SEATTLE -- The Mariners observed Jackie Robinson Day with a very special guest, NBA legend Bill Russell, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
Russell, who lives outside Seattle, is an African-American trailblazer in his own right, having been the first black coach in modern pro sports when he accepted the position of player-coach with the 1966 Boston Celtics. He also became a friend of Robinson's, and was a pallbearer at Robinson's funeral in 1972.
In the Mariners' clubhouse before the game, outfielder Chone Figgins said it's always a special day when he and the rest of his teammates suit up in Robinson's No. 42.
"I think about just how fortunate I am and we all are," Figgins said. "I don't think people realize the magnitude of who he was and what he did, just from the baseball side, what he had to go through. I just hope that a lot of players understand that the stuff that he went through was beyond [sanity]. What he did made a huge difference for all of us being able to play this game."
Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims is the only full-time African-American play-by-play man in the Major Leagues. He grew up in New York as a huge Robinson fan and said he has never understated the impact Robinson's life made on society in this country.
"He's one of the most important Americans ever," Sims said. "I grew up listening to stories about Jackie Robinson, I grew up looking at World Series programs. I used to page through them all the time. They were dog-eared, and I think they just disintegrated at one point. And when I can remember playing ball and my father would pitch, he'd throw seven or eight right down the middle and the next five would be at my head. He'd say, 'What do you think Jackie Robinson had to put up with? Stand in there.' I learned those lessons.
"I remember growing up in Manhattan and running across Seventh Avenue, dodging traffic because I saw Rachel Robinson and just had to run across the street and say hello and thank her. What they did, I can't comprehend how big it is."