04/14/12 9:34 PM ET
Braves honor Jackie with youth tournament
By Jon Cooper / Special to MLB.com
On Saturday, less than two miles from Turner Field, 16 youth teams from the Metro-Atlanta area celebrated the legacy of Robinson by participating in the Inaugural Jackie Robinson Youth Baseball Tournament, an all-day event sponsored by Delta Air Lines and held at the fields of the Braves Baseball Academy at the Villages of Carver YMCA.
Kids ranging from age 5 to 12 played a round-robin on the fields -- 5- and 6-year-olds played on the Mike Hampton Field, 7- and 8-year-olds played on the Brian Jordan Field, 9- and 10-year-olds were on the Chipper Jones Field and 11- and 12-year-olds showcased their talents on the John Smoltz Field.
A highlight of the day off the field came when Jesse Simms, the grandson of Jackie and Rachel Robinson, and current Atlanta Braves center fielder Michael Bourn addressed the kids.
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Simms talked about the message he wanted to convey to the kids.
"The most important thing that I instill is about the legacy of my grandfather," he said. "There are many obstacles that we all have to overcome. This is for everybody in their lives, and most importantly, for our children. So, for the young kids, when I speak to them, it will be about overcoming obstacles and most importantly knowing that they have the support behind them. I think that's really important because a lot of times, children don't know where they're going to get their support from. The support is coming from our influence on youth to hopefully empower yourself to move on and really be an individual and to be a powerful individual at that. That's black, white, Asian. It doesn't matter color or creed. It's really just a common message."
The field for the tournament brought together a diverse group of teams covering all areas of the Metro-Atlanta area. It was a special day for the players, who got to play at the facility on a beautiful, sunny day, but also got to learn some history.
"When we got the invitation to come down I kind of explained it to the boys, asked them, 'Hey, did you ever know of Jackie Robinson?'" said Steve Ansley, head coach of the Sharpsburg Red Sox, an entrant in the 7- and 8-year-old group. "A few of them did. So we went through his history and what he did for the sport of baseball. We talked about it. They really get it and they are very excited about being here. To be invited to something like this, the first Jackie Robinson Tournament, is very special for us."
"I think the Braves organization has done a good job in being around the community. This is one way that they give back and I think this is an awesome opportunity for the kids to have this exposure," said Courtney Showell, a native of Atlanta and head coach of the Sandtown Cubs, who also played in the 7- and 8-year-old bracket. "Jackie Robinson is a part of history and just having these kids out here in this moment is a great opportunity for them to learn and for them to get their exposure."
The kids weren't the only beneficiaries on an unforgettable experience. Bourn was thrilled to be at the event and to meet Simms.
"That's a pleasure. That's an honor," said the Braves center fielder. "To meet a relative of somebody that paved the way for African-Americans to get to play, is a pleasure. I was fortunate enough to be able to meet him and I was able to have a conversation with him. I will always remember that."
Regrettably, Simms, 33, never got to meet his grandfather, who died of diabetes at age 53, on Oct. 24, 1972, but he has learned much about him from his mother and grandmother and continues to learn more.
"I grew up inside of the legacy," said Simms, who played high school football and planned to follow in his grandfather's shoes by signing a letter of intent to play football at UCLA -- he later chose to stay close to home, attending Penn State. "I can only tell you that I have a tremendous respect and love for everybody that has met him or researched him. I soak it all in. I think it's absolutely tremendous and it's the utmost respect that I take to them as they pay homage to my grandfather. Being so young, I just soak it in. This is kind of how I know my grandfather, is soaking in the information and the admiration that people play to him. This is what I know."
Simms, who splits time living in Brazil and in Florida, with his wife, 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, is an accomplished chef and a graduate of the esteemed Johnson & Wales University who would like to open a series of restaurants called 42 Restaurant, targeting Major League ballparks, among other places. He is grateful to Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bud Selig for the manner in which they have honored his grandfather's legacy.
"We are extremely appreciative and have a whole lot of love and respect for the Commissioner," he said. "He retired my grandfather's number and his support for what my grandfather stands for. Jackie Robinson Day is something very, very important and it's something that I talk to my grandmother and my mother about. It's something that we're very proud of."
Simms believes his grandfather would have been elated by the turnout at The Villages of Carver and the enthusiasm of the kids in an event bearing his name.
"I think that he would be very honored and pleased to see about his legacy," he said. "I think that he would make a point to say, though, that it's not important if we don't touch other people with it. His major vision would be, 'Are we affecting other people? Are we making changes? Are we making changes socially, whether it's inside of MLB or just inside of our American culture?'
"I think that Jackie Robinson Day should not only be celebrated as the legacy of my grandfather but we hope that it inspires youth, everybody, to kind of reach for the stars. Reach for the stars and you can achieve."
The Braves will hold a special ceremony prior to Sunday's series finale with the Milwaukee Brewers, in which Simms and Bourn will present trophies to the winning teams as part of the celebration of Jackie Robinson Day.
Jon Cooper is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.