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Killer Mike’s plan to save baseball

The Grammy-winning rap superstar spoke on baseball cards, Atlanta sports, his favorite Braves and what baseball could do to bring more fans to the ballpark

Killer Mike smiles with his three Grammy awards after the ceremony on Feb. 4 in Los Angeles. (Michael Buckner/Billboard via Getty Images)

ATLANTA — If you collected baseball cards as a kid, you never quite shake the fever. Sure, your life might move on from the days when you ripped open packs trying to find those Griffey or Jeter rookie cards. You might grow up, start a family, join the workforce, maybe even win a few Grammys — hypothetically, of course. But you never quite shake the love of tearing open a new pack. It's a way to connect to your past and to a sport, in a way that apps or TikTok videos can't ever replicate.

Killer Mike — real name Michael Render, multi-Grammy-winning musician, half of Run the Jewels, activist and rapper extraordinaire — knows a thing or two about cards, across all sports, and it doesn’t take much to get him to open up about the cards he chased while growing up in Atlanta.

“When I was a kid, I was a huge Braves fan,” Mike recalled to Yahoo Sports recently. “Collecting Dale Murphy, Bob Horner. Then, of course, in the ‘90s, you had [John] Smoltz, [Tom] Glavine, Andruw Jones, Deion Sanders. In football, old-school [Steve] Bartkowski. Basketball, of course, you had Dominque [Wilkins] and [Michael] Jordan. And even though they were Mets, I [liked] Darryl Strawberry and Dwight [Gooden].”

Mike came by his baseball card fandom honestly. His uncle worked for Topps, and Mike always had packs of free cards nearby in the ‘90s. They’re still at his grandmother’s house, “in pristine condition.” Now, in a nice bit of symmetry, Killer Mike is lending his booming voice to Topps, setting the stage for the release of Topps’ Series One 2024 cards:

Atlanta: So close to a championship city

The Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. adorns the Topps Series One box, which sits just fine with Mike. A fan of all things Atlanta, he'll happily discuss all the ways that Atlanta could be, should be, a championship city — and the way its stars ought to be national heroes.

“I hate that we had such good players, but we did not have the teams they deserved around them,” Mike says. “Like, Dale Murphy should be in the f***ing Hall of Fame right now.”

Like any Atlanta fan, Mike has thoughts on the Braves' run of almost-greatness in the '90s: “The Braves should have had five championships,” he says. “... Even now, I hate we lost Freddie [Freeman]. But with that said, I think the Braves stand the best chance of bringing us multiple championships.”

The new-look Braves might be Atlanta's most exciting team these days, but Mike carries a soft spot for the old-school Braves. “I loved when Ted Turner owned the Hawks and Braves, even though he couldn’t fill up every seat,” he says. “Ted gave a bunch of free tickets to Atlanta public schools. So if you were a kid doing reasonably good in school, you got to go to games for damn near free. So I’ve always admired Ted for that, you know what I mean? Because he understood … get the kids early, catch them in second, third grade.”

Rapper Killer Mike performs during the World Series championship celebration on Nov. 5, 2021, at Atlanta's Truist Park. (David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Rapper Killer Mike performs during the World Series championship celebration on Nov. 5, 2021, at Atlanta's Truist Park. (David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Baseball is in Mike’s blood and in his lineage. His grandmother moved to Atlanta from Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1950 and met Mike’s grandfather. “They loved the hell out of each other,” he says. “They raised three great grandkids, me and my sisters. They raised us in a great way.”

Baseball united the family. Mike’s grandmother regularly watched Turner broadcasts, and his grandfather taught him about the Negro Leagues and the dramatic effect that baseball had on his home region.

“He taught me how baseball affected the economy of the Black rural South,” Mike says. “When the barnstorming leagues would come through on the weekends, that was an economic upswing because whether you made pies or you cooked sandwiches to sell, there was that economy that was brought to these places. So my grandpa helped me understand not only the importance of the game and the Negro Leagues but the importance of commerce, too.”

That trend continues to this day in Atlanta; Mike believes baseball, in the form of Truist Park, is helping move the city forward. “Cobb County [the suburb that hosts Truist] used to be seen as kind of hokey, kind of backward even, in a way. People of color were quirky about Cobb County,” he says. “If you look at what baseball and commerce has brought there, it’s radically progressed that county. It’s not just some sleepy, little, sundown suburb anymore. It really is part of the bigger metro city.”

The flip side of that equation, of course, is that the Braves left the downtown Atlanta area — and that’s a micro version of what Mike believes is a macro problem for baseball.

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What baseball got wrong ... and what it could get right

“Baseball did a [terrible] job of keeping baseball in the inner city, to be honest with you,” Mike says. “When I got my first record deal, Major League Baseball was … cultivating talent. They were helping kids with after-school programs and [activities] like that. That program disappeared.”

The key, Mike believes, is reigniting that passion at the youth level. “If baseball was, to me, cultivating the imagination of kids in Chicago, kids in Atlanta, kids in Tampa, you know, like football does,” he says, “if they got back to that, they’d find kids would love the game again.”

He thinks personal connection is the key. “They start targeting kindergarten through third-graders to cultivate,” he says. “And I think you do that with after-school programs. You do that by getting kids out to the games free, by getting players back in elementary schools to say hello. And you cultivate and support good baseball programs. There are fine baseball programs in the Atlanta public school system, and they could use some major-league support. There’s fields everywhere!”

In the meantime, there are those Topps baseball cards — another way to hook kids on the game early. And for Killer Mike, there’s always Braves baseball, no matter what.

“We sat through the losing years. So, you know, you could talk me out of watching football some Sundays,” he says, laughing, “but you ain’t gonna talk me out of missing the Braves game.”