In the hours before Dominic Smith wept on national television, he failed on national television. His train of thought sped from station to station: Four hundred years of injustice … the pain of the family of Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis. … the pain of the families of all the other victims of brutality at the hands of a racist system … the violent deaths of so many people who looked like him … his own encounters with law enforcement, which always left him unscathed but terrified … the fact that white people still didn’t seem to care … the way NBA and WNBA players had insisted on the postponement of their games that night in protest of oppression … the way most MLB players had not done the same … his role as the most prominent Black player on the Mets … the unknown fallout of his spur-of-the-moment decision that night to take a knee during the national anthem … and wait, was that a slider?
It was Aug. 26. Much of the sports world was engaged in protest. But Smith and the Mets were playing the Marlins. He has been one of the best players in baseball this season. He went 0–4. “I had absolutely no chance,” he says now. “I just didn’t have the focus, the mental capacity to succeed that night.”
After the game, a Mets official asked him whether he would speak to the media about his choice to kneel. Smith did not want to do a press conference. He wanted to go to bed. He often feels blinded by the spotlight on good days, and this was not a good day. But he felt an obligation to speak—because of what he had been through that night, and because of what he had been through for years.
That night, Smith stood in left field, mentally toggling between the game before him and the society around him. He was in the middle of the best season of his career and the hardest of his life. Just when he proved he belonged, he didn't want to be there.
From the outside, his baseball career looked like a steady climb. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles, one of seven children, so enthralled with the game that he donned his Holly Park Little League uniform to watch Angels games on TV. At the end of his age-12 season, his teammates realized that he had not made an out all year. New York took him with the 11th pick of the 2013 draft from Junipero Serra High School. In ’15 he was named the High A Florida State League player of the year; in ’17 he debuted in the majors.
But the climb did not feel so steady to Smith. This is the first season he has woken up in the morning confident he will be in the starting lineup. He came up as a first baseman, but Pete Alonso won Rookie of the Year at that position last year. Smith learned left field, but Jeff McNeil is a stronger defender there. The National League’s adoption of the designated hitter has given the Mets enough at-bats to go around, and Smith has seized his opportunity: His 179 OPS+ is second best in the league, and he has been so smooth at first base that Alonso has often been relegated to DH.
Smith is playing the best baseball of his life. But he is also exhausted. The Mets have played 47 games in 52 days. They have done it amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans and that has stripped the players of the routines they crave and the camaraderie they cherish. (With the exception of his roommate and best friend on the team, third baseman J.D. Davis, Smith is not allowed even to eat a meal with one of his coworkers.) And it seems like every time Smith looks at his phone, he finds another reminder of the injustices Black people face in this country.
“It kind of, I don't want to say overburdens you, but it just puts a [lot] on you, mentally, physically,” he says. “Some days I was depressed at home. I didn't know how to feel the feeling that I was feeling.”
Some of this despair is familiar to him, though. When he was a teenager, he and his teammates traveled to play in affluent communities in Colorado, Georgia, New York. They noted the manicured fields, the safe suburbs. Why can’t we have this? they wondered.
As he matured, he learned the answer: Society didn’t value them as much as it valued the wealthier children.
The realization cut him. So in 2016 he and two of his youth teammates founded Baseball Generations, a nonprofit dedicated to helping inner-city children break the cycle of poverty. In a typical year, the foundation runs daily practices with 15 to 20 kids, offering free and subsidized travel ball programs. (Most good Southern California baseball teams charge $350 per month.) And eight or 10 times an offseason, it stages a camp for 200 children and teenagers, with major leaguers running drills and answering questions. Even before Smith’s breakout, he drew Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty, Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawfor, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson and righty Lucas Giolito. Smith thinks players’ time is more valuable than their wealth; the kids don’t know where the money comes from, he says, but they will always remember the time a big leaguer taught them a curveball. Many athletes have just begun to reckon with their power in the community; Smith, says Baseball Generations cofounder Tim Ravare, “has been about this” for years.
