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Imperfect storm: Carl Edwards Jr. fights through demotion, injury, racist taunts

Nam Y. Huh/AP

METAIRIE, La. — He was 15 on a team with men twice his age, grizzled, smack-talking baseball players that included former college players, minor-leaguers and two of his uncles.

“Then came one of the highlights of my life,” Cubs pitcher Carl Edwards Jr. remembers.

The Newberry Pirates were so far behind that Edwards finally got a chance to pitch, in relief of one uncle, pitching to the other.

Maybe 100 family and friends of players gathered nearby to grill, listen to music, drink beer, catch up and occasionally glance at the field. That’s what it was like most weekends in small-town South Carolina’s “Bush League,” an all-black group of town teams with a century of history rooted in the segregated South.

“We couldn’t play, so we got our own league,” says Edwards, the one to make it to the majors from a long line of locally prominent baseball players in his family.

Edwards got an earful from the Mapleton Black Sox when he took the mound, then started blowing fastballs and bending curveballs past them for strikeout after strikeout. The half-interested crowd began to take notice. The taunts quieted, and the cheers grew.

By the end of the game, the Pirates came back to win, and every player on the field headed over to shake the kid’s hand and rave about his future.

“That’s why I play the game,” he says softly.

• • •

Edwards is in a dank hallway of a minor-league ballpark as he talks while the rain falls hard outside before a game between the Iowa Cubs and the New Orleans Baby Cakes.

It’s two weeks after a humbling minor-league demotion, two days after news broke of Major League Baseball’s investigation into racist Instagram messages he received from an alleged Cubs fan the same week and the day after a slip on the stairs of a parking garage scraped up the palms of his hands badly enough to put him on the minor-league injured list for a few days.

It’s an imperfect storm few players are forced to confront at once — certainly one that no white player faces in even the most vicious fan reaction — and that has, at least for now, stolen Edwards’ smile.

“No one’s going to be the same. That’s not realistic for anyone to be the same,” said teammate Jason Heyward, considered a “big brother” by Edwards. “Everyone has their journey. Right now, he’s going through things he has to go through himself as an individual.

“But he’s not the only one who’s been through it, from racist comments to injury to being sent down to work on things. But none of it’s easy.”

The injury might be the easiest part. The scrapes don’t look serious, and Edwards said he expects to be pitching again this week as soon as he’s eligible.

The rest of it isn’t nearly so easy.

Edwards said Heyward is one of the guys on the team helping him through what might be the lowest point in a career that 2½ years ago reached a pinnacle when he recorded two of the biggest outs in franchise history and celebrated an iconic World Series championship by carrying a huge “W” flag around a rainy field in Cleveland.

“It’s hard enough to pitch in the big leagues,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said of the latest racist fan behavior targeting Edwards and some other Cubs. “I can only imagine how hard it is to deal with comments like that, and unfortunately it sounds like this isn’t just an isolated incident.”

Not for Edwards, Heyward or any of the other 60-something black players in the majors.

“Every time. It’s always there,” said Edward, who finally had enough of keeping the filth in his inbox to himself. “I could have said something about it when we played the Washington Nationals that year when I gave up the home run [in the 2017 playoffs].”

He could have said something during the 2016 World Series, when he was a rookie, when he recorded the first two outs of the 10th inning of Game 7, after being targeted by other racist hate messages earlier in the series.

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The irony isn’t lost on Edwards that all the hate during that moment of euphoria came as the skinny, dynamic, hard-throwing kid from South Carolina helped the Cubs win the first World Series the team ever played when a black man was allowed in uniform.

“It’s funny,” he said. “And this year is Jackie Robinson’s 100th [birthday].”

He just shakes his head at a reality that is all too familiar to him and every black player, past and present, he has talked to.

“I talked to so many players about it, and it’s like, ‘Bruh, I got the same thing when I was there. It’s nothing new,’ ” Edwards said. “It’s there.”

Maybe that’s why he didn’t report any of the incidents until now, why he hasn’t bothered to talk to teammates about most of it, why he doesn’t mention it even to his parents.

“We play this game, and it’s a good thing,” he said. “But it’s a curse. You do good, nothing. You do bad, and all this comes out.”

And it never goes away, never for long, always right behind the next slump or blown lead, it seems.

Ask any black player in the game, and not surprisingly they have remarkably similar, disgusting stories to tell.

“With the black athletes, it seems that people get a little bit more mad, and a little bit more brazen, behind the keyboard,” Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Jones said.

Said Heyward: “You get this all the time, our whole life. That’s not a new thing. It’s not news.”

If anyone is surprised when the latest revelations of racist taunts on social media arise, it’s white people.

“It’s like it’s a new world,” Edwards said, “like, ‘Oh, yeah, Martin Luther King marched. Congratulations. It’s over with.’ This s— ain’t over with.

“I only said something [this time] because I want the world to know that it’s there.”

It was there as recently as the Cubs’ second series of the season, in Atlanta, when his fiancé and young kids were in the stands near heckling fans who got racist when he was pitching.

“My fiancé even said, ‘I wish you would play another sport,’ ” he said.

For now, Edwards’ focus is on getting back to the big leagues and helping the Cubs get to October again.

He was pitching well for Iowa, feeling comfortable again, he said, and starting to look sharp again, Iowa manager Marty Pevey said.

“I have no doubt in my mind I’m going back up there,” he said, figuring it will be soon. “Just as long as I get my work done. And if I go up, I’m not coming back.”

The Cubs might need him sooner than they know, especially with closer Brandon Morrow suddenly shut down again because of his balky elbow.

In a baseball world that runs these days on swing-and-miss pitching, Edwards is that rarity in a Cubs bullpen of contact, ground-ball pitchers, especially rare now that strikeout-pitcher Pedro Strop is the de facto closer until further notice.

“When he’s really letting it go in the strike zone, he doesn’t get hit,” Hoyer said. “When he does that, he’s one of the better relievers in the game.”

Whether Edwards is a more consistent pitcher when he returns, he’s certain to be a different man for this entire experience.

Edwards said he hasn’t experienced much heckling at Wrigley Field — just maybe a few drunk loudmouths once in a while — and is looking forward to returning to the place he considers home.

“I love playing there,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else.”

It doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile how a day in South Carolina against the Mapleton Black Sox that stoked such a love for this game could lead to a place where that love seems so lost so often.

“It’s fine though,” he said. “I’ve still got those same people behind me every day. …

“I’ll be ready.”