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Jackie Robinson Day: Q&A with Rays special assistant Denard Span

The former MLB player shares his thoughts on Jackie Robinson’s legacy and his new role in the Rays front office.

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB 74 years ago today, and every year since 2004, Jackie Robinson Day has been celebrated at ballparks across the country on April 15th to commemorate the anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in the sport.

As we approached this year’s celebration I found myself at the intersection of two thoughts; how far we have come as a society and how far we still have to go.

On one hand, the opportunity to play professional baseball in the MLB is available to athletes of all backgrounds, and on the other there is still a lack of representation in key roles off the field that impact the sport as a whole.

I had the opportunity to explore some of these thoughts with Denard Span who was recently hired by the Tampa Bay Rays as a Special Assistant, Baseball Operations to discuss the legacy of Robinson and his new role.

Jamal Wilburg: To me, as I’ve gotten older the legacy of Jackie Robinson has taken on more meaning as I think through what it really meant to be the first Black baseball player and everything he went through. What does Jackie Robinson mean to you?

Denard Span: Yeah, I think similar to you. Being more mature and understanding life or through different life experiences and understanding just, as a Black man in America, things aren’t on an even playing field, if you will. And so, here we are in the 20th century — we both graduated, grew up as a man in the two-thousands — so my mind can only imagine what Jackie Robinson had to go through during the days of when he was a young man and trying to break into the game of baseball as a Black player.

So as I got older in the game, that’s what started to really resonate with me. And I started to understand just how impactful, you know, him as an individual. Like we said, all the things that he had to go through, just being that guy, that chosen one. You know that had to be somebody special to go through it.

And I think that’s why Branch Rickey even chose him, because he realized, even though Jackie probably wasn’t the best player coming out of Negro League, but he realized that it was going to have to take a special person, somebody with certain intellect, somebody with even keel and someone who was educated, you know, he came out of I think UCLA. Jackie was ahead of his time and Jackie was a wise individual.

Rickey And Robinson
Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey talking to his second sacker Jackie Robinson at a team training camp in Vero Beach, Florida, 17th March 1949.
Photo by Curt Gunther/Keystone/Archive Photos/Getty Images

JW: When, in your career, do you think you started noticing something different about Jackie Robinson? I don’t know what it was about crossing 30 or being married or having kids but something changed for me. When did it change for you?

DS: I think, honestly, this is probably sad to say, but it was around the time of when the movie came out. Obviously I knew his story, you know, the basics of the story, but after watching the movie and seeing it in real time, in a real motion picture, I think it painted a visual for me of what he went through. I also thought, “Man, this is only a fraction of probably what he went through.” And so I think that was around the time where it hit me.

And I took it more to heart what he did. Similar to you, around that time I was 29 years, 2013. That was when just life in general and you start hitting that age, you start to see life differently or see life from a different bird’s eye view.

JW: What made you want to get into the front office. You’re playing and I’m sure you start thinking about life after baseball, but what made the front office interesting to you?

DS: The lack of Black individuals that are in power positions... And just realizing how important it is for a young Black player in the game.

You’re freshly drafted out of high school, or just breaking into the major leagues to see a Black manager, or a Black GM, or a Black man making pivotal decisions in the organization. For me, that was where it hit me. This is bigger than me. This is the next generation, you know what I mean? For the guys that are coming up younger, they have somebody to watch and look at and say, “You know what, I’m done, but I can still be a part of this game and make an impact on the other side.”

JW: When’s the first time you noticed a Black front office person in a key position of influence through your career?

DS: Kenny Williams, with the White Sox. He’s probably the first one that comes to mind, and then Tony Reagins for the Angels, he used to be GM with the Angels. I would say those two are probably the only two in my 17 years that I can remember. I know there’s been a few more like Michael Hill with the Marlins for a while. [Editor’s Note: Hill moved from GM to President of the Marlins in 2013. He was hired as an MLB executive in 2021.]

But yeah, you don’t see it too often. There’s not as many Black managers or you don’t see as many Black GMs or Assistant GMs.

Adam Dunn White Sox Press Conference
White Sox general manager Ken Williams talks to the media during a press conference.
Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

JW: When did you start thinking that that’s something, being in the front office is something, that you would personally want to do?

DS: My last season, 2018. Before then I was like, nah, I’m not done playing baseball. And I’m just going to enjoy the fruits of my labor and enjoy my family. And then it wasn’t until the last year, my career, ironically, when I was with here with the Rays, and that was the first time where those thoughts started crossing my mind.

JW: How, how does a player transition to the front office? Do you reach out to teams? Do you reach out to your agents?

DS: I don’t know how it normally happens, but I can tell you my situation and how it developed. And it was easy, you know, Erik Neander and I in my short time with the team, we developed a pretty solid, respectful relationship. It was an open communication.

We had multiple conversations where I was able to voice my opinion on things I didn’t like and things I did like, and he gained respect for me because of how I handled myself. That’s how it started. Then from there, it just it developed. Actually, I first threw it out there on the day that I got traded to Seattle.

Erik and [Kevin] Cash were telling me that I got traded. I said, “Hey Erik, this is home for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future and, and this is a place where I plan on being for a long time. So if the opportunity arises, I would love to come back here to some capacity.” At that time, honestly, I was thinking as a player, but I also was throwing out there that, outside of as a player, I’d be open to come in and helping this organization to some capacity.

Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

JW: What exactly is your job with the Rays?

DS: The plan is to expose me to all of the departments within the organization and see where I feel like I can make the most impact. I’m going to be spending time in the minor leagues system. I’m actually going to spring training to support Charlotte next week, to spend some time there and then during the season as well. I’m going to be traveling to all of the affiliates.

When I’m home here at Tampa, once things with COVID settled down and people get more vaccinated, then I’ll be in and out of the clubhouse with the guys and just trying to give as much of my knowledge and experience to to the younger guys.

I think it is kind of like a situation at one time where, you know, it’s kind of hard to define my role right now, but I think shortly here, it’s going to get clear.

JW: How do you explain it to family and friends?

DS: It’s tough. You know, everybody thinks that, especially when they saw the news that I just got hired in front office. So they automatically think that I’m in on all the insider information conversations and stuff like that, or that I’m traveling with the team full time. I have to break it down and say like, “Nah, that’s not it.”

What is great about this job is that I have the opportunity to kind of, honestly, be with the team part-time and still be with my family. I have two little ones. So this job is actually perfect for me, given where I’m at in my life, recently retired and needing a break from all of that travel that I did for almost 20 years of my life. And I still get a chance to make an impact with my hometown team. And I still get a chance to make an impact with my family and my children.

Thank you to Denard for your time, and we wish you the best of luck in your second career.