Smith’s voice tightens now as he explains the message he wants to send to young people in the inner city: “They're not worth anything less than any other kid.”
He was thinking of those kids as he donned a gray sweatshirt and white baseball cap and headed to the Citi Field interview room. He wants their stories to be different from Jacob Blake’s, from George Floyd’s, from Tamir Rice’s.
“It’s not about Black versus white,” he says. “It’s not about police versus minorities. It’s about power over the powerless.”
He sat at the dais and took questions over Zoom. He explained that he had knelt as a show of support for the teams that had postponed their games. He was asked what the hardest part of the previous two months had been. Smith paused for 32 seconds. Then he said the words that his mother, Yvette LaFleur, would hear the next morning on the Today show; that players on at least three different teams would cite as having influenced their thinking; and that would change the other Mets’ perspective.
“I think the most difficult part is to see, like, people still don't care,” he said as tears streaked his face. “And for this to continuously happen—I mean, it just shows the hate in people's hearts. And, I mean, that just sucks. You know, being a Black man in America, it's not easy.”
Smith was the last Met to speak that night. Jacob deGrom, the starting pitcher, said he did not know any games were called off until the middle innings. Right fielder Michael Conforto said he learned of the NBA postponements in real time but did not know any baseball teams protested until after the Mets' game finished.
Smith knew. It was all he could think about. He spent the afternoon texting with other Black players around the majors as the news trickled out: The Milwaukee Bucks had called off their game. The rest of the NBA followed. Everyone wanted to know what everyone else planned to do. In a league with such a low proportion of Black people—they made up 7.8% of 2020 Opening Day rosters, according to USA Today’s annual analysis—the decision felt fraught. They did not want to guilt their non-Black teammates into protesting police brutality. They couldn’t even be sure their non-Black teammates agreed with them that police brutality was a problem.
And they did not have much time to come up with a plan. Four teams voted to walk out: the Brewers, who were scheduled to face the Reds; the Mariners, scheduled to face the Padres; and the Dodgers and the Giants, who were scheduled to face one another. Some Black players sat out while their teams played on, but they were mostly prominent veterans. Smith lacks that stature. He is 25. This is the first year he has not spent time in the minors.
“I was emotional all day,” he says. “One of the reasons why—”
“Just because, you know, the fact that other teams—”
He stops again.
“On that day, we didn't talk about it,” he finally says. “Everybody pretty much walked around like nothing’s happening in the world. Obviously we have a job to do, so we kind of leave politics out of the locker room and kind of focus on the task at hand.”
So he decided to kneel. Afterward, some of his teammates told him they were disappointed in the gesture—but not for the reason he’d feared. “They were pretty upset that I didn’t tell them that I was going to take a knee,” he says. “Because they wanted to be there by me while I did it and to show their support out there on the field.” It’s worth mentioning that those players could still have demonstrated once they saw him go down, or even on their own. But in a sport as conservative as baseball, their reaction is progress.
And he saw even more progress the next day, when he headed to the park fully expecting to play. Manager Luis Rojas called a team meeting at 3 p.m. The players and staff discussed how much Smith’s words had affected them. They decided they didn’t want to play that night—and that they wanted to make a statement. After discussions with the Marlins, they settled on a plan: They would take the field at 7:10, as scheduled, and stand for the national anthem. Then they would pause for a 42-second moment of silence, in honor of Jackie Robinson, and walk off the field. They would leave a Black Lives Matter T-shirt on home plate.
“To see my team rally behind me, and show their support for me, my community, where I come from—it was something that I've never felt before,” Smith says now. “And I felt very honored.”
Smith spoke, and people listened. In some ways, the moment was small. But it was also crucial. Smith’s message that night resonated: He matters. The kids at Baseball Generations matter. Black lives matter. The worst night of his season was the most impressive of his career.