Tough times made Cubs 'pen coach stronger
Strode eager to pass on messages he received from mentors
MESA, Ariz. -- Lester Strode wasn't a perfect student in high school in McMinnville, Tenn.
Strode, entering his fifth season as the Cubs' bullpen coach, remembers one of his visits to the principal's office after getting in a fight. He didn't know it then, but the conversation may have provided the impetus for where Strode is today.
Strode was one of about eight African-Americans in his senior class of 500. There were often times when he was the only black kid in a class.
"We were always in the minority," Strode said.
It wasn't easy in school.
"We had our good times and bad times, but for the most part, we learned to live with each other as one," he said. "It's helped me in my career to be able to communicate and understand different scenarios."
Let's go back to that trip to the principal's office.
"The principal tells me, 'Lester, I already see your future and I can see you're going to be one of those guys who is going to be in and out of jail,'" Strode said, recalling the story. "Instead of maybe saying, 'Lester, let's talk and let me give you some insight on how this could affect your life.' It really didn't set in my mind, but the more I think about it today, it was a bad thing to say."
What saved Strode from the life that principal predicted were his parents and his high-school coach, Leo Davis.
"There was ignorance in the city, but my parents instilled in us that everybody doesn't agree and everybody doesn't see everybody the same way," Strode said. "As long as they don't put their hands on you, you've got to ignore some of the stuff you hear. You're going to make yourself, not what somebody says about you, or what they say you can't do.
"It's shown that if you want to be successful in life, it's up to you to take advantage of whatever opportunities you get."
That's the way he was raised. And that's the message he tries to pass on to others.
"We've come a long way in this country as black people," he said, "and we've had some great mentors and had a lot of people who have done a lot of great things for this country and have shown we are able of being equal with every other people on this earth."
As baseball celebrates Black History Month, tip your cap to Strode, a survivor, and to coach Davis, who guided him.
"I still love him like he was my dad," Strode said of Davis. "He took me under his arms and I'm here today because of him."
Davis kept Strode in line, and helped him get to Kentucky State College, where he led the NAIA in strikeouts twice. A fourth-round Draft pick in 1980, Strode pitched in the Minor Leagues from '80-88 in the Royals, Orioles, Cardinals and Cubs farm systems, and in '84 was named to the Southern League All-Star team after posting a 9-2 record with seven complete games for Double-A Memphis. He became a coach, and was eventually named the Cubs' Minor League pitching coordinator, a post he held from '96-2006. He was promoted to the big league staff in '07 and is entering his 23rd season in the Cubs' organization.
Warren County Senior High School in McMinnville saluted Strode's accomplishments when it retired his uniform number in 2006.
"I guarantee [the principal] recalled what he said to me," Strode said. "It made me stronger."
Davis tried himself to get to the big leagues. He pitched in the Cubs' Minor League system, starting in 1953, and was a teammate of Billy Williams at Ponca City in '57.
Growing up in Tennessee, Strode watched the Braves and idolized Hank Aaron. As a player, he tried to fashion himself after pitcher Vida Blue because he "liked the way he went about his business."
Strode has a good sense of baseball history. He knows the sacrifices black players made to pave the way for him. He's talked to Hall of Famer Williams about the tough times he had to deal with. Strode encountered his share of unenlightened folks. In Double-A, he remembers a fan yelling, "Boy, if it was a watermelon, you would've caught it."
"I didn't have to live the life that some of my ancestors lived, but still it was tough times," Strode said. "I'm talking about the late '60s, early '70s. We were still going through a transition where there was some racism going on. I was old enough to hear Martin Luther King's speeches. I might not have quite understood them, but the longer I lived and the more I went through life, I understood the purpose of his being."
During the Cubs Caravan in January, the team made a stop at the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill. It's a wonderful place to learn a little history and be inspired by a man who rose to become president of the United States and did what he could to abolish slavery.
"He was willing to make the sacrifice," Strode said. "I can understand the other side of it, too, because he was affecting people's livelihood. At the same time, he said, 'Who are we to say one man is better than the other man?' He stood for that and had the support and it worked out for the better of the whole country."
Strode passes that message on to his children. His son, Blake, 23, graduated from the University of Arkansas and has been accepted at Harvard Law School but is trying to pursue his dream on the professional tennis circuit.
Strode and his wife, Angela, have done their part to pass along the same messages they received from their mentors.
"We tried to educate our kids about their history as much as possible and to see how far we've come as people and not take things for granted," he said. "I always tell my kids, 'You treat people the way you want to be treated.'"
Hopefully, that principal is listening.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.