DETROIT — Akil Baddoo received a phone call from an unfamiliar number shortly after the Tigers selected him in the Rule 5 Draft last December. Former Tigers great and current special assistant Willie Horton was on the other end of the line.
“He asked me if I was ready,” Baddoo recalled Friday. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready. I’m ready to play left field, center field, wherever they want me. And I’m going to give it my all, 110 percent.’
“He said, ‘OK, stay true to yourself, have fun and don’t get too caught up in all the extra stuff. Just stay simple and have a simple approach, and you’ll be great.’”
Baddoo knew a little about Horton at the time thanks to his father, who collected baseball cards. So he quickly came to realize the importance of getting such a phone call. They’ve talked by phone occasionally during the season but hadn’t met personally amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Friday’s Tigers Negro Leagues tribute luncheon was their first time seeing each other in person. Both of them were part of a panel with Tigers great Jake Wood, coaches George Lombard and Kimera Bartee and teammates Niko Goodrum and Derek Hill.
It was a fitting setting. While Horton is a hero in Detroit, a World Series champion and a community mainstay, Baddoo is a local sensation and an American League Rookie of the Year candidate. Their meeting represented the importance of passing down the passion and the lessons of the game between generations.
“I’m so proud to see him,” Horton said on the panel. “When I saw him practicing in Lakeland and see things and how he’s playing the game, he reminded me of a young Rickey Henderson when I saw him in Mexico years ago. When you see that type of athlete, and most all these kids are athletes, let them grow.”
The luncheon kicked off the Tigers’ annual Negro Leagues celebration. The event remembers the contributions of the Negro Leagues in Detroit, an especially important theme this year with the recognition of the Negro Leagues among the Major Leagues. Several players were recognized with their families. This year’s event also recognizes the 60th anniversary of Wood’s Major League debut with the Tigers, becoming the first African-American player to come up through the organization.
It also serves as a conversation on maintaining and increasing the involvement of African-Americans in baseball. Among those at the luncheon were prominent high school teams and top amateur prospects.
Lombard was a top prospect in baseball and football growing up. He turned down a scholarship offer to play football at the University of Georgia when the Atlanta Braves drafted him in the second round in 1994. Little did he know he would go on to become a baseball lifer, moving into coaching after his playing career ended.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the guys who came before me,” Lombard said, “and the difference that you guys have made to allow us this opportunity to do what we do.”
Similarly, Lombard said, it’s important for current players like Baddoo and Goodrum to set the example for young players to follow.
“We want to make it easier for them to be where you’re at,” Goodrum said. “It’s supposed to be that way. You’re supposed to make it easier for the guys coming after you. We just get inspired by that, and you’re thankful when you go out on the field every day and play the game.”