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Friday, November 15, 2013

No African-American Stars in 2013 World Series

"By the end, they had all left the postseason stage: Brandon Phillips and Michael Bourn, Coco Crisp and Justin Upton, David Price and Andrew McCutchen, Carl Crawford and Prince Fielder. The World Series arrived, and all the African-American stars in the playoff field were gone.

When the Boston Red Sox played the St. Louis Cardinals, not a single African-American threw a pitch or took a turn at bat. Quintin Berry, whose father is black, stole a base as a pinch-runner for Boston in Game 4. There were no other African-Americans on the rosters."

(Tyler Kepner. "A Most Valuable Player With an Invaluable Platform."
 The New York Times. November 14, 2013)

Black players from the United States made up 8.5 percent of opening day rosters this season, down from a peak of 19 percent in 1986, according to a study by Mark Armour from the Society of American Baseball Research. When the Major League Baseball opened this April, 18 teams had two or fewer African-American players on their roster, with the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees accounting for nearly 17% of the African-American population in baseball.

This spring, Commissioner Bud Selig appointed a 17-member diversity task force to study the issue. 

(Bob Nightengale, "Bud Selig to Create Task Force on Blacks in Baseball." 
USA TODAY Sports. April 9, 2013)

What Might Selig's Task Force Find?

1. Structural Issues

Houston manager Bo Porter says, "The allure of an immediate jump from the amateur ranks to the highest level -- as offered in an idealized version of the NFL and NBA -- makes the prospect of spending three or four years bouncing around the low minors less attractive." Yet, this may be true for young athletes of any color or ethnicity.

The path to the big time is slower in baseball, but why don't more people associated with baseball trumpet two facts -- the number of players who get paid is far larger than the NBA and the money is 100 percent more guaranteed than the NFL?

2. Exclusion of Those Without the Means and Mobility to Participate

The cost and time commitment for travel baseball is a big negative in the black community. Standard operating procedure in youth baseball now allows parents of supposedly "elite" kids to abandon the commonality of Little League, and place their children with travel teams that play as many as 130 games a year. This has created a closed society contingent on year-round participation and mammoth parental involvement. It is becoming more and more a sport for the rich who can afford to travel.

The popularity of traveling teams is based on the questionable theory that the more a player pays (in actuality, the more his or her parents pay), and the farther he or she travels, the better the player will become. These players also get the most exposure with direct access to the inside world of showcases and high-profile tournaments

"The committee members need to see the industry of youth baseball for what it has become: A business enterprise designed to exclude those without the means and mobility to participate. Over the past 15 to 20 years, the proliferation of pay-for-play teams in youth baseball -- and the parallel proliferation of parents willing to pay for them and coaches willing to cash their checks -- has had more of an impact on African-American participation than anything another sport has to offer."

(Tim Keown, "What the MLB Committee Will Find. April 19, 2013)

Senior ESPN writer Tim Keown explains:

"They are the ones who enter high school, usually a wealthy suburban high school, with the buzz that makes coaches take notice. They're the ones who are seen by scouts at the $500-a-day Perfect Game showcases attended by more scouts than have seen an Oakland public high school baseball game in the past 10 years combined ... They're the ones whose families can withstand the prohibitive scholarship limit in college baseball that allows for only 11.7 full rides to spread themselves -- in a miraculous, loaves-and-fishes way -- across 35 players."

(Tim Keown, "What the MLB Committee Will Find." April 19, 2013) 

Bryce Harper, baseball's version of LeBron James, starting playing when he was 9. Harper was paid  to play in the best travel-ball tournaments. Keown says teams that wanted his services would buy him and his parents airline tickets to fly to a tournament. They would pay for a rental car. They would pay for their lodging. "It's a model that is repeated with advanced or prematurely mature kids across the country as uber-wealthy team "owners" -- yes, they call themselves owners -- collect trophies and stroke their egos," Keown reports.

3. Lack of Community Support

Related in part to reason #2, another possible explanation is that playing baseball requires greater community involvement than other sports. Basketball involves a small number of participants, a hoop, and a ball. Community and school leagues are widespread. Organizing full-fledged football is a bit more complicated than basketball, but simple games of touch football are quick and easy to organize. The strong support in schools, with weekly games also serving as an important social gathering, may also contribute to the popularity of the sport.

If a community lacks the resources to organize local youth leagues, as well as travel leagues for exceptional adolescents, then potential baseball players may not have the opportunity to play baseball. And because of a lack of early exposure, even athletes who wash out of basketball and football don’t have an interest in playing baseball. 

