Two who are grateful to wear 42

Besides honoring Robinson, Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis feel a sense of responsibility.

Posted: April 14, 2007

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Florida Marlins lefthander Dontrelle Willis have a great appreciation for Jackie Robinson.

Like countless other major leaguers, the two Oakland, Calif., products will proudly wear Robinson's No. 42 tomorrow as part of baseball's nationwide Jackie Robinson Day salute.

Rollins and Willis share more than admiration of the man who broke the sport's color barrier 60 years ago tomorrow. The two Encinal High School grads also feel a responsibility to help increase the flow of black players like themselves into the game, as each explained in separate interviews recently:

Question: What would you tell an African American kid who asks: Why should I play baseball?

Jimmy Rollins: I see kids all the time and they say, why do you play baseball? Well, why don't you? You're not going to be too much taller than me, so it's going to be tough to make it in basketball. You probably won't make it in football. I do my thing in that sense. I just try to come to their level. When you joke about it, maybe they'll think about it. Maybe they'll try it.

Dontrelle Willis: It's just as competitive as any other sport. You learn to play with ballplayers from all over the world. The camaraderie. The travel. I've been to a lot of great places that I never would have been without baseball. There are a lot of things, but those are the three things I'd tell them.

Q: Why do you think you both made it? What was special about the environment you grew up in that helped?

DW: There were a lot of good ballplayers, and it was very competitive. We played our style of baseball. And you see it in Jimmy. He's hard-nosed every day. He works hard. If he doesn't play well, he has a get-them-tomorrow type attitude. I see a lot of myself in him. If I don't throw well one night, hey, I've got another start in four days. I'm sliding headfirst. I'll do whatever it takes to win that ball game. It's kind of out of the ordinary for pitchers to do stuff like that. But that's why I see a lot of similarities in what we do. The effort level is there every night. You can never say his effort isn't there. You can never say my effort isn't there.

Q: Do you think Jackie would be disappointed with so few African Americans in the majors today?

JR: I'm sure he would. I can't tell you what he would be feeling, but I'm sure he would be. But it's kind of a reflection on what's being marketed out there. What the young kids get to see. There's a lot they're fighting against. Arcade games. ESPN. There's never high school baseball on there, rarely college baseball on there. So everything is football and basketball. It's tough competition. If I was a young kid today, I don't know what I'd be doing. But fortunately I grew up in an area that's baseball-rich. There are two teams within 20 miles of each other, and you can't help but follow one team.

Q: Can you imagine baseball without Jackie Robinson?

JR: Would there be baseball for us without Jackie Robinson? That's really the question. And probably not. Eventually it probably was going to change, but it was going to take a special person to really kick the door down. He was there, and he did a hell of a job representing himself and representing African Americans.

Q: Could you have gone through what he went through?

JR: I don't think I would have made it, but I don't know. You don't know what you're capable of until you're going through it. With the media today? There's no way a lot of people would even attempt to do something like that. But like I said, he was a special person. He was called on for something special, and he accomplished it.

Q: Is the game being marketed to black children like it could?

JR: No. They could put Ryan Howard out there a lot more.

DW: No. Start marketing the African Americans that are in the game. You have an MVP in Ryan Howard that's a great spokesman not only for African American kids, but all kids. Not only Ryan Howard. Torii Hunter. Jimmy Rollins. C.C. Sabathia. Gary Matthews Jr. There are a lot of players out there that are very competitive every day. There are lot of guys you can promote a little more. And if you promote a little more, you'll see a little bit more. You see LeBron [James] and them. Granted, I'm no LeBron James. We're no LeBron James, but you see them on race cars and in Coca-Cola ads. I'm not saying to put me on a Coke bottle, but you see them everywhere. I think if we do a little more marketing you'll see big jump.

Q: It seems it's easier for kids to play basketball or football.

DW: You can play basketball with a ball and a milk crate. You can play football with a ball and a street. Baseball, you need at least a bat and a ball. You need a wall. Tennis balls or whatever the case may be. Slowly but surely, there a lot of guys doing a lot of great things like Torii Hunter, Jimmy Rollins, C.C. Sabathia and myself. We're going out there trying to give out the funds so these kids can have that.

Q: How big is Jackie Robinson Day to you?

DW: It's the biggest thing in my career so far other than winning the World Series. Especially with me being an African American player. I can't imagine what he went through in his time. I don't think anybody can. It's not just baseball history, it's American history, what he went through on and off the field. And then on top of that, he was good. On top of that, he elevated the game. He changed the game.

Q: If you had a chance to talk to Jackie, what would you ask him?

JR: I don't know. I have no idea. I hope he'd do all the talking. Truthfully. You look at a man like that, and you're kind of afraid to say hi. You kind of look at him and shy away.

DW: I wouldn't want to ask him anything. I would just want to say thank you. Thank you for everything. Thank you for everything you went through. I can't repay you enough. What am I going to tell that man, you know what I mean? What am I going to tell him? Wearing 42 is the highest honor I've received. It's awesome. I'm real excited about it. I'm going to try to get on the field one time, even though I'm not pitching. But I'm very, very blessed. My family is excited.


Read other stories in this series, view historical photos and listen to audio slide shows at http://go.philly.com/jackierobinson


Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki

at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.

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