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His every step pays homage

Like everyone else, Delino DeShields will pause to remember the legacy of Jackie Robinson when baseball celebrates the 50th anniversary of his debut April 15.

But unlike most others, DeShields will not forget come April 16.

"Somebody asked me the other day if April 15 was going to be a special day and I said, "Yeah, but it should mean more than a single day,'

" DeShields said. "I think about the guys who came before me every single day I wake up.

"This is all going to be very nice, but it's overdue, in my opinion."

To many pro ballplayers, big-league history is any season before arbitration kicked in. To DeShields, it defines the game.

A seven-year veteran in the majors, DeShields is a student of the game in the purest sense.

The Cardinals second baseman began researching baseball's history when he broke into pro ball. He said his curiousity was natural, although it is not often shared by others in the game.

Born in 1969, nearly 20 years after the demise of the Negro Leagues, DeShields nonetheless has taken a special interest in the men forbidden to cross Major League Baseball's white lines.

It began for DeShields when he read a chronicle of the Negro Leagues, Only the Ball Was White.

"When I was young, I never knew anything about black leagues," DeShields said. "But there was this whole world out there with black players, black team owners, their own all-star game. I just started reading whatever I could find."

DeShields would do more than just read. He began seeking former players from the Negro Leagues, developing a close friendship with the legendary Buck O'Neil.

He has attended reunions of Negro Leagues players and has even taken their legacy onto 1990s baseball diamonds.

DeShields began wearing distinctive high, striped socks after seeing pictures of Negro Leagues players in similar uniforms.

"To me, those photos looked like real baseball," DeShields said. "The socks were my way of saying thank you to those guys."

In a day when players whine about respect and run to the union to hide from every perceived injustice, DeShields said he was struck by the attitudes of the men who never were given the chance to be big-leaguers.

Bitterness may be their right, but it is not their choice.

"They don't want people to feel sorry for them," DeShields said. "They know if their skin was a different color, they could have played. They know they were just as good. They never say they wish they could have played in a different time; they would just like to be recognized for what they did."

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said other players would do well to follow DeShields' example and recognize the pioneers of the game, from Robinson to Curt Flood and beyond.

"I don't think a lot of the guys understand what some of the older players sacrificed for them," said La Russa said. "What Delino does is very good."

As the 50th anniversary nears, the tributes to Robinson will increase. There will be talk of his impact on the game and society, as well as his performance on the field.

People also would do well to recognize the tribulations he endured, DeShields said. Robinson's trek through baseball was as difficult as any before or since.

"I wish I could have been around. Not to go through what those guys had to go through _ because I'm not sure I could have done it _ but just to witness it firsthand," DeShields said. "Jackie Robinson was a special person, and it would have been nice to be a fly on the wall to see what it was like for him."

Baseball obviously has come a long way since the days when Robinson was taunted and black players were forced to find separate accommodations in some cities.

While blatant discrimination may no longer be a part of baseball, DeShields hints that not all is perfect in the game.

"It mirrors society. Whatever is good, bad or ugly in the community is the same way in baseball," he said. "So look around yourself and what you see going on in society is the same thing going on inside of baseball."