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Robinson's impact beyond the number

Early in the 1990 season, a year after Jim Rice had retired and before Mo Vaughn had arrived, I remember standing in the Red Sox clubhouse, near where Ellis Burks dressed. We were chatting about an uncomfortable subject for Burks -- the fact that he was the only African-American player on the team.

Burks said off the record that it was uncomfortable for him, but for publication he balked at answering the question because he didn't want to bring attention to the situation.

Seventeen years later, Coco Crisp is the only African-American player on the Red Sox roster. He dresses in the general area of where Burks's locker was.

Today, Crisp will wear No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson on the 60th anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, when he broke baseball's color barrier.

I asked the same question of Crisp that I asked of Burks.

Is it uncomfortable for you?

"Not really," said Crisp. "I don't feel uncomfortable here because I've been in this situation before. Coming up in the minor leagues and playing in college. By the time I left Cleveland, I think we had me and C.C [Sabathia]. It would be cool to have more black people in here, but that's the way it goes sometimes."

It is ironic if not sad that on this day Crisp will be the only African-American on the field for the Red Sox. He was surrounded by reporters yesterday to speak about Robinson and how he hopes to celebrate his legacy.

He admires Robinson for the adversity he overcame. He's amazed at the verbal abuse Robinson must have endured; while Crisp often hears standard insults from boisterous fans, he can remember only once in his career hearing a racial slur, and he wouldn't say where or whom it came from.

Robinson's story has been ingrained in Crisp since he was a child and since he realized that he was going to be good enough to become a professional baseball player.

Unfortunately, the dropoff of African-Americans in the majors -- to less than 9 percent of rosters -- has been a popular subject around the country the past few weeks because of the anniversary. Robinson struggled to get African-Americans into the game, and now the struggle is to keep baseball important to them.

Crisp thinks the effort is there. Major League Baseball is making it a priority through inner-city programs and academies. High-profile African-American players are trying to make baseball cool again through creative marketing directed at inner-city youth.

Crisp wants to do his part. He will join third base coach DeMarlo Hale and David Ortiz as the Red Sox representatives wearing No. 42 today. Six National League teams -- the Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Phillies, and Pirates -- will honor Robinson by having the entire team wear No. 42. All teams will have representatives wearing the number.

I believe commissioner Bud Selig should have directed everyone in uniform to wear Robinson's name and number today. Not enough players or teams took him up on his invitation.

It's an embarrassment that it took until 1947 (and until 1959 for the Red Sox) for an African-American to play in the majors when years and years of Negro Leagues play produced high-caliber players who surely would have been major stars in the mold of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, and so many others.

Sox manager Terry Francona said there is no wrong or right way to commemorate this day, and he hinted that the Sox would do something as a team today, but added, "I'll keep it between us and the team.

"I get a little torn. I want to make sure that we're respectful. At the same time, I don't want us to get lost in all of the celebration of Jackie Robinson, which he deserves.

"It's somewhat of an embarrassing day also. It's a little bit a shame that we have to have a day like this because 60 years ago the color of somebody's skin . . . they weren't treated the same. To me, that's humiliating. I hope that doesn't get lost, either."

Crisp has a lot of things on his mind right now, including the possibility of his batting averaging dipping to .042 if he's not careful. But when it comes to Robinson, he understands.

"We wouldn't be here today without his personality," said Crisp. "He obviously went about things the right way and he was able to deal with racism and slurs and all kinds of things that were directed at him that eased the way for African-Americans to come into the game. When I was a kid, I just played the game, and as I got older, his name always came up. You hear more stories about him."

Crisp referenced the famous video clip of Robinson stealing home in the 1955 World Series.

Would he ever consider honoring Robinson by trying to steal home today?

"If I get to third . . . that would be amazing," said Crisp. "If someone could do it . . . I think that's the best thing you can probably do.

"The situation would have to be right. If somebody does do it wearing No. 42, that would make the day. It would be nice if it was me, but I'm sure all the pitchers will make sure that it doesn't happen."

I hope what the Red Sox have in mind today will be, as Francona says, respectful. While these players, this ownership, and these fans had nothing to do with it, this was the last franchise to integrate -- a dozen years after Robinson's arrival.