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Encore: A new mode in MLB video game celebrates historical Black all-stars

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

A video game officially licensed by Major League Baseball has an all-new mode featuring players from the Negro National League. It's a first for a gaming franchise that originated in the 1990s. NPR's Jamal Michel reports.

JAMAL MICHEL, BYLINE: My friends know what time it is when I step up to the plate in MLB The Show 23.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Now it's the shortstop, Jackie Robinson.

MICHEL: Robinson's ability to read a pitch is really what made his batting average so legendary.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Swing and a hard hit liner up the middle to base hit. So a man aboard now...

MICHEL: So when we hop online to play, I never leave him out of my rotation. My cousin, though, he's definitely a Satchel Paige stan.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: The pitch.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Leg kicks like Satchel's can really mess with the hitter's timing. And if you can get past that, well, you still got to hit some of the best stuff any pitcher's ever had.

MICHEL: Mainly because of his 105-mile-an-hour bee ball, as Paige called it, not to mention his hella unorthodox windup. MLB The Show spotlights players like Paige and Robinson in a new feature called Storylines: The Negro Leagues. The single-player mode reconstructs moments from the lives of legendary Black players that couldn't compete in the majors until Jackie Robinson broke that barrier in 1947. And while some Negro League players showed up in past games, the expanded roster and all-new mode came from a partnership with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Each chapter begins with some historical context presented by museum president Bob Kendrick.

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BOB KENDRICK: So if the Monarchs have their full roster intact, Jackie Robinson never gets invited to try out. And how would history have been altered?

MICHEL: Kendrick was blown away by the reception Storylines got. In fact, he told me it came up during a tour he recently led.

KENDRICK: As I typically do when I'm telling Satchel's story, he had names for his pitches.

MICHEL: Yeah.

KENDRICK: And so I get to his famous bee ball, and I raised the question, do you know why he called it the bee ball? And a young kid - a young white kid is standing there with his father, and he looks at me. He said, because it be where he want it to be when he want it to be there.

MICHEL: (Laughter).

KENDRICK: You've been playing The Show. And his father said, yes. He has been listening to you, and he has been paying attention.

MICHEL: It's not all celebration, of course. Rather than gloss over the ugly side of the game, Kendrick says it's important to remember the circumstances that created the need for the Negro League in the first place.

KENDRICK: Jim Crow, segregation - a horrible chapter in this country's history. But the story of the Negro Leagues themselves, there's nothing sorrowful or sad about that story because that is that story of what you do when you're faced with this kind of adversity. You rise above.

MICHEL: MLB The Show 23's newest mode is a gift for gamers who've been waiting to see their favorite baseball legends finally get their roses. Bob Kendrick has his own dreams about taking to the field as well.

KENDRICK: Well, you know, I wanted to be in the middle of action, so I always wanted to be a pitcher.

MICHEL: Ooh.

MICHEL: I wanted to - you know, I wanted to be right there in it, kind of controlling...

MICHEL: Yeah.

MICHEL: ...The game from that perspective. So, yeah, that would be the role. Now, I probably couldn't break a pane of glass, but that's all right.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHEL: Mr. K throwing Ks. That's...

(LAUGHTER)

MICHEL: ...What they're going to call you (laughter).

Kendrick may not be lacing up anytime soon, but thanks to MLB The Show 23, he can still relive the glory days of some of baseball's legends he helped bring to life, from the 1956 World Series...

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Robinson after a foul and a ball...

MICHEL: ...To a video game in 2023.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: There's a swing and a drive, left field, and he knew it.

MICHEL: Jamal Michel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY RAY MORON'S "HIP HOP RECON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jamal Michel
Jamal Michel is a freelance writer whose work focuses on video game culture, entertainment and the stories in between them. He is currently a member of the Life Kit and It's Been a Minute teams.