In recognition of Black History Month, the Altoona Curve are pleased to once again partner with Minor League Baseball and “The Nine” Initiative to feature and celebrate some of the achievements made by black athletes in our team’s history.
Last year, we took a look back at the Top-5 Black Players in Altoona Curve History. This year, we are sharing conversations with former players and coaches in hopes to spark serious talks about the significance of Black History Month.
This week, we caught up with former Curve pitcher Shane Youman. Youman was a staple of the Curve pitching staff from 2005-2006. His 1.51 ERA in 2006 still stands as the lowest in a single season in team history. Youman, who currently serves as the Assistant Pitching Coach and Co-Recruiting Coordinator for The University of Arkansas at Pine-Bluff, sat down with us and answered nine questions about his playing career, time spent in Altoona, and adversity faced as a black athlete.
Growing up in Louisiana, how were you first introduced to baseball?
“As long as I can remember, I’ve been around the game of baseball. I was fortunate enough to meet and spend eight years of my life with my great-grandfather, who was a huge baseball fan. I think that’s where the love and the want to play the game came from, just being around him. We had a small TV that you had to turn the dial by hand to catch certain games, or we would listen to games on the radio. I grew up two doors down from where he lived, so I would walk to his house on a daily basis and listen to or watch a baseball game. When I turned five years old, I started playing Tee Ball, and my grandfather was around to watch me play for those first few years. That was my start, back in the early 80s. It was the thing to do in my community. A lot of guys who looked like me played baseball. Our Little League was filled with African American ball players, and it was fun to watch guys and try to emulate things in the back yard. I never missed a season from the age of five to the age of 37 or 38.”
Aside from your Great Grandfather, what kind of role models did you look up to growing up?
“Early on, I had an uncle that played and we used to go to watch him play games. I’d watch some of the game and run around the ballpark with my friends. Sometimes we would get a foul ball and we wouldn’t give it back; we would take it and play on another field. To be able to see that and watch games on TV helped understand it a little more. The Atlanta Braves at the time were the only team we could catch during the day on TBS, so I got to see guys like Dale Murphy, Terry Pendleton, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery. One of my favorite players at the time was Gary Sheffield, when he was a third baseman for Milwaukee chasing the triple crown. Being able to recognize different things that guys could do on a baseball field from a far on TV and then also in person by being around my uncle kept me intrigued. As I got older, watching the College World Series with Wichita State, LSU, Cal State Fullerton, Miami on TV and just hearing the ping of the aluminum bat; that’s when it really got serious, and we started going into the backyard to try and do the things we saw on TV. I would try to hit like Ken Griffey Jr. as I got older. I think my interest grew as I got older and being able to watch these guys on TV helped a lot.”
As a Black athlete, were there times when you faced adversity?
“Early on, when I was first coming up, I would hear stories from certain players who had been around for a while, but I was pretty naive to that. But after my first year I learned quickly that politics are involved and are a thing. Not only was I drafted late, but I am African American, and it is tough because there was not a lot of us at the time. Those numbers had begun to dwindle in the early 2000s when you talk about Blacks playing Major League Baseball. So, my first year I learned quick. Being at Williamsport and having a dominant year, I thought that I may skip a level because I was older; 22 years old at the time; but it didn’t happen. And then performing at a high level again in my second full-season at High-A and seeing that I had to go every step of the way. It was not until 2006 that I ever got a mid-season call-up that wasn’t the playoffs to go to the next level. I faced a lot of adversity in 2006, always asking myself if it was because I’m an African-American or a late round pick. That year I thought I should have been the Minor League Pitcher of the Year with the Pirates, and it didn’t happen. I was locked in that year, and it wasn’t on my mind at the time, but when you reflect after the season and people call you and tell you it should have been you, that’s hard. It’s not my fault that I had to go back to Double-A, but again, could have been because I wasn’t a prospect with money invested in me. But 11-2 with a 2.29 ERA, it wasn’t like I was going out there and getting hit hard with guys making plays, I was dominating the season. That was the biggest thing for me at the time when it comes to facing adversity and being an African American pitcher. That year was the toughest year from that standpoint because I was at the top of my game but still was not getting recognized for it at the extent that I felt like I should have. That was the start of seeing how tough it is to get the opportunity and how tough it is to stay.”
When you were playing, did you have someone that helped you through those tough times?
