C.J. Nitkowski: Jackie Robinson didn't mean much to me until I played in Japan and Korea

By C.J. Nitkowski

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 15 2013 9:40 a.m. MDT

EDITOR'S NOTE: C.J. Nitkowski pitched for eight teams in the major leagues from 1995-2005, then played pro ball in Japan and South Korea. He portrays Phillies pitcher Dutch Leonard in the current film '42.'

Jackie Robinson had no influence on me.

He didn't open any doors for me. He didn't pave any way. He didn't give me the hope that I could do anything I aspired to in a country where some viewed me as less of a man. He didn't give me the courage to forge ahead despite the circumstances surrounding me.

Jackie Robinson was just never a hero to me.

Jackie broke the color barrier in major league baseball on April 15, 1947, and he died in 1972. I was born in 1973 and really didn't have a clue as to what was going in the world until at least 50 years after Jackie's historic debut as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. We just never connected. He was a historical at best figure to me, as distant as Babe Ruth and JFK.

And, so, when baseball began recognizing Jackie every April, the question would always be presented: "What effect did Jackie Robinson have on you as a major league ballplayer?"

I could give each reporter or radio host the best politically correct answer you've ever heard. Ask me to be completely honest with you and what I would have said was, "None."

I grew up in a predominantly white New York City suburb. I was a Yankees fan who, as a kid, idolized Willie Randolph, their star second baseman in the '80s. Willie had more influence on me than Jackie ever did. Despite being left-handed, I wanted to be him. There were no thoughts of black or white. I didn't know the game or life any other way.

From 2007-10, I played baseball in Asia and, for the first time in my life, I was a minority. As the seasons went on, I started experiencing what I felt like was being treated as less than fair.

The conclusions I drew were that it was simply because of my race, not because of my actions. I was criticized more harshly than other teammates, expectations were higher for me and I was given less of a chance. I was under what I perceived as an unfair microscope and I was always looking over my shoulder.

Things reached a pinnacle during one game and the emotions that followed were raw and not anything like my personality. I didn't handle it well. I was full of ill thoughts. I wanted to lash out. I wanted to cause pain to those that I felt were suppressing my career.

I had never felt that way before, but what drew this out of me was the belief that I was being judged and underappreciated for no other reason but the fact that I was white.

In those moments, I thought of some of my past Latino teammates. Many over the years who struggled to adjust, to get comfortable and who would even get so defensive that they wouldn't trust anybody. I could never completely understand their behavior — I thought it was foolish, I thought they were paranoid. But now I got a very small taste of what that was like and I hated it. I wanted retribution, I wanted somebody to pay.

I was fortunate to get a role in the Jackie Robinson biopic "42" portraying Phillies pitcher Dutch Leonard. I pitch to Jackie three times and knock him down, but I don't drill him.

My scenes take place at the same time as those depicting Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman. The scenes and the language are critical to the movie. Writer-director Brian Helgeland knew the importance of bringing this part of Jackie's experience to his film, regardless of how uncomfortable.

Chapman demeans Jackie in some of the most vile and disgusting ways one man could tear down another. I'm not sure I've ever heard insults that awful before, at least not to that degree and with that intent, filled with hate and pure disgust for the man they were directed toward.

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