Tremayne Cobb Jr. loses himself in baseball’s soundtrack, entranced by the game’s rhythms and rules. Three strikes and you’re out; three outs and the inning is over; smack a base hit into the outfield and, if you have enough time, take second base. Despite playing in a Maryland county hardly known for its baseball, Cobb Jr.’s speed on the basepaths and with the bat has college coaches salivating. But when he steps onto a diamond, his mind turns silent.
He doesn’t remember when, after he hit a walk-off home run to push the Charles Herbert Flowers High School Jaguars past Bowie High School last season as a sophomore, the school’s softball team started chanting, “Tre-mayne! Tre-mayne!” He didn’t hear it, either, when three years ago he hit a double during a tournament in South Carolina and a white fan exclaimed, “That n—– can hit!”
Later that summer his ears perked up. He was pitching, mowing through the opposition, and frustration was mounting in the other dugout. Then a parent — again, white — offered their two cents: “You’re a n—–.” Cobb Jr. paused and, for a moment, shot a glare in the direction of the racial slur. Then he turned his attention back to the plate and got out of the inning. On May 1, Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones made headlines for claiming he was called the N-word multiple times during a game at Fenway Park. His comments called attention to the declining number of African-Americans in baseball and the challenges faced by those in the game.
Cobb Jr.’s dealt with those hurdles at the youth and high school levels, from altering his hairstyle to conform to social norms to dealing with a lack of funding at Charles Herbert Flowers High School, a Prince George’s County high school in Springdale, Maryland, where he starts at shortstop. A rising junior, he hopes to defy the odds and play Division I baseball. According to data gathered by the NCAA, 79 percent of Division I baseball players in 2015-16 were white and only 5 percent were black. The experiences of Cobb Jr., one of the more prominent black kids in a local baseball scene not known for churning out black players, shed light on what it’s like to be an African-American trying to make it in baseball.
In 2014, a white pickup truck came rumbling down the dirt path, the Confederate flag stationed in its bed waving in the wind. It pulled up to a stop in the field behind the first-base side, and the PG Select Bluesox, Cobb Jr.’s former youth travel team, braced themselves for one of “those fans.” The driver opened the door and slid out of the truck, clad in dark blue pants and a light blue shirt.
No, this was not a fan. This was the umpire.
“We’re in trouble,” said one player on the majority African-American 13U team. Three years later, and five players from PG Select, including Cobb Jr., now play for Flowers. It was the last time they saw a Confederate flag or any other symbol associated with racism at a game, but their skin color has remained a consistent issue. During an April tournament in Mingo Bay, South Carolina, an opposing coach, who is white, glanced at the Jaguars’ statistics and questioned their legitimacy. With the speedy Cobb Jr. leading the way, the Jaguars had stolen 100 bases through their first 10 games, a seemingly impossible feat.
“We went out and stole nine bases on him,” said Tremayne Cobb Sr., whose son stole 34 bases in 19 games last season. “I don’t think two white teams would ever go and ask if stats are accurate. Fans said, ‘You all played good. I’m surprised.’ What makes you surprised?”
The Jaguars’ success wasn’t embraced at home, either, as manager George Brown complained repeatedly throughout the 2016-’17 season that his team was often sent only one umpire for regular-season games. He would’ve been grateful for one on April 28, a scorching Friday afternoon.
It was a makeup game against Friendly High School, and Cobb Jr. planned to debut a new sidearm windup. “Something new,” he said with a smile. He sat on the bench applying pine tar to his bat while long-tossing teammates traded jokes in left field. The Jaguars had stomped on league competition to that point and were giddy with anticipation waiting for Friendly to arrive. One player performed a cartwheel in front of the fence protecting the bench — a makeshift dugout. Later on, a foul ball would zoom over the fence, threatening to take out one of the Jaguars. “Hopefully next year we get a real dugout,” one player said.
Four minutes before first pitch, Brown’s pocket buzzed with a text from Flowers athletic director Carlyle Rose. The game was canceled, as no umpire had been scheduled. “If this was a school basketball game,” Brown texted back, “I’m sure there would be referees here.”
It was the latest quibble Brown had with the high school’s administration, which he says favors football and basketball over baseball despite his team’s county championship. In his eyes, baseball is considered less important in a county where 65 percent of residents were African-American in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “You can go around to every public park and you can see what the county thinks about baseball,” Brown said.
According to Flowers’ 2016-17 year-to-date, the program began the season with a budget of $1,046.50, while boys basketball was allocated $2,771.16. Football received a $20,000 donation, according to the document.
Cobb Jr. plans to attend camps at Penn State, St. John’s University, University of Connecticut, Old Dominion University and University of Hartford this summer. But first, he’s turning his attention to qualifying for the USA U16 team. He came up one round short last year, failing to make the final team after making it past the regional round.
Before that regional tryout, which took place in Richmond, Virginia, he told his father he wanted to put his hair in cornrows for the weekend to avoid maintenance. He normally wears his hair in a mini-Afro, his cap balanced atop the hairdo. Cobb Sr. urged against it, fearing the racial undertones it could send. “You never know what other people will think,” Cobb Sr. said. “A white kid could have long hair with a ponytail, but what do you think when you see a kid with a bush? Do you see a thug? Let’s show some manners. Make sure you have twice as good manners.”
Compromising, Cobb Jr. appeared at the tryout with a skullcap covering the cornrows underneath. “I like my hair,” Cobb Jr. said, lifting his cap to rub his hand through his mane. “I like to do what I want with it. For someone to tell me not to, that’s kind of messed me up. Like, why can’t I do this? Why do you have a problem with it? It’s just me.”
Cobb Jr.’s ultimate goal is to play in the major leagues. Shortstop for the Yankees, his favorite team, would be ideal. He considers Derek Jeter, whose father is African-American and mother is white, a role model. “To see him out there makes me think I have a chance,” Cobb Jr. said.
In 2017, 7.73 percent of players on major league opening day rosters were African-American, according to Steve Arocho, Major League Baseball’s senior director of communications and youth engagement. It’s a significant decline from 1981, when 18.7 percent of players who appeared during the season were African-American, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
Sometimes while hitting off a tee in his garage, Cobb Jr. will fantasize about his future. He’ll envision himself donning Yankees pinstripes and returning home to Prince George’s County schools. He’ll be standing in front of a crowd of children, handing over a check made out for baseball equipment. “It would be really cool to see the looks on their faces,” he said, beaming.
Then the daydream will end and he’ll place another ball on the tee. He’ll settle into his stance and pull his hands back, loading up for another hack. “I got to do this,” he’ll think to himself. “I just got to do this.”