means great deal to Mets, Nats

Wearing Robinson's number an honor for all players involved

NEW YORK -- Damion Easley paused for a long while, considering the question, chewing it up with his mind. Easley didn't need to glance to his right -- he already knew all about the No. 42 Mets jersey that hung there in his locker. But its significance?

"You know you're putting on a number that's not yours, one that's retired in every ballpark," Easley said. "You have to stop and ask why. Why are we doing it? What does it mean?"

He paused for another moment, before hazarding an answer. Words came slowly.

"There's some significance there, obviously, for all the known reasons," Easley said. "I like to always take a step back, because we all get caught up in the rat race. We forget about the people that kind of paved the way or opened doors, or were just pioneers."

Yet on this night, they remembered.

Tuesday marked baseball's annual Jackie Robinson Day celebration, which focused its festivities this year at Shea Stadium in Queens -- the ballpark geographically closest to where Robinson first made his mark on the Major Leagues. Because of that, the Mets have become stewards of Robinson's legacy, figuring themselves a perfect fit.

"To get a chance to honor him in this way, it's pretty special," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "To be able to do it in New York, it makes it even more special."

Introduced in 2004, Jackie Robinson Day was created to honor the enduring impact of Jackie Robinson and his legacy as the first African-American player to break the Major League color barrier. Robinson played his first big league game at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the Major League color barrier in 1997, Robinson's uniform No. 42 was retired throughout the Major Leagues.

Robinson's memory lives on today in initiatives such as the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which was founded by Rachel Robinson, his widow, in 1973 to provide education and leadership development opportunities for minority students with strong capabilities but limited financial resources. Additionally, the Breaking Barriers program utilizes baseball-themed activities to reinforce literacy skills, mathematics, science and social history in addition to addressing critical issues of character development, such as conflict resolution and self-esteem.

The gesture of wearing Robinson's No. 42 is nothing new, established last season as a new way to honor baseball's foremost social icon. Yet for most of these Mets and the opposing Nationals, it was new. Of the Mets, only manager Willie Randolph wore the uniform number last season -- excluding Marlon Anderson, who wore it as a member of the Dodgers. Of the Nationals, only first baseman Dmitri Young enjoyed the honor.

This season, that all changed, with every player on both the Mets and Nationals wearing No. 42. The gesture, one shared by clubs throughout baseball, didn't go unnoticed.

"I like to think if it wasn't for Jackie, I wouldn't be standing here in this locker room. A lot of things that I'm able to do, I wouldn't be able to do if he hadn't persevered and faced all the difficult challenges that he did. I'm just thankful for Jackie Robinson."
-- Nationals outfielder Willie Harris

"That was great, having a chance to put that number on, and just understanding the trademark that comes along with it," Nats reliever Ray King said. "Here's a guy whose whole career was spent having people send hate letters and different things, and he still had to go out and play the game he loved. I think that sometimes we forget why we play the game."

That's why King couldn't help but laugh and joke after Tuesday's game, despite his Nationals losing, 6-0. Good vibes came out of both clubhouses, because if only for one day, baseball had increased awareness of the struggles that Robinson once faced. Of course, many players hoped that the celebration wouldn't be limited to only one day.

"It's not just today for me," Nats outfielder Willie Harris said. "You don't think about it every day -- you take some things for granted -- but more than 10 times per year, you think, 'Man, this is amazing.' Because, I mean, how many kids have this dream to be here? It's hard to get to this level, and it's hard to produce and stay at this level. But just being able to have that opportunity, that's a lot in itself right there. It means a lot."

Robinson gave the opportunity to Harris, just as he gave it to King and Easley and Randolph and Anderson. In a game with a history so profoundly influenced by minority players, Robinson still, to this day, has played perhaps the most significant role.

Tuesday gave the entire sport time to pause and consider that truth. Anderson, who considers himself close with the Robinson family and plans to help further their social work after his retirement, is just one example of those affected by Robinson's legacy.

"His integrity as a person and the things that he stood for -- those are the things that stand out to me about him as a person, more than a baseball player," Anderson said. "You want everybody to succeed in life, and if people follow his principles and the way he went about things, they'll definitely be successful in life, in whatever they do."

For some, that "whatever" might just be baseball -- thanks in large part to Robinson.

"I like to think if it wasn't for Jackie, I wouldn't be standing here in this locker room," Harris said. "A lot of things that I'm able to do, I wouldn't be able to do if he hadn't persevered and faced all the difficult challenges that he did.

"I'm just thankful for Jackie Robinson."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.