- - Thursday, May 25, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Major League Baseball has been searching for the formula to revive interest in the game among young black Americans. Commissioner Rob Manfred has repeatedly referred to diversity on the field as one of his priorities. In a recent comment reiterating the importance of Jackie Robinson to the game, he said: “Major League Baseball is proud to honor Jackie’s legacy and is committed to engaging all groups of young people, especially African-American youth, in our sport.”

That comment came in February, after a report showed the number of black players on major league rosters fell to 8.3 percent last season — down from a high of 19 percent in 1986.

“We are particularly focused on growing our grass roots and development programs and, most importantly, making sure kids have fun playing our game through the Play Ball initiative,” Manfred said. “Over the past few years, there has been real growth in both participation numbers and diversity percentages in the draft. Engaging youth from all backgrounds has been one of my top priorities as commissioner.”

Well, he might want to look in Largo, Md., where Prince George's Community College baseball coaches David “Buddy” Foster and Jimmy Williams have found what baseball is searching for — young black athletes embracing baseball.

Not just embracing the game, but playing championship baseball.

On Saturday, the PGCC Owls will play in their second National Junior College Athletic Association Division III World Series in three years, after coming back to defeat Surry Community College last week 11-9 to win the Division III District championship.

The Owls, under Foster and Williams, posted a 33-13-1 record this season and will open the World Series Saturday in Greenville, Tennessee, as a sixth-seed facing third-seed Tyler Junior College.

When Foster took over as head coach six years ago, the school was coming off a 2-72 record compiled over two seasons.

They are doing this with a roster that is 60 percent black, according to Foster.

“It’s a challenge,” Foster said.

It’s an understatement.

Finding young  black men interested in playing baseball at any competitive level these days is the challenge, but somehow Foster has found them, with the help of the former longtime head coach at PGCC and now his assistant coach, former career minor league star and fixture in the black baseball community, Jimmy Williams.

There’s no magic formula. His success has been finding young men in small towns throughout the south looking for opportunities.

“First thing I wanted to find players who would change the culture and compete — not necessarily win, but put a competitive team on the field, and build off that,” Foster said.

“I really had to go out of the area. Because the program wasn’t very good, it was hard to get Maryland kids. So I went down south to Florida, even Puerto Rico for kids looking for an opportunity to play. I found some kids who couldn’t play for the Florida jucos, but who still wanted an opportunity to play.”

He found Brandon Crosby, an infielder-outfielder who batted .438 this season with 47 RBI and 45 stolen bases in 47 games, in Richmond, Va. “Coach has always been interested in me since high school. I went to Spartanburg Methodist College, and it didn’t work out there, so I came to PGCC.

“It gave me another chance to stay in school and play ball,” Crosby said. “They were the only ones that wanted me. We have a special group of guys. We have a lot in common. I played since I was 2 years old. I played basketball and football. Baseball was my love. I wake up thinking about it. I’ve got to have it. I am 20 years old.”

He found Dakota McFadden in North Carolina — an outfielder-pitcher with 11 home runs, 60 RBI and also batting .438 in 47 games played. “I started out at another community college back home but things didn’t work out there,” he said. “I had stayed in touch with Coach Foster. He said I still had a place on the team, and I haven’t looked back since.

“I played since I was 4 years old and never stopped playing,” McFadden said. “I played football and basketball. I had a scholarship to play college football, but I turned it down to play baseball.”

The stories of Crosby and McFadden are too rare, but they are the ones that young black Americans — the ones baseball is trying to recruit — should see and hear.

“These kids need to come out and see some good college baseball,” Williams said. “We have a pretty good diverse team. That is what they need to see. That pro ball, that is too far ahead for them.”

But Prince George's Community College baseball — it’s right there for them to see in their backyard — a World Series contender.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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