About two months from today, baseball will be back in the national spotlight. Fans and players will turn their attention to a small ballpark in Memphis, just a few blocks from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took his final steps 39 years ago.
On March 29, the second annual Major League Baseball Civil Rights Game will feature the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets at AutoZone Park, home of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. The memory and legacy of Dr. King will be on the minds of all fans who pass through the gates that day, just as they are today.
King was a frequent visitor to Memphis, always staying at the Lorraine Hotel, a small, green two-story building named after the wife of its owner. The site of King's assassination on April 4, 1968, is now The National Civil Rights Museum. And while the museum and site is right down the street from the Redbirds' home, it remains little-known and undiscovered by many of the players who spend their summers in the city.
"Memphis struggles a lot," said Redbirds president and general manager Dave Chase. "And unfortunately, many of the players aren't aware of it all. Downtown Memphis went out of business after King's death, and the renaissance and rebuilding of the city didn't take full root until the ballpark opened in 2002.
"This city is pulling itself out of the doldrums of the 70s, and Memphis as a whole wrestles every day with that legacy."
The Civil Rights Game seeks to return that legacy to the public eye. Baseball's impact on the civil rights movement began in 1947 when Jackie Robinson -- later an outspoken supporter of King -- became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues. More than 60 years later, Memphis has become the ideal location for the baseball community to celebrate King and the strides the movement has made.
Chase toured the museum two years ago and saw things straight out of the '60s. King's final moments are preserved in the hotel -- his bed remains unmade and his car is still in the parking lot, waiting to take him to dinner.
"The Civil Rights Game was 100 percent Dave Chase's idea," said Redbirds media relations director Kyle Parkinson. "He pitched it to MLB and it's grown to what it is. He said, 'What do we have that no one has?'"
The first Civil Rights Game was held last March in Memphis and featured the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians while bringing the national struggle for civil rights further into perspective.
"It's really very much alive, the civil rights movement is still very much alive," Chase said. "You step into the museum and you walk from the early days of slavery to today. It's an incredibly moving place."
The museum, known for its hands-on, real-life exhibits, has made an impact on Chase.
"In all honestly, as a white man, the first time I went, it was filled with inner city, African-American kids and I felt out of place, like I was intruding on their story," he explained. "It was hard to walk out with a dry eye. Memphis is trying to take a negative event and turn it into a positive event and inspire future generations, and we're doing a very good job."
Chase and Parkinson both admitted, however, that many Cardinals Minor Leaguers who pass through Memphis are not only unaware of the museum and site but also unaware of the details of King's life.
"We have to be realistic, a lot of baseball players are not aware," Chase said. "When we had the game here last March, we made sure both Major League teams visited the museum. But with the international makeup, a lot of the history was foreign to them."
So the Civil Rights Game -- and the museum -- tries to educate those, especially ballplayers, who remain unfamiliar.
"I doubt [they understand the history]," Parkinson said of Redbirds players. "The museum is only four or five blocks from the ballpark, so that's something we should do a better job of as an organization. Being this close, around this time of the year, we should send our guys down there."
Indians ace C.C. Sabathia made sure to explore the museum last spring.
"The whole thing was kind of surreal," he told MLB.com last year. "I called home last night and just talked to my wife about it. I told her that as soon as my son is old enough to understand that stuff, we're definitely coming back. I think that's something he definitely needs to see."
The Redbirds are hoping more people follow Sabathia to the museum and better understand the civil rights movement. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King the day he was killed, had been in Memphis for the week leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Parkinson said the city had been awaiting a nationally televised NBA game hosted by the Memphis Grizzlies.
"Memphis still has its issues," Parkinson said. "But I'm sure the people who have lived here their whole lives, they know about it and they've probably been to the museum. It's definitely something everyone should be a part of."
Chase said that King's birthday, observed nationally on the third Monday in January, has become a celebration for the entire community.
"It's become a day of service to others," he explained. "A lot of community and church groups make this the day you reach out and do something for less fortunate folks in the community."
Early April brings Opening Day and a new season of hope for baseballfans. The start of spring, however, sends Memphis into a state of reflection.
"The real challenging day is April 4, which is the day [King] was assassinated," said Chase. "There are a lot of services that day and that momentum is what helped us develop the Civil Rights Game. That's another time we focus on what happened and build upon the future."
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and the two participating Major League teams have expressed pride in participating in the historic Memphis game.
"Since the days of Jackie Robinson, baseball has been at the forefront of social change in this country," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said in a statement. "This game is just another example that our sport understands the significance of paying the proper respect to such an important part of American history."
"Major League Baseball and its players have contributed immensely to this movement and will continue to play an important role in our society's social history," Selig added.
MLB on March 28 will host a fundraising banquet to honor the recipients of the second annual Major League Baseball Beacon Awards. The awards will be given to three individuals who have made significant contributions to civil rights around the world.
Chase hopes all the attention will encourage the public to explore the history of the civil rights movement. He said the Redbirds will try to improve their relationship with the museum.
"Players were reluctant to go -- the word 'museum' doesn't always bring enthusiasm to a lot of people -- but once they walked through, they understand the story," Chase said. "They have some very intense visuals.
"Baseball is the greatest sport in the world, it's always been a unifier, not a divider. We do a terrible job to keep it in perspective. The Minor Leagues integrated in 1946 and 20 years later we finally had voting rights. Baseball was the leader. All we've done is Memphis is build on the incredible tradition of our game, so to play any role of that makes it an incredible experience for me."