Akil Baddoo was a social butterfly, working his way around the Tiger Club at Comerica Park on Friday, squeezing between tables, flashing an electric smile — confident and outgoing, full of charisma.
He shook hands with a man who played in the Negro Leagues and then posed for pictures with another.
“It’s the smile — it’s so genuine,” Alvin Strane, who played in the Negro Leagues, said after talking to Baddoo. “It’s like he’s saying, ‘I am totally engrossed and appreciative of what this opportunity is.’”
Oh, just wait.
Baddoo was only getting started.
When it was time for lunch, Badoo sat at a table with members of the Detroit Cass Tech baseball team at a luncheon celebrating the Tigers’ 18th Negro Leagues Weekend. Baddoo was driving the conversation, asking questions, fully engaged.
“It was a great experience,” said Ali Abdullah, a 15-year-old Cass Tech sophomore sitting to the right of Baddoo. “We were talking about where we come from, what school we go to — our baseball lives.”
I watched from a few feet away.
Obviously, Baddoo has been a great story: a Rule 5 draft selection having a fantastic, magical rookie season. Since spring training, I’ve seen Baddoo play dozens of times and I’ve written several stories about him.
But I had never talked to Baddoo in person, just on Zoom calls because of COVID-19 protocols.
And I’d never seen him interact with people behind the scenes. Reporters are still not allowed in the clubhouse. But I finally got a chance to see him up close, in a different light, on Friday afternoon; and I found out that he is just as special off the field.
Lessons from the legends
Willie Horton, the former Tigers great, sat on a leather chair on a platform at the front of the room.
Baddoo was called to the stage but stopped before taking his seat.
First, he had to pay his respects. Baddoo went out of his way to shake hands with Horton.
Then, Baddoo shook hands with Jake Wood, who was the first Black player to rise through the Tigers farm system and play for Detroit. Wood will be honored by the Tigers on Sunday.
Baddoo took his seat behind Horton and Wood, and you could see pure reverence in Baddoo’s eyes.
As Horton told stories about growing up in Detroit, Baddoo sat on the edge of his seat, hanging on every word, a rookie listening to a legend. Baddoo looked like somebody sitting in the front row at church. He was totally locked into the moment, trying to absorb everything, looking for guidance.
Horton would say something, and Baddoo would nod his head in agreement.
“I remember calling him back in November,” Horton said of Baddoo. “And I said, ‘you have a great opportunity and we have developing team.’”
Later, I pulled Baddoo aside.
“Did he really call you?” I asked.
“Yeah, he did call me as soon as they picked up me up in the Rule 5,” Baddoo said. “He said, ‘You ready?’ And I said, ‘This is Willie Horton?’”
Baddoo acted like he had pulled a phone away from his ear and was looking at the caller ID in amazement.
“He said, “Yeah, it’s me, boy, are you ready to play?’”
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to play. l’m ready to go.’”
“He said, ‘Hey, trust your abilities. Have fun and keep it simple. Because you’re gonna be great.’”
“And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
A young who?
As Baddoo spoke Friday afternoon, he had hit safely in 35 of his last 50 games. He had a .303 average over that span, with 12 doubles, two triples, six home runs and 26 RBIs.
Baddoo was one of 17 rookies with at least 200 at-bats this season; within that group, he ranks first in stolen bases (14), second in slugging percentage (.489) and OPS (.834), third in walk rate (10.5%) and fourth in batting average (.271) and on-base percentage (.346).
All of those numbers say the same thing: Baddoo is kickin’ some serious butt and having a great rookie season. He has grown, made adjustments and is still developing.
“I’m so proud,” Horton said. “When I saw him practice in Lakeland, and saw how he plays the game, he reminded me of young ballplayer Rickey Henderson.”
Yes, the great Willie Horton just compared Akil Baddoo to the great Rickey Henderson.
‘Honestly, it’s an honor’
And none of this is lost on Baddoo.
“I’m extremely thankful for the guys in front of me right now,” Baddoo said, from the stage, looking at Horton. “Because you guys paved the way. You guys are honestly, my superheroes. I mean, I looked up to you guys at a young age. My favorite player was Willie Mays. And that’s why I wore No. 24. …
“And I just wanna say thank you guys, really, because it means a lot because of me being an African American baseball player.”
Baddoo has such an interesting personality. He is confident but not arrogant, wide-eyed but not overwhelmed, humble but driven.
Always appreciative and thankful.
Soaking up everything.
“Honestly, it’s an honor to be on stage with a legend like Willie Horton,” Baddoo said. “He is so passionate about the game of baseball.”
Same goes for Baddoo. Passionate about everything, whether it’s meeting Negro League legends or high school kids.
What a cool dude.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.