CLEMSON — It came up from there, on Federal Street in Burlington, N.J. The sound of celebration. The Los Angeles Dodgers were World Series champions, and on this October morning in 1963 the Meredith family, which would yield a future Clemson star, paraded through the streets, clanging pots and pans, shrieking with joy.
The Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn in 1958, but to the Merediths — and African-American families everywhere — they’d always be the home team. They were Jackie Robinson’s team. Sixteen years after Robinson broke the sport’s color barrier and seven years after he retired, Dodger blue was their color and baseball was their sport.
Less than a year after marching in the parade, Margaret — who later adopted the surname Diggs — gave birth to the family’s newest Dodgers fan. And on the diamond, Tracey Meredith found a piece of what Robinson had found: that the color of your skin didn’t matter when you took a big lead off first and made off for second, cleats kicking up dirt behind you, in a race against the catcher and his arm.
And he found something else. Tracey’s mother and father lived about five minutes away in a home around the block — Tracey lived with his grandmother — but they joined everyone in the stands when he slipped on his glove and trotted out to center field.
It was the sport’s connective power he hoped to pass on to his youngest son. And he did. Tracey and Kier were best friends, and together they mapped out a plan to show others how the game could bring people closer together.
First, they needed name recognition. Kier, a talented outfielder who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs out of high school, accepted a scholarship to play at Clemson.
But then Kier’s career stalled. He got injured, over and over again. He lost his smile — the smile that looked so much like his father's.
And then Tracey got sick.
‘He made a home down there’
Burlington is about 20 miles outside Philadelphia, and when the Dodgers came to town during Tracey’s childhood, he tagged along with his uncle and his cousin to the old Connie Mack Stadium.
He mimicked his heroes during pickup games with his aunt Wendy. This was before access to pricey travel ball teams and showcases separated the baseball haves from the have-nots. All they needed was a wooden bat, a pink rubber ball and a can of spray paint to sketch the strike zone.
Wendy, the younger sister of Diggs, was technically Tracey’s aunt, but given their nine-year age difference they were more like siblings. They spent hours playing at the William R. Allen School, a segregation-era building erected in 1900 for black students in Burlington.
Years later, Wendy would regale Kier with tales of his father’s athletic feats. Kier couldn’t believe it. Indeed, before Tracey’s health faltered, he was agile and lithe — almost as fast as Kier. "Smooth Mere," they called him.
His mind was an asset, too. A strong student with an affinity for math and chess, he applied his logic and probability skills to baseball.
He earned a baseball scholarship to Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C. Diggs worried. She had heard horror stories about the South. Her mind flashed to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago who in 1955 was brutally murdered in Mississippi by two white people.
“That scared me to death,” Diggs said. “But he was determined to go. And he loved it down there, and he made a home down there.”
After college he was a frequent patron of the highways connecting his new Winston-Salem, N.C., home to Burlington, coming up for holidays and birthdays and high school baseball games. His affection for youth sports remained true as he aged. His heart sank when the Winston-Salem and Burlington youth baseball leagues shut down.
As African-American participation in the sport declined, Tracey hatched a plan. His boy would be his conduit. Once Kier made a name for himself, they would build a baseball facility in Winston-Salem, with instructional sessions and coaches and a beautiful field.
And maybe more kids would feel the transformative power of the game Tracey did.
'The mustard on the fried fish'
Lying in a hospital bed, Tracey asked Kier’s baseball coach a favor: If something bad were to happen to him, Tracey pleaded, to please make sure Kier kept playing baseball.
Tracey’s health was declining. He was a diabetic, and in 2007 he developed mucormycosis, a potentially fatal fungal infection in his mouth. He was treated with medication so potent he suffered kidney failure and was put on dialysis.
His heart stopped beating during facial reconstruction surgery. A tracheotomy in his throat obstructed by mucus cut off his breath. His heartbeat stopped immediately. The doctors brought him back to life, but the incident frightened his family.
“We didn’t know how long he’d be around,” Kier said.
Improbably, Tracey recovered. He left the hospital behind. He had always been a man on the move — when he first met his wife, Kiana, his license plate read ‘LETSGO’ — and he poured himself into Kier, driving him to tournaments up and down the Southeast.
Kier starred at Glenn High School, and, like his father, accepted a scholarship to play baseball.
Tracey loved Clemson.
The tailgates especially won his heart: People from different backgrounds coming together to bond over sports, food and one another’s company.
He finally convinced everyone from Burlington to come down the weekend of April 21, 2018, for Clemson’s series at Wake Forest. Years of lingering health issues had diminished his strength, so Wendy and his sister, Joi Diggs, helped him load his fish fryer into his black 2016 Hyundai Tucson and ready the parking lot for the tailgate.
Tracey fried the fish himself. The Merediths were joined by parents and grandparents of other players, most of whom were white, and they all mingled and ate and laughed.
Wendy passed on a culinary trick to a new friend from the South. In Burlington, Wendy told her, they put mustard on their fried fish. It was a hit.
"She tried it for the first time," Wendy said. "She said, 'I can't wait to get back home and tell 'em about the mustard on the fried fish.'"
Tuesday was the two-year anniversary of the gathering. Wendy teared up as the memories flowed back. She found a photo: There was Tracey, his hands stuffed in the front of his purple pullover, forcing a half-smile but not showing teeth.
