Monday, August 13, 2007

First of three parts.

It sounds like a punch line to one of those shortest-books-in-the-world jokes, but Florida Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis fails to see the humor. The book would be about the shrinking number of black American players in Major League Baseball.

“It’s definitely a problem,” said Willis, an All-Star left-hander. “It’s unfortunate.”

Willis belongs to an even more select group: black pitchers in the majors. One of his few mound contemporaries and another All-Star, C.C. Sabathia of the Cleveland Indians, went even further, telling reporters in April: “It’s not just a problem; it’s a crisis.”

In this, the 60th anniversary season of Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball, the dwindling participation of American blacks remains a hot-button issue, along with Barry Bonds’ run to the career home-run record and the ongoing steroid investigation.

It is a subject “that everybody in baseball thinks about and talks about,” Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten said.

As Robinson’s historic achievement was being celebrated in major league stadiums in April, a study by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sports revealed that American black players last season made up just 8.4 percent of the big league population, the lowest figure since such numbers have been tabulated. Only 3 percent of pitchers were black.

Participation has plummeted since the mid-1970s, when 27 percent of the players were American blacks. In 1995, it was 19 percent, still a robust figure compared with today.

The Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves, which represent predominantly black cities, had no black players on their Opening Day rosters this season. The high-profile New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox had one each, as did Sabathia’s Cleveland Indians. The Washington Nationals had three.

Whether it’s a problem, a crisis or merely a trend, it is evident throughout all levels of baseball. According to the NCAA, 6.1 percent of its Division I players in 2005 were black. Only one of the seven teams in the historically black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference had more black players than white players this season, according to a published report. Three of the 16 players on the Wilson High School baseball team, which just won its 15th straight D.C. Public League title, are black, even though coach Eddie Saah estimated the school’s enrollment at 55 percent black.

Jared Williams, a former baseball star at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, earned a scholarship to Wagner College in New York and now plays for the Charlotte County (Fla.) Redfish of the independent South Coast League. There, he has three black teammates, “and that’s the most I’ve ever played with since Little League,” he said.

A spotlight illuminates the subject this season because of its natural and somewhat ironic link with Robinson. But many involved in the game have been concerned about it for years.

Vida Blue, an All-Star pitcher in the 1960s and early 1970s, said of black pitchers in 2004: “They’re like dinosaurs.”

And also that year, Bob Watson, MLB vice president of field operations, said, “The stud player isn’t playing baseball anymore. He’s playing basketball and football.”

Black athletes have increasingly gravitated to those sports during the past 25 years. The NBA, fueled by a lineage of such stars as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, is where the glamour is. Or at least that’s the perception, and the league and its players are marketed accordingly.

The NFL does not promote individual stars to the same extent, but as an entity it is even more popular. Its black stars often are shown living the kind of life that young people would love to emulate.

Baseball players are paid more than pro football players and have longer average careers. There are more big league jobs for baseball players than pro basketball players. Yet baseball is seen by many young people as slow and boring. ESPN broadcast a story in which baseball players at a Florida high school said they were mocked by classmates for wearing their jerseys to class.

“Baseball lost the marketing war,” MLB’s Mr. Watson said in 2004. And the gap has widened even more.

Jimmie Lee Solomon, whose title of executive vice president for baseball operations makes him MLB’s highest-ranking black executive, said the rise of football and basketball starting in the 1960s meant that “all of a sudden, we’ve got competition from major sports predominantly populated by African-Americans, pulling them away from [baseball].”

Basketball, especially, “is perfectly suited to urban America,” he said. “If you go to an area that’s impoverished and you’re a city planner, you have a choice. Do you build a baseball diamond that takes up a lot of green space, that has a lot of maintenance costs, and you’ve got to buy gloves, balls and bats and hire somebody to mow and trim it? Or can you put blacktop down and put up a basketball goal?”

Mr. Solomon also noted that because relatively few scholarships are offered, baseball can’t provide the same financial assistance for college as football and basketball. And, he said, the “immediate gratification” of playing college basketball and football and then going directly to the pro level overwhelms the notion of spending several years riding buses in the minor leagues.

