Quantcast

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

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 3:08 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this photo provided by CJ Nitkowski, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks pitcher CJ Nitkowski throws during a baseball workout in this February 2007 photo in Japan. (AP Photo/courtesy CJ Nitkowski) (AP Photo) FILE - In this photo provided by CJ Nitkowski, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks pitcher CJ Nitkowski throws during a baseball workout in this February 2007 photo in Japan. (AP Photo/courtesy CJ Nitkowski) (AP Photo)

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.

FILE - In this April 15, 1947 file photo, from left, Brooklyn Dodgers baseball players John Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese, Ed Stanky and Jackie Robinson pose at Ebbets Field in New York. (AP Photo, File) (Anonymous, ASSOCIATED PRESS) FILE - In this April 15, 1947 file photo, from left, Brooklyn Dodgers baseball players John Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese, Ed Stanky and Jackie Robinson pose at Ebbets Field in New York. (AP Photo, File) (Anonymous, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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.

FILE - In this June 30, 1971 file photo,  Jackie Robinson poses at his home in Stamford, Conn. Kansas City's Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is hosting an advance screening of an upcoming movie about Robinson, who broke major league baseball's color barrier. (AP Photo/File) (JW, ASSOCIATED PRESS) FILE - In this June 30, 1971 file photo, Jackie Robinson poses at his home in Stamford, Conn. Kansas City's Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is hosting an advance screening of an upcoming movie about Robinson, who broke major league baseball's color barrier. (AP Photo/File) (JW, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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.

FILE -- New York Yankees pitcher CJ Nitkowski, left, wipes his face as he and catcher John Flaherty wait for manager Joe Torre to walk to the mound to replace him after walking Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki during the seventh inning in Seattle, in this Aug. 15, 2004 file photo.  (JOHN FROSCHAUER, ASSOCIATED PRESS) FILE -- New York Yankees pitcher CJ Nitkowski, left, wipes his face as he and catcher John Flaherty wait for manager Joe Torre to walk to the mound to replace him after walking Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki during the seventh inning in Seattle, in this Aug. 15, 2004 file photo. (JOHN FROSCHAUER, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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.

In the movie, you'll hear it once and its effect will be powerful. As a member of the cast, I heard it for hours upon hours the day we were shooting the scene. Multiple takes from multiple angles, it seemed like it would never end. You couldn't help but be disturbed by the powerfulness of the language. One of the makeup women turned to me during one of Chapman's takes and whispered, "I can't wait for this day to be over."

FILE -- Detroit Tigers starter C.J. Nitkowski delivers in the second inning against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Detroit, in this April 14, 2000 file photo.  (AP Photo/Duane Burleson) (DUANE BURLESON, ASSOCIATED PRESS) FILE -- Detroit Tigers starter C.J. Nitkowski delivers in the second inning against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Detroit, in this April 14, 2000 file photo. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson) (DUANE BURLESON, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

I'll never experience anything close to what Jackie Robinson did in 1947 and neither will you, regardless of which race you are.

What this movie did for me and what I hope it does for you is bring Jackie's awful experiences to life. It forced me to absorb what his experience was really like. It shamed me into feeling embarrassed how I handle my own minute interpretation of injustice.

The 70-year anniversary of Jackie breaking the color barrier is not that far away. Few remain who witnessed his debut and soon they will be gone. But I now feel I know who Jackie Robinson really was and what 1947 was really like for him.

No longer do I have to feign my way through admiration for him. It is sincere, and I'll be a better man for it.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company