Baseball needs to develop youth participation in urban areas because these kids need nice places to play the game. Pitcher C.C. Sabathia, among other prominent black baseball players, is working to help the cause. It is also important that these fields are well taken care of. This is where parent volunteering comes in. Besides, the kids are going to need plenty of coaches.

This could also be a way to give kids in urban areas another chance to go to college. For this to work both high schools and colleges would have to get involved and promote baseball in urban areas with fervor similar to their support of football and basketball.

4. Disappearing Playgrounds and Sandlots 

In recent years, the virtual disappearance of sandlot baseball– the informal, localized version of the national pastime– has come to symbolize the challenges facing the current generation of American youth. 

For some obvious reasons, it easier to play pickup games of football or basketball as a kid than to play baseball. While a pickup game of football only requires a ball and a few friends, and every YMCA and Boys and Girls Club has a basketball hoop, baseball takes more people and, increasingly, more money for equipment. While baseball can be played on a sandlot, it is not as easy to self-organize as basketball or football.

Christopher Loomis provides some wise explanations for the demise of sandlots:

"In charting the causes behind this trend, two schools of thought have emerged. According to some critics, the sandlot has no place in the life of today's hyper-organized, overcommitted, precociously ambitious child. Instead of the pick-up game, kids now compete on elite traveling teams, vying for a handful of college scholarships, and ultimately, a shot at the big leagues.

"On the other hand, there are those who blame the kids themselves. Seduced by computers, video games, and television, today's youth are allegedly inseparable from the air-conditioned, technological paradise that is the modern home.

"There is, however, a much simpler explanation for the decline of sandlot baseball: the sandlots themselves have disappeared."

(Christopher Loomis. "FAMILY- Sayonara, Sandlot: Pick-up Games Nowhere to be Found." February 14, 2008)


5. Loss of Popularity Through Media Coverage

Another reason more black athletes don't play baseball is that many of them don't grow up watching it. They don't watch it because there aren't many black players. Kids see these talented athletes like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Terrell Owens playing other sports and naturally want to mimic them. And college sports on television? Just consider this: college baseball is by far America's most under-covered sport.

Basketball and football are fast games while baseball is slower. Basketball and football place a premium on athleticism, which is glorified in shoe advertisements and in ESPN highlights.

When the NFL and the NBA have their annual drafts, it is a huge national television event, which makes it a draw for young athletes. Cubs President Theo Epstein says, “As far as perception goes, when kids watch football players and basketball players drafted, they are in the major leagues right away and watch them on television, while baseball is a slower process.”

(Cheryl Raye-Stout. "Looking for Jackie Robinson: Deciphering Baseball's Shocking Lack of Black Players." July 2, 2012) 

6. Judging the Ability to "Make It"

At Murphy High School in Mobile, Alabama, one of the biggest high schools in the state and one that carries a relatively balanced racial mix, former baseball coach Bryan Giles estimated that he had 10 black players in his 10 years at the school. His 1997 state championship team at Grand Bay included four black starters - three of which went on to play college baseball. One, Mark Woodyard, briefly played in the major leagues.

"In the Southeast, football is dominant," Giles says. "We're brought up thinking that the way to make it, a lot of times, is strictly through basketball and football, because the individual talents you have can be shown in those sports. Athleticism is shown more in sports like basketball and football."

Baseball places a premium on hand-eye coordination and specific skills that are only developed through repetition - hours in the batting cage, hundreds of pitches from the mound.

Because of that, Giles says, kids who don't play baseball at an early age aren't likely to be competitive at it later.

"Somebody asked if I thought I could take the best athlete in the school as a freshman who had never played baseball (and turn him into a player)," Giles reports. "My answer was, I think I could make him a center fielder, but I didn't think he could ever hit. I think you could take that same athlete who never played football and turn him into a football player in four years.

Giles continues, "Hitting a baseball is just so hard. No matter how good an athlete you are, it doesn't help you hit a baseball."

(Mike Herndon. "Why Are Numbers of African-American Baseball Players Declining?" 
Alabama Media Group October 06, 2013)

7. Rise of Latinos

In 1991 68% of major-league players were white. The percentage of white players slowly decreased until 1997 when it reached 58%. It seems that both black and white players are being replaced by Latinos. Now, some of these Latinos are Americans, but many of them are immigrants who were groomed in training camps in their home countries. Teams have found it cheaper to rely less on the amateur draft and sign players whom they can identify before other teams.