Baseball faces a tough challenge, but it is not standing by helplessly. Teams have what the Nationals’ Mr. Kasten calls “marketing initiatives” to raise baseball awareness in inner cities and among minority youth. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, started in 1989 and taken over by Major League Baseball in 1991, has provided thousands of black children the opportunity to play.

Perhaps the most visible example of the efforts is the Youth Baseball Academy, built and operated by MLB in Compton, Calif., an economically depressed area with a large black population. Mr. Solomon said more than 2,000 inner-city children have participated in the academy, which provides baseball and educational instruction, since it opened 16 months ago. Two graduates were drafted in 2006, Mr. Solomon said. They, along with two others, signed professional contracts. This year, Mr. Solomon said, five graduates were drafted.

The Atlanta Braves recently opened an academy, and plans are in the works for club-operated academies in the District, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami and perhaps Houston.

“The purpose is to reintroduce baseball in many respects to the inner city, to the urban environment,” Mr. Kasten said. “We think that will help.”

But the number of American blacks playing Major League Baseball continues to decline. Meanwhile, the participation of players from Central and South America, among them blacks, increased to a level of 29.4 percent last year, according to the Central Florida study.

Player Gary Sheffield of the Detroit Tigers created a stir in June by saying in GQ magazine that one reason baseball prefers Hispanics to American blacks is because they can “control” them better.

As politically incorrect as Sheffield’s comments sounded, they were supported by his Venezuelan teammate, Carlos Guillen. Then Minnesota Twins center fielder Torii Hunter told a radio network that Hispanics are cheaper to sign and that “10 years from now, you’ll see no blacks at all.”

Earlier this season, while getting dressed for a game in the visitors’ clubhouse at Camden Yards, Sheffield did not mention the Hispanic issue, but he did say, “You just don’t see black faces promoting [the game]. Nobody looks like them, nobody talks like them. I think Major League Baseball needs to get certain black players to tap into that market, show the positive side, get them out in the community. It’s a beautiful game.”

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, who was named the National League MVP last season when he led the majors in home runs and RBI, is a young black player who still remains fairly anonymous.

“You look at the marketing, you don’t see baseball players who are marketed that way [like basketball and football players],” Howard said before a game at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park recently. “The game isn’t brought to kids’ attention that much. When they turn on the TV and they see athletes, the athletes they see are either basketball players or football players for the most part. You don’t really see a lot of baseball players.”

Howard said there are exceptions, such as New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who receive their share of marketing opportunities. But not many. As for himself the 27-year-old Howard, who is playing in just his third season, recently got his first national endorsement — for Subway.

“I’m still kind of up and coming,” he said. “I don’t have the years that other guys have. When Derek Jeter goes somewhere, they know who he is. If I go somewhere, everybody doesn’t know who I am. Those guys have time in the league.”

The Marlins’ Willis, like other black American major leaguers, has gone into cities to talk to children and even buy equipment for them. He sees himself as an ambassador of baseball, spreading the joy of the game.

“I’m willing to sit down and talk with anybody with some sense, anywhere. But I can only tell you my experiences. I don’t want to come off as a know-it-all. You can take whatever message to want to take from that.”

By the same token, however, baseball “needs to do a better job promoting us in the game,” Willis said. “You see other athletes all over the place, like LeBron and Carmelo [Anthony]. Not only in the NBA, but in the NFL as well. You see other African-Americans, and they’re promoted all the time.”

Many think one reason fewer blacks are playing baseball is the lack of role models, a condition that has created a vicious cycle. Declining participation creates less interest among the black population, which in turn creates fewer marketing opportunities and less visibility, and on and on.

Some of it is bad luck. What if Ken Griffey Jr., who once stood a chance of breaking Hank Aaron’s career home-run record, had not suffered a string of debilitating injuries? Griffey’s outwardly sunny disposition would have made him a strong marketing entity. And what if Bonds didn’t have a sour disposition, not to mention the controversy surrounding his reported steroid use?

Mr. Solomon, for one, is not giving up.

“We’ve got to make our guys attractive to Madison Avenue — to both black and white kids,” he said. Part 2: MLB makes pitch to recruit Blacks Part 3 ‘Not what it used to be’

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