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Tuesday, April 1, 2008 | Another baseball season is here, and the beauty of another San Diegan’s game is featured prominently in “Sports Illustrated.”
No surprise there.
After all, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, a Mt. Carmel High alumnus and former first-round draft pick of the New York Mets, labeled San Diego high school baseball “The Factory” for its history of producing prospects.
The latest San Diegan to grace the magazine’s pages warranted an eight-page spread from the editors in the March 10 issue. Never mind he can’t hit a curveball or that his baseball career ended with Little League in San Diego’s Oak Park community.
Kadir Nelson can’t play the game, but he can paint it.
The Crawford High alum’s strokes of the field in oil paintings are as majestic as anything Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn perfected on it. “SI” features work from his new book, “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.”
Word is editors even considered making Nelson the cover story, although it instead picked North Carolina basketball player Tyler Hasbrough. Still, the editors found a spot for Nelson on the cover with what’s called in the trade an “inset” in the upper left corner.
Such prominent placement prompted a phone call from Terry Brown, a former director of the Society of Illustrators.
“He said not too many people get on the cover of Sports Illustrated without scoring a point,” Nelson said with a laugh.
“I guess that’s true. I wasn’t expecting that much. I thought maybe just one of the “Leading Off” section photos. Sports Illustrated is the epitome of a sports magazine. It’s pretty amazing.”
Just like the strokes of his brush.
Nelson, 33, is an acclaimed artist whose clients include the likes of Spike Lee and Will Smith. He’s even worked with Steven Spielberg and Debbie Allen in visual development for the movie, “Amistad.”
Nelson’s been honoring the dignity and passion of Negro League players since his college-age years at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn when he was first commissioned to do paintings of Negro Leagues legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.
His research motivated more study of the Negro Leagues and more paintings. The 2004 national tour “Shades of Greatness” sponsored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City featured three pieces of his work: Big Rube, Low and Away and Willie Foster and Young Fans.
Nelson says he wants his oil paintings to serve as an account of how the players traveled the country, the segregation they faced and their hardships and triumphs.
When Padres owner John Moores learned of Nelson’s work, he commissioned paintings of Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn, the franchise’s two Hall-of-Famers. The portraits hang in the administrative offices.
He painted Winfield — in a Padres 1970’s mustard-and-brown uniform — and Gwynn — seated with a bat on his shoulder. The Gwynn pose is similar to an old painting of Babe Ruth that had inspired Nelson.
“It’s a little intimidating when you’re painting someone who is living and is going to see it,” Nelson said. “There was a little pressure.”
Before he started the painting, Nelson said Winfield, a mammoth man, smiled at him and said, “Make sure you get it right.”
Of the Gwynn painting, Nelson said, “He’s a great batter showing off the tools of his trade. I heard he said I made him look more muscular than he was, but I don’t think he minded.”
A Nelson painting of another San Diegan, Hoover High alumnus Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, hangs at the Hall of Champions (my day job). It was commissioned by Williams’ old friend, Bob Breitbard, founder of the Hall of Champions.
Williams is on one knee in the on deck circle, studying the field with two bats resting on his shoulder. His figure looms over smaller images of teammates in the dugout.
“Ted is a larger-than-life figure,” Nelson said, “and I wanted to present him that way.”
But now that Nelson is on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” without scoring a point, next may be honors on an Olympic stage.
Nelson won the graphic award in the 2008 Sports Art Competition sponsored by the United States Olympic Committee and United States Sports Academy for his oil painting “Anatomy of Team Handball.”
The next phase of the competition is the international level, with the winner’s work displayed at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Once again, the budding San Diego sports legend made it there without scoring a point.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.