Tim Keown says much of the Hispanic influence in the major leagues amounts to jobs, opportunities, benefits. According to him if we've learned anything from every baseball book we've read or documentary we've seen, it's this: Baseball can't help but mirror society. So why should this be any different?

It's no coincidence that organizations with some of the best Latin scouting and development systems make the playoffs. Tim Kewon explains:

"Major league teams have invested heavily in player development in the DR and other Latin countries. The stories of the kids who arrive from the Dominican after playing years with a milk-carton glove and a tree-branch bat are dissolving into folklore. They might start out that way, but, as soon as they show promise, they're funneled into academies that are run like schools and funded by agents, scouts and coaches. The model is often predicated on advice from big league scouts. There is an emphasis on training and instruction, but very few (if any) games."

(Tim Keown, "Is Major League Baseball too Hispanic?" ESPN. October 4, 2011)

8. Lack of School Incentives

NCAA Division I schools are allowed only 11.7 baseball scholarships, and many fund fewer. Other sports like football (85 scholarships in the FBS) and basketball (13 in Division I) can offer more, which may be luring young athletes -- of all races, not just African-Americans -- away from the diamond.

(Mike Axisa. "MLB Creating Committee to Study Decline in African-American Players." 
CBS Sports. April 10, 2013)

Baseball is supported at most middle and high schools, but what incentives do coaches and players face? At most high schools, football is king, with basketball a close second. A coach who wants to keep his job will steer the best athletes to these sports. In addition, college recruiters have incentives for building strong relationships with high school coaches to encourage students to attend particular schools. In return, recruiters may offer favors to coaches—favors that MLB scouts cannot or will not offer in return.

("What Caused the Decline of African-Americans in Baseball?" April 30th, 2008)

9. A Reason That Occurred To Me

Baseball is a sport that demands patience and humility. Every superstar baseball player I have heard interviewed sooner or later admits the game "generates its own energy" and "rewards players who can sustain consistent performance while battling their imperfections." Try as they might, the absolute "best" hitters are successful at the plate 30-35% of the time, and the greatest pitchers win 70-80% of their games. Those figures represent Hall of Fame performers.

Just as soon as some phenom or veteran develops the temerity to stand atop his peers and crow about his success, things seem to mysteriously fall apart, and the game of baseball exacts its toll. Baseball discourages celebratory dances and "rah-rah's."

But, the youth of American, all youth, not just Afro-American kids, find it increasingly difficult to sustain superior performance in sports without token after token of achievement. And, kids find it increasingly difficult to take the sports field without the finest equipment, uniforms, and adornments. They actually believe they cannot play well unless they look good.

In my opinion, youth football sustains this attitude as does youth basketball. Yet, youth baseball AS IT IS MEANT TO BE PLAYED, NOT NECESSARILY AS IT IS PLAYED NOW, must discourage vain glory. Baseball should not be played to "show up" or "slaughter" opposition. Baseball should not honor "trash talk" and "smash mouth" tactics. 

Without great crowds exhorting junior to take the laurels of victory, young baseball players see the American pastime as a secondary sport with lackluster rewards. Any real payoff in money or stardom is not immediate.

The youth of America need to learn the benefits of baseball for what they really are -- using the brain and body to compete and to adapt within an enigma based on team and individual performances. Baseball helps mold successful human beings under the umbrella
 of a dignified, demanding sport, a sport unwilling to surrender 
its humble allegiance to the actual game.

So many great Afro-American players of the past have understood the daily struggles within the sport. Facing these challenges gave them great determination and the edge to overcome tremendous adversity. More than any other sport, baseball has defined the brave, unpretentious Afro-American athlete. From Jackie Robinson to Bob Gibson to Willie Mays to Ernie Banks to Hank Aaron to  Andrew McCutchen, this year's National League MVP -- the baseball players have graced the sport.

I am certain baseball can and will attract more Afro-American athletes. The times in which we live now seem to cater to showmanship, the ego, and the almighty dollar. Major League Baseball is a reflection of this, no doubt. But baseball, the game, needs the soul of the American athlete to regain its prominence and its due respect. As philosophies personal image matter less, baseball will grow. When a single is again as important as a homer and when a strikeout becomes a mark of embarrassment, not just another out, players will return to a field where consistency counts over a long, long season.

"During my 18 years I came to bat almost 10,000 times.  I struck out about 1,700 times and walked maybe 1,800 times.  You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 at bats a season.  That means I played 
seven years without ever hitting the ball."

  ~Mickey Mantle, 1970

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