As this year’s June amateur draft was about to get underway, The Sporting News published an article called Jo Adell Embraces Opportunity to Be Role Model for African-American Youth. The title was soon amended to include the word “Angels”: Anaheim selected the 18-year-old outfielder from Louisville, Kentucky, with the 10th-overall pick.
Adell’s intentions are admirable. Good role models are an asset to society, and as the son of an educator, the Ballard High School product understands that as well as anyone. He also knows that professional athletes — like it or not — serve as role models. Their words and actions influence others. With that influence comes responsibility.
Adell has a bright future in the game. Touted as a five-tool player — Byron Buxton has been a common comp — he slashed .325/.376/.532 over his first 222 professional plate appearances. That fact that those numbers came in Rookie ball stands out as meaningful. While Adell is talented, he’s also a few months removed from having received a high-school diploma. There’s still a lot for him to learn, and that includes how to go about being a role model as a professional athlete.
I asked a number of MLB players what advice they would give Adell with respect to his goal of becoming a role model, particularly for African-American youth.
Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher: “Encouraging more black players to play baseball would be awesome. Baseball teaches you so many valuable life lessons. It’s not all about making it to the major leagues, but rather the opportunities that college may provide, or the life lessons you learn, like how to handle adversity.
“Being a role model is a large responsibility. If you want to be a role model, you’re not allowed to make mistakes. But the more role models you have — just in general — it’s going to be for the betterment of our community, our environment, and the world. My advice is to have the ability to speak out, but not be outspoken.”
Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox outfielder: “Play the game the right way. Understand that you don’t necessarily have to be a vocal leader. Playing the game the right way is how you’ll get seen more than… you don’t want to be that vocal guy who doesn’t show it on the field.
“[Talking about social issues] depends on who you are. I hate to say it, but it kind of has to do with the stature you have. As weird as it sounds, it’s true. Certain guys can say certain things, where other guys can’t. It’s important to understand that. But no matter who you are, you have to play the game the right way.
“Is the dynamic different [when you’re African American]? 100%. There aren’t many black guys in the game. Having guys out there to show you how to play the game… it’s different having a black guy you want to look up to.”
Darnell Coles, Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach: “It sounds like he has a good head on his shoulders. I listened to him talk on draft night, so I have a little knowledge of the player, the person, and the man. What you need to do is carry yourself in a way that’s representative of baseball in general. Play the game the right way.
“If you’re going to talk about social issues, No. 1, you need to know what you’re talking about. No. 2, you need to understand what the issues are, and the best way to help solve them. Random statements can put you, and the organization you’re with, in a bad light.
“Any time you’re talking to the media… media members have questions they have to ask, and players need to understand and respect that. Running away from that when you’re struggling, yet being willing to talk to the media when you’re doing well, probably isn’t the best way to go about it. Stand there and answer as best you can.”
Khris Davis, Oakland A’s outfielder: “Carry yourself the right way and play the game the right way — in a respectful way. And always be a good teammate. That’s more of a reputation than a makeup thing; you don’t word to get out that ‘this is a bad clubhouse guy.’ Being a good teammate will go a long way.
“I like to keep things positive, but I don’t think a quote is going to change the world. So as far as getting involved, and being vocal in the media about whatever issues are going around… I don’t think that’s very smart. It’s probably not going to change anything.”
Rajai Davis, Boston Red Sox outfielder: “My question to him would be: what kind of role model are you talking about? Are you talking baseball role model, or are you trying to influence African Americans to play baseball? The point is, where is your focus? Focus on one thing and achieve it. Be great at whatever that one thing is, and your phone will start ringing off the hook. If you try to focus on too many things, something gets lost along the way.
“I went to a minority school — maybe 60% minority — and most of the African Americans I went to school with played football and basketball. They didn’t play baseball. That’s just the way… I can’t explain why it is like that. A lot of African Americans have the ability to play because of their athleticism. It definitely wouldn’t hurt to have another advocate for the game.”
David Price, Boston Red Sox pitcher: “If you want to do it, that’s the mindset you’ve got to have. It’s much more than playing well on the baseball field. That’s what kids are going to see the most, but it’s his actions away from the field that are really going to tell his story. He’s going to have to keep that in mind.
“If you’re going to be outspoken on issues, know what you’re talking about. Be well informed and have a lot of knowledge of what you’re speaking of. And most importantly, believe what you’re talking about.”
Marcus Semien, Oakland A’s infielder: “It’s about leading by example. You always want to work as hard as you can, every day, to be better than the next guy — no matter what round you were drafted in. They’ve invested a lot of money in him, and it seems like he has all the talent in the world. If he puts work ethic together with that and plays the game the right way, others will see that and follow in his footsteps.
“I’ve been thinking about [players speaking out about social issues] a lot this year. Personally, I haven’t done it as much, but impacting kids is important. I’m not a big social media guy, but I will talk to people in person to try to impact their lives, whether it be a young kid or a fan who is going through a tough time. We’re on a platform where we’re able to do that. If he feels he wants to speak out on issues, that’s his choice.
“The game is so diverse now that it’s all about whether you can play. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black. For me, my mom is white and my dad is black. I feel that if you play well, you’ll be able to go as far as you can.”
Mallex Smith, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder: “Make smart decisions. Understand that everybody is watching at all times. When you do something, make sure it’s a benefit to yourself — and to others, as well. When you’re trying to help others, you’re normally heading in the right direction.
“You definitely have to be able to talk about [social issues]. Not everybody is calm and cool with that, though. And being a man of action is worth thousands of words. That does more than talking will ever do.”
Jeremy Sowers, Tampa Bay Rays major-league operations assistant and Ballard High School alum: “If you want to be a role model, you have to be authentic. You’re never going to be able to kid yourself into being somebody you’re not. If you’re authentic, it shows. People appreciate that. Be true to yourself. If you go out there and play hard, and do the right things, you’re going to make the right decisions.
“I think it’s interesting that, culturally, we decide that athletes should be our role models. But that’s the opportunity you’re given. Chris Archer has done a wonderful job with that, and I hope [Adell] does, too. I’ve heard good things about him. His head coach in high school, David Trager, was a teammate of mine when I was there. He has great things to say about him, especially his maturation. As he got older he became a team leader.”
Denard Span, San Francisco Giants outfielder: “It’s awesome to hear him say that, especially with the small amount of African Americans in the game. I think it’s important that we have more players with that mentality.
“I would say it’s not about speaking out, it’s about taking care of your business the right way — keeping your nose clean, playing the game the right way. Just doing those things, taking care of yourself and your reputation… then you can speak out a little.
“It’s fine to speak out, but if your play is not speaking for you, then it’s just talk. If you’re going to be a role model, your image and reputation can’t be suspect. You can speak out, but you know that there will be consequences, especially if it somehow makes things difficult for your place of work.”
Note: Attempts to speak to Adell for this story were unsuccessful. After agreeing to an interview, and then postponing it multiple times, he ultimately declined.
Thanks to colleague Eno Sarris for procuring the quotes from Denard Span.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.