Soon he would be back in the hospital. But on that day Kier was in the lineup, and his whole family was together — his Burlington family and his Clemson family. The scent of his fryer filled the lot.
“It smelled like heaven,” Wendy said.
'End of the earth.'
The amputation of his left big toe wasn’t going to stop Tracey from seeing Kier.
Before the surgery, he often hopped in his car and drove the three-and-half hours to Clemson, sometimes turning back around the same day. Before he went home, Tracey always left Kier with a message:
“I’m proud of you.”
He was determined to deliver that line in person March 2, 2019, a week removed from the amputation. Kiana pushed back. He wasn’t fit to drive, she said.
Kier told him it wasn’t worth it; he wasn’t even in the lineup. His injury history was ever expanding: A hamate fracture (hand), a dislocated right shoulder, a pair of oblique strains (abdomen) and a left quad pull (thigh).
But Tracey kept coming down, including on that Saturday in early March. Kiana did the driving, and afterwards they posed for a photo with Kier and his girlfriend. Tracey rested his arm on his son’s shoulder. He forced a weak smile, this time big enough to flash his bottom teeth.
It was the last Clemson game Tracey would attend.
“He would travel to the end of the earth to watch that boy play baseball,” said Bobby Kimbrough, Tracey’s college roommate.
Later that summer Tracey was back in the hospital. His kidneys were failing. Though Kier was considering leaving the game behind — the injuries had grinded his spirit — he was optimistic about his father: "Dad's a fighter," he told Kiana.
“Maybe he was trying to convince himself,” Kiana said later.
Aug, 11, 2019, was a Sunday. Kier was getting ready for church when he received the text from his mother: "He’s gone."
Tracey's official cause of death was beriberi, a disease triggered by a vitamin B-1 deficiency. About a week later Tracey appeared in Kier’s dream, riding a bicycle and offering a message: "Ever since I died, everything’s been so much better."
Kier’s eyes jolted open. He grabbed his phone and started to dial his father’s number.
“Then (I) realized: ‘Wait, you can’t call him,’” Kier said. He realized, too, he couldn’t quit the game. “The last eight months of his life all he did was fight. So who would I be to not fight for something we both loved?”
The day before he died, Tracey informed those gathered around his bed he wanted to go to the movies. “Let’s go,” he told Kiana, again and again. His strength didn’t allow for a trip.
But Kimbrough, who had just been elected neighboring Forsyth County’s first African-American sheriff — Tracey introduced him to influential people in different parts of town — found a metaphor in his best friend’s request.
Kimbrough elaborated at Tracey’s funeral. He believed Tracy had, indeed, gone to the “movies.” The theater offered a live look at goings on below.
Kier was the protagonist. And there was much still to be done.
'I'm proud of you'
Diggs brought a plant home from her son’s funeral.
She waters it daily, and makes sure it gets plenty of sunlight. The wandering jew is overflowing in its basket, its vines stretching to the purple-carpeted floor in Diggs’ Burlington, N.J., home.
Every morning, after she plops down in her burnt orange Italian leather recliner, Diggs yanks open the curtain and talks to the plant, because it reminds her of someone special. She calls it Tracey.
“I’ll always have that plant,” she said.
Growing up, Tracey called Diggs his “other mom.” She was 20 when she gave birth to him, and he lived with her mother, Emma Meredith, until he left for college. He was her first born, though. He called her every morning on his way to work, and she still texts him everyday; Kiana's kept his phone line active.
His death hit hard. But Diggs has found a reason to get out of the house.
On Feb. 12, she woke around 6 a.m. and shuffled downstairs like she does every morning. She clicked on the TV and flipped to MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Leaning back in her recliner, her feet pointed toward the sky, she said hello to Tracey.
She had some exciting news. Clemson’s season opener was two days away. She had a plane ticket.
“I’m gonna go down to see Kier,” she said.
About a month later the spread of the coronavirus would render the nation on pause, resulting in the cancellation of Clemson’s baseball season after just 17 games.
The virus is so contagious families have limited access to loved ones in the hospital.
“God forgive me,” Wendy said. “But if (Tracey) had to go, I’m glad he went when he did, because there was no way we weren’t gonna be there.”
Kiana wonders how Tracey would manage during the crisis, which has forced many Americans to quarantine in their homes. What would he do without a baseball season? He was most at peace watching the boy he loved play the game he loved around the people he loved.
Diggs knew that. That’s why she boarded a flight and joined Kiana at Doug Kingsmore Stadium on Feb. 14 as Clemson opened the season against Liberty. Kier cried bittersweet tears when he heard the national anthem before the game. This was the start of an unfamiliar era. But he felt free. He looked up at the message written on the bill of his cap: "I'm proud of you."
He got on base all five of his at-bats, setting the tone for what would be a splendid season: He finished the abbreviated campaign with a .364 batting average, .455 on-base percentage and .455 slugging percentage.
In the fifth inning of the Tigers' season opener, he reached on a fielder’s choice and later rounded third base and headed home.
Kiana — sitting along the first base line: section UJ, row B, seat 8 — had a clear view of her son as he touched home plate. She felt a rush in her stomach; goosebumps dotted her arms. Kier’s face lit up, just like his father's used to.
Kier had found his smile.