Anthony Blackmon was like most Oklahoma State fans last Saturday night — he saw Marcus Smart shove that fan at Texas Tech.
Unlike a vast majority of the Cowboy faithful, Blackmon's thoughts quickly turned positive.
“It's gonna be OK.”
He would know.
Twenty-seven years ago, Blackmon was an outfielder on the OSU baseball team, and during a regional at Mississippi State, he endured racial slurs and slights of every kind. He kept quiet for the better part of a week, but when the tournament was over, he responded.
He mooned the fans.
It changed his life.
During a week when the buzz in the sports world has been about a Cowboy who had a momentary lapse in judgment, another Cowboy who had his own lapse talked of the tough days and months that followed. The fallout was severe. The damage was extreme.
“It cost me a lot,” Blackmon said. “I didn't take responsibility for my actions and premeditate my thoughts and stay disciplined.”
His life changed. It didn't end.
* * *
Anthony Blackmon landed in Oklahoma by way of Indiana. After his sophomore year at West Side High in Gary, he attended a baseball camp at OSU. Those were the days of Gary Ward, the Cowboys swaggering into the park wearing eye black, then beating in your brains. Blackmon knew he wanted to play pro ball, so being a Cowboy seemed like a great way to get there.
The Cowboys were interested in him but not enough for the speedy outfielder.
He signed with the Sooners instead.
After playing only sparingly his first season at Oklahoma, he transferred to Seminole State. A great season there convinced the Houston Astros to draft him in the second round.
Instead of signing with Houston, he transferred to OSU. His dream team had finally loved him back.
“If I'd have known then what happened later,” he said, “things would've been different.”
Had he known, he would've picked the Astros over the Cowboys, but as the 1986 season began, all that he was focused on was trying to find a spot on a talented team headlined by Robin Ventura and Monty Fariss. Blackmon's speed and skill eventually landed him in the outfield and in the leadoff spot.
The Cowboys made the College World Series that season, then seemed poised for another trip to Omaha the next year. They were ranked No. 1 in the country and expecting to host a regional like they had for several years.
But when the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced, OSU was heading instead to Mississippi State.
Dudy Noble Field in Starkville was known then as it is now — a tough place to play. Mississippi State fans are among the most passionate in college baseball, and the rowdiest among them sat just beyond the left-field fence.
They called it the Left Field Lounge, an area that had no bleachers but rather filled with trailers and couches and whatever anyone could drag over. The regulars called themselves the Lounge Lizards — author and alum John Grisham has been known to make an occasional appearance — and they made it their mission to make life miserable for visiting outfielders.
Anthony Blackmon was about to become their prime target.
* * *
Blackmon was the Cowboy center fielder, and even though the OSU outfield was a diverse bunch — left fielder Ray Ortiz was Mexican, right fielder Bennie Castillo was Dominican — Blackmon was the only black player on the roster.
Mississippi fought desegregation as long and hard as any state in the union. Nearly 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi schools were still being forced by judges and lawmen to integrate.
OSU coaches told their players about the environment in Starksville, particularly the Lounge Lizards.
Hearing about them was one thing.
Hearing them was another.
After the regional, Ward said that Blackmon was called every racist name in the book. Buckwheat. Skillet. Others that can't be printed.
A combination of profanity and racism rained down on Blackmon inning after inning, game after game, day after day.
“I was there for five days, OK?” Blackmon said. “You don't understand what I went through.”
He didn't respond, didn't retort, didn't react — until the Cowboys made the final out of the championship game and earned another trip to the College World Series. As his teammates began to celebrate, Blackmon turned his back to the fans beyond the outfield fence and dropped his drawers.
Even though he had on sliding shorts so no skin was exposed, the sentiment was clear.
The gesture was brief and many in the stadium didn't even know what had happened, but news spread quickly.
After the game, Ward said it wasn't a very classy thing to do, said that he told Blackmon as much.
“But you go out in center field for six games and take the stuff he was taking and see how you'd respond,” the coach said. “Me, I'd just basically want to kill the SOBs.”
Even though this was years before the creation of the Internet, much less social media, the story caught fire. The NCAA investigated. So did the NAACP. Eventually, Blackmon was suspended for the first two games of the College World Series, and OSU issued apologies from the athletic director, head coach and offending player.
“I'd like to apologize to my mother and family for conducting myself in an undignified matter,” Blackmon said then in a prepared statement. “I'd also like to apologize to my coach, Gary Ward, and Oklahoma State University for the chaos that I have caused. My respect for my coach and the university goes far beyond this incident.
“Finally, to Mississippi State University, I apologize for my actions. My actions weren't geared to all Bulldog fans. I'm sure not all of the fans are as racial as a selected few in the outfield. My mental toughness abandoned me and I came down to their level, which I regret.”
His mountain of regret would only get taller.
* * *
Blackmon went with the Cowboys to Omaha for the College World Series, but he didn't practice or hang around his teammates. He sat in a hotel room as they won their first two games of the series without him.
He returned to the field in a victory against Stanford on June 4.
That same day, the final day of the baseball draft wrapped up. Blackmon, who went into the CWS batting over .400 with an on-base percentage close to .600, had been told by numerous scouts earlier in the season that he would be drafted. Maybe not in the first few rounds, but there were plenty of teams that wanted him.
Instead, he went undrafted.
No one has ever told him as much, but Blackmon is sure that the Mississippi State mooning is the reason why no one drafted him.
“You don't have to get feedback to know,” he said. “It was obvious that situation was not a positive move for my future in the game. There's hundreds of 5-8, 180-pound kids that can run. You have to do things right. You have to make the right decisions. You have so much on the line that you really have to understand the (effect) of your actions.”
Blackmon ended up signing with a team in the independent Pioneer Rookie League. He had a good summer, even played on a team that won 29 consecutive games, which still stands as the longest winning streak by any professional baseball team.
After the season was over, he went back to OSU to finish his degree in broadcast sales management.
He never played baseball again.
* * *
Never having a chance to play professional baseball hung like a storm cloud over Anthony Blackmon. It took him years — “A long time,” he said — to work past the disappointment and anger, the regret and sorrow.
“When you want something so bad and you know you put in the work, you know you worked your butt off, you know you proved yourself,” he said, “it was crushing to me.
“But ... life isn't easy. It's not what happens. It's how you go through things. It's how you respond and come out on the other end.”
That's the lesson that he tries to teach his sons. At 15 and 12, they are beginning to dream their dreams — Blackmon says he hopes OSU might one day come to their home in Frisco, Texas, and recruit both of them — but regardless of what they want to do, they are going to experience tough times and rough roads.
“You keep going,” Blackmon said. “You keep trying to earn people's respect whatever you do in life.”
That's the advice he gives his boys.
He'd say the same to Marcus Smart.
Now that Smart has said his apologies and will soon serve the last of his suspension, the next step will be to get back on the court and show that what happened at Texas Tech is behind him.
“He'll be fine,” Blackmon said, “just like I was fine.”
Yes, even though Blackmon's actions cost him a future in baseball, he still has a life to be proud of. He is a father, a businessman who owns an insurance company, a productive citizen by any measure.
And while he knows what happened back in 1987 changed his baseball career for the worse, he's every bit as certain that it made him a better person.
“It made me stronger and more resilient,” he said. “The scar tissue has been covered.”
Jenni Carlson can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.