- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Washington Nationals open a three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday, also the team’s second annual “Black Heritage Night,” a celebration of black Americans’ contributions to baseball.

Uh-oh. Perhaps this column should have a blinking road sign right here, something like “Race Ahead: Proceed With Caution.”

You might be aware that baseball was once a popular choice among black pro athletes, who constituted about 27 percent of major leaguers in 1975. You also might be aware of the precipitous drop, to 8.5 percent on Opening Day rosters this year, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.

However, you might not know if the decline is troubling or if you should care. For everyone who loves baseball, the correct answers are ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’

Major League Baseball is worse off when it loses out on athletes who could have been tremendous players. Think of the moments and memories created by Ken Griffey Jr. and Dwight Gooden, Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, Torii Hunter and CC Sabathia. If instead they took to the hardwood or gridiron, we would have been deprived of their exploits on the diamond.

The NBA and NFL have plenty of black players — more than 80 percent and 60 percent, respectively — including some would-be All-Stars and might-be Hall of Famers if they had opted for baseball.

Commissioner Bud Selig and other MLB leaders shouldn’t concede top athletes to other sports.

That’s a dereliction of their duty to provide the best possible product, which clearly wasn’t the case before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947.

“Exposure is the key,” said Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker, sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Nationals Park.

“You see a lot of guys in baseball whose fathers were ballplayers. They were introduced to the sport at a very, very young age.

“Once you fall in love with baseball, most times you remain in love with baseball. The hard part is falling in love with baseball at an older age. Then it appears slow.”

MLB has had tremendous success in stoking the love affair between baseball and Hispanic players, many of whom view it as their ticket out of poverty like black youth view football and hoops.

And when little Hispanic boys scan the rosters of major league teams, there’s a sea of players to imitate, players who look like them and speak like them.

That’s not the case for little black boys, especially if they look on the mound, where I count just five black starters: the Yankees’ Sabathia, Tampa Bay’s David Price, St. Louis’ Edwin Jackson, Pittsburgh’s James McDonald and Cincinnati’s Dontrelle Willis.

“The reason I picked up a baseball is because of Dave Stewart,” said Willis, the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year, who was an 11-year-old in Oakland when Stewart began a string of four 20-win seasons for the Athletics.

“Being an African-American pitcher and seeing him do what he was doing with the talent he had, I said that’s who I want to emulate my game after.”

Maybe you’re unconvinced there’s a problem here, content to watch without complaint the best players on the field, be they white, black or polka-dot.

But it’d be a shame if, say, polka-dot players had a rich history since being allowed to play, but they slowly vanished from the diamond, choosing other sports and demonstrating outstanding athleticism that could carry over to baseball and increase our enjoyment.

Forget about the pro contracts and college scholarships that go to a select few.

The benefits of baseball — like any sport — go far beyond potential paychecks and financial aid, and that should be the focus when encouraging youth to play.

Like other sports, baseball offers fun and valuable experience in commitment, sacrifice, perseverance and sportsmanship.

It’s another worthwhile option for organized activity, a fine alternative to football and basketball, even though those sports are considered way cooler.

Baseball’s job is to promote the sport and compete for those youngsters who don’t think it’s cool and don’t ever try it.

That’s what advocates of “minor” sports do, always on the lookout for prospects.

At this very moment, the next great fencers could be waiting for an introduction to the sport.

Even if they never win Olympic gold, their lives — and fencing — will be enriched by their participation.

Likewise, baseball is enriched when its net is cast as wide as possible.

MLB once fought to keep blacks out.

Now it should fight to reel them in, so the celebrations can continue.

• Deron Snyder can be reached at deronsnyder@gmail.com.

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