By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) On June 17, 2015, Dylan Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C., carrying a .45-caliber pistol and a deep hatred of black people. He sat in the church for an hour contemplating his self-proclaimed desire for a race war and then executed nine church members. His face became a fixture of our televisions and print media for months following. The faces of the dead, as is custom of our strange culture of fascination with the violent and not the victim, weren’t as etched into our consciousness.
Among the victims was Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, high school teacher, pastor and mother of Chris Singleton, an outfielder for Charleston Southern University. The next evening, Singleton spoke at a press conference with his team behind him, showing a strength that few of us could present in such a situation.
Singleton’s dad passed away this past February. He and a friend started a pool-cleaning business in order to support two younger siblings while still a Division-I athlete and student. Three days shy of the two-year anniversary of his mom’s murder, Singleton was selected by the Cubs on Wednesday in the 19th round of the MLB amateur draft.
“I’ve got this pool-cleaning business, and I was doing one of the pools when my phone rang,” Singleton said of getting the call from the Cubs. “My heart dropped a little bit. I answered the phone, and it’s been surreal ever since.”
Usually, 19th-rounders aren’t the stuff that fans are supposed to get excited about. Big league talent can come from that part of the draft — Bret Saberhagen, Don Mattingly and Placido Polanco were picked in that round — but it’s rare. The destiny of most collegiate picks in that round is a life in the minors, coaching or using a degree for something else.
Nineteenth-rounders come and go from our consciousness if we were ever all that aware of them at all. This one is a lot different, though.
“We certainly understand the back story there, but I want to make sure what doesn’t get lost is he’s really a good baseball player,” Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod said. “He’s talented and athletic, and there’s upside. On the field, we like what we saw from an evaluation standpoint.”
Of course. This is a professional sports organization that isn’t in the business of manufacturing feel-good stories in the process of building its pool of talent. The sentimental and kitschy picks like coaches’ kids and football stars with no chance of ever committing to baseball are for rounds much later than the 19th.
“With what’s happened, obviously there’s some national tragedy,” McLeod said. “(But) first and foremost, he’s a talented player on the field, and we had him evaluated really as almost like a top-10 caliber talent. He’s very athletic, a plus runner, plus defender, a base stealer, and played all three years at Charleston Southern and in the Collegiate Summer league last year.”
Executive-speak or not, hearing that Singleton has the tools to maybe someday make it to The Show is great not only from a Cubs fan perspective but also for those of us who long to see something wonderful grow from something awful. I’m sure Singleton would much rather have been allowed to be any other ballplayer chasing a dream, but when you listen to him at that press conference or watch him in the E:60 profile a few months after, this is a man who can validate a lot of the good in humanity that we need to help keep our heads above so much of the sewage that we’re exposed to.
“Political viewpoints and sports make for strange bedfellows, but they sleep together every night. They have to,” the Sun-Times’ Rick Telander wrote this week. “Should sports and politics engage? They do. They must.”
If you refused to accept the inherency of politics in sports from me, I dare you to whine your denials at someone of Telander’s scribal weight.
And as Singleton didn’t ask to be a special ballplayer for reasons beyond baseball, he’s an intersection of our escape in sports and our grimmest realities. More so, he’s the best product of that intersection and only getting better.
He’s black perseverance. He’s black success. He’s those things in a country that systematically tries to squash them. And he’s love personified in his smile and journey.
Singleton is also the real, oft-forgot leftovers of our country’s problematic gun laws, his mom’s killer having acquired a weapon he never should’ve had access to. Singleton is the refusal to give in to America’s metastasizing hate for one another in various forms, including reverence for Confederate memorials and flags that absurdly continues in South Carolina today. He’s a singular light amid a much larger darkness of “lone wolf” myths of hate crimes. He’s a political figure, and though it pains me that he couldn’t be just another ballplayer with his mom in the stands cheering him on, it comforts me that he can be a symbol of so much good.
Even if it’s just through running the bases.
Baseball is cruel, but fair. Singleton has been through far crueler and thoroughly unfair. He deserves no breaks in his next steps in the game, and the Cubs aren’t about to cut him any.
But he’s a man taken in the middle of the MLB draft. He would otherwise slip from our consciousness like the past and future Sharonda Coleman-Singletons we will mourn on the fringes of doing little to ensure there are fewer Sharonda Coleman-Singletons and fewer personifications of love that need only be born of tragedy. Her son that she raised to be an exemplary person deserves our continued consciousness and rooting for reasons more than just making the future of the Cubs better.
Chris Singleton already makes us all better.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.