“Not really. Unless I was oblivious to it, when I played, we were all close in age so it was not like I had that guy that could take a kid under their wing and guide them through the process. I think that was one of the reasons why I fell into some depression at the time. It probably started in 2007, coming off the high of my 2006 season. I picked off where I left off from, but when I was called into the manager’s office and told ‘Shane we are going to send you to the Minor Leagues; we don’t think you have enough experience,’ that was hard. I thought I was taking all the steps I needed to take to make the Big League staff on Opening Day, and I remember before I got to my apartment, I stopped in the parking lot and cried. Its hard to explain, but the work that I put in and where I had come from felt like it was all taken away from me. My 2007 season started out horrendous because I wasn’t able to mentally bounce back from it. It wasn’t until almost three years later in independent ball when I got some help with my mental health that I was able to bounce back. Even with the Phillies in 2008, my pitching coach at Double-A recognized it and told me he thought I was depressed, but I didn’t know what was going on and had too much pride to accept his offer to help. My life went back on track once I got help in 2010, but because I felt like I had to do it myself, it was hard for me and my career.”
In what ways are you a role model to young athletes today?
“After finishing my career, I knew I always wanted to help kids, but I didn’t know how. Whether it be public speaking, mentoring, or coaching. I never really thought about coaching, but I am coaching now. I started giving pitching lessons and from there I was able to share the lessons that I learned from playing the game. Learning that the things we get from playing this team sport we can take outside the sport and apply it to whatever careers we are pursuing, because not everybody makes it. You can take the lessons beyond the game and that’s one of the things that I always leaned on to fight through the adversity. How can I bounce back and what positive things can we take from each day. That’s what I started to do when I gave lessons. We always talked after every meeting to try and take something from it and I feel like that has been my way of giving back. By being here, I can help them realize different thing and learn patience. Everybody wants that microwave success, but you will get knocked down. How will you handle yourself when you are down and when you get back up. Those are a lot of the things I try to implement.”
What does Black History Month mean to you?
“It is very important because you never know a person’s journey. It seems like a long time ago, but our ancestors were here against their will. As a race, we have come a long way to be in the position we are now. The fight is still not over because we still face different types of discrimination and adversities when we try to elevate ourselves into positions of power and positions to help others. The biggest thing is always to remember to keep that clear mind, because we will get pulled one way or another, whether it is discriminations or temptations. Black History Month shines the light on those people that came before us that granted us opportunities to be able to do what we do now, and that should never be forgotten. It should always be celebrated, but the spotlight shines on us a little bit more this month. The things that we learn throughout this month should be remembered and give us the extra push to keep going and stay focused. We should always know that those folks who came before us made that way, and we should always remember that.”
What is your favorite memory from your playing career?
“Man there’s a few but going back to the 2006 season when I first made it to the big leagues. I remember talking to one of my mentors, Bud Cestia, who was from my hometown and helped me a lot through my process of baseball. I called everybody the night that I got called up, and I remember Bud telling me because we were going to Chicago, “Hey man, make sure you take a piece of that Ivy.” So when we were doing our pregame warm ups that’s the first thing that I did. I grabbed a piece of the Ivy and I kept it. I know that I still have it somewhere, all dead and crumbled up in a Ziplock bag. I had always wanted to pitch in the big leagues, but I never thought that my debut would be a start. So, to get to the big leagues, knowing I was a journeyman and that most of my career I was a reliever, to have my family there to see me pitch professionally starting the game was amazing.”
What were some of your superstitions?
“I had to chew double bubble. The little yellow wrapper with the blue corners. If I didn’t have double bubble I was screwed. I also ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before the game. Grape jelly and creamy peanut butter. I ate nothing else.”
When you reflect back to your time in Altoona, what did this community mean to you?
“It meant a lot. I was able to stay with my same host family for those two years. They had young kids so to be able to engage the younger kids and give them something to do was fun. It reminded me of home, because Altoona isn’t the biggest city, but the community is strong. It felt like everybody knew everybody. When you went out in public, strangers would come up and speak to you. The support that they put behind the team paired with the production that the Curve put on plays a huge role in why Altoona is one of the best places to play and why players and coaches enjoy being there so much. The community was behind you so much that it was fun to be in the small town.”
We want to thank Shane for taking the time to talk with us. Stay tuned for more Black History Month content throughout the month of February on our website and social media pages.