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Wayne Kirby, others look forward to Orioles' matchup with Astros in Civil Rights Game

Ask Orioles first base coach Wayne Kirby about April 15, 1997, and the former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder's eyes will spark as he recalls his days playing in the major leagues.

On that day, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking major league baseball's color barrier with the ballclub, Kirby was the only African-American player on the Dodgers.

"What can you do?" Kirby said Saturday, remembering the overwhelming media attention and the questions to which he didn't always have answers. "I was the only one."

Kirby will participate in another memorable game tonight, when the Orioles play the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park in the eighth annual Civil Rights Game, created to honor those who fought for equal rights in the United States.

"It's great to play in these games," Kirby said. "I think too many young kids don't understand the guys that played before them and setting a mark for guys that come in behind them, and appreciating the game a little more."

Kirby's love for baseball stemmed from his father and grandfather, who both played the sport. Kirby said he chose it over football and basketball because he believed his success could be measured by individual statistics and effort alone, part of what he feels made breaking racial barriers possible.

"Look at yourself in the mirror. If you're a bad hitter, you're a bad hitter," he said. "If you ain't doing the job, you ain't doing the job. You can't blame any coach, or anybody. You've got to blame yourself."

Much of Kirby's desire to coach came from the hope that he could pass along the lessons that had been taught to him by the likes of Maury Wills, who played in seven All-Star Games while living through the transition into an integrated era. Those are the messages Kirby expects tonight's game will send.

Current Orioles players, including center fielder Adam Jones, recognize the contributions that Robinson and other African-Americans made to integrate the sport during a time of intolerance in the country.

Jones, who is active with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore, said he would work extensively with the inner-city, African-American population of any city. For him, participating in the Civil Rights Game is another way to make an impact, especially since it's being hosted in the South.

"I like when you celebrate people who have fought for you, fought for your country, fought for your rights, especially in that part of the country," Jones said. "We're not talking hundreds of years ago — we're talking 50 years ago, where you had these men fighting for our rights, and still to this day they do. As an African-American, I'm grateful for equality."

The number of African-American players in the major leagues has been in steady decline since it peaked around 19 percent in the 1980s, according to the Society for American Baseball Research, but Kirby thinks that's because of faster paths to stardom in other sports, not a sign that clubhouses have become less welcoming.

He's even convinced that baseball would largely embrace an openly gay player, much as he NBA did with Jason Collins in February and the NFL strives to do with Michael Sam, selected in the seventh round of this year's draft.

"It's started in football, it's started in basketball," Kirby said. "This is America. … If he's a teammate of ours, we welcome him. You can't discriminate."

The Orioles and the Astros will wear Negro leagues uniforms for the nationally televised game, which will feature a musical performance by Aloe Blacc, a commemorative hat giveaway, fireworks and more.

In the afternoon, baseball commissioner Bud Selig will speak at the Beacon Awards luncheon, an event to "recognize individuals whose lives and actions have been emblematic of the spirit of the civil rights movement." At the luncheon, Major League Baseball will honor Maya Angelou, the best-selling author and poet who died Wednesday at age 86, as well as Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown.

And for Orioles like right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, the Civil Rights Game and related events offer a chance to reflect on the opportunities baseball has given him. Latino players make up more than a quarter of big league rosters, up from 3 percent in 1950, which the pitcher attributes to Robinson and the work of previous generations.

It's thanks to them, Jimenez said, that despite being a person of color in the United States, he never feels alienated in a clubhouse.

"Jackie Robinson didn't just open the door for African-Americans, but for Latin-Americans and Asian players," Jimenez said in Spanish. "It's an honor to play in this game, because he opened the door for all cultures."

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