As Chris Singleton takes his position in the outfield at CSU Ballpark, over his shoulder looms the familiar Emanuel AME tribute — nine doves emerging from a palmetto tree.
One dove represents his mother, Sharonda Coleman- Singleton, one of the nine killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last June.
Chris sees the sign, which graces the fence in right-center field, every time he runs on to the field to play baseball for Charleston Southern.
It’s his own angel in the outfield.
“That’s a big thing for me and for everyone on the team,” Singleton said recently while sitting in the dugout at CSU. “It’s just so everyone remembers what went down last summer.”
What went down last summer shook a state — no, a nation — and reverberates to this day. Accused killer Dylann Roof still awaits trial, and presidential hopefuls barn-storming through South Carolina debate gun-control laws with Emanuel AME as the backdrop.
At bottom, though, what happened last summer robbed three Singleton children — Chris and his younger brother and sister — of their mother, and Goose Creek High School of a beloved teacher and coach.
While the younger Singletons live now with relatives and attend school in the Atlanta area, Chris is a sophomore at CSU, balancing his duties as a student-athlete with paying car taxes and family bills and preparing for his second college baseball season.
When it is all too much, Chris has often found himself at the ballpark. On one recent night, CSU coach Stuart Lake was about to send a pizza delivery car away when Singleton came sprinting out of the batting cages, cash in hand. Chris and a couple of teammates had ordered pizza to the ballpark so they wouldn’t have to leave.
“Some mornings, it’s hard for me when I wake up,” Chris said. “I have a picture of my mom on the wall, and that’s a big help. I come to the field a lot of times between classes to work on my game and get my mind off things, and that’s been a big help for me, too.”
Many people have extended a helping hand to Chris Singleton since his mother’s death, including a trio of pro athletes. NFL quarterbacks Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots have had the Singleton kids up for games, and New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner helped organize a special day for the Singletons at Yankee Stadium.
Many people also have donated to CSU’s Singleton Memorial Fund, which helps pay Chris’ college expenses, and will help fund a baseball enrichment center named for Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.
The pros have been generous with advice both practical and spiritual.
“My big thing was asking them, ‘How do I gain weight?’ said Singleton, who stands 6 feet tall and weighs 175 pounds. “But they all say, ‘Don’t worry, that will come. You need to just stay fast.’
“The other thing is, I saw how much fun they have playing their sport. And that’s one thing I want to do, is just keep having fun playing baseball.”
At Yankee Stadium last August, Yankees manager Joe Girardi approached Lake before batting practice.
“Girardi said, ‘We want Chris to hit, but we don’t want to embarrass him. Is he good enough to hit?’ ” recalled Lake. “I said, ‘Joe, he’s a baseball player.’ ”
Singleton hit two balls over the left-field wall during BP. Girardi told Lake, “Hey, he’s pretty good.”
The time spent with Cam, Tom and Brett has rubbed off — not just on Chris, but on the whole team, Lake said.
“No doubt,” Lake said. “He got to see how they are just people. Brett Gardner and those guys, they are just so normal, and Cam has been more involved with Chris than even I realized. It’s got to help.
“Heck, I get Chris to stand up and tell the guys — Hey, what does Tom Brady say about being prepared? I want all our guys to know what they’ve told Chris.”
Surely, there’s no Division I college baseball player who has undergone more changes since last season than Chris Singleton.
The Emanuel AME shooting and Chris’ impromptu speech the next night — in which he famously said, “Love is always stronger than hate” — transformed a promising freshman outfielder into a national figure.
A Sports Illustrated reporter recently spent a few days with Singleton, following him to classes and practice to prepare a profile on a kid who hit a modest .245 with one home run and 12 runs batted in last season.
Singleton flashed his potential in a 4-3 win at Clemson last year, when he went 4 for 5 with two doubles and two RBIs. He expects more of himself this season and understands that other people will, too.
“I know I have a little pressure on me,” Singleton said. “But I’m actually excited to play with that pressure. I’ve got a lot more people looking at me now, but I actually like that. I feel like I can do bigger and better things with people cheering for me the way they are now.”
It’s been a learning curve for Lake, too. Five years ago, CSU lost a player when pitcher Will Bedenbaugh was killed in a car accident. One of the first calls Lake received after the Emanuel AME shooting was from Bedenbaugh’s mother.
“She said, ‘Here’s the No. 1 thing — you will want to make it better immediately. You can’t,’ ” Lake recalled. “She said, ‘Just love him, give him time and be there for him.’ That’s what we’ve tried to do.”
Singleton knows that his story is part of history now, the way events such as the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 or the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia are part of history.
The Roof trial, political debates, the one-year anniversary next June — people will want to know what Chris Singleton thinks of all of it.
“I’m no politician,” is the way Singleton addresses the political.
As for the personal: “I’ve grown as a person, but I think I’ve also grown as a player. I think I’ve matured and learned a lot. The things I’ve been through in life, they’ve helped me learn a lot.”