Diamonds Glitter Even Less in Black Community

By Off the BASN Sports Wire by David Steele
Updated: April 9, 2005

BALTIMORE, MD.—THE BAD news is, the Orioles managed to open this season without a single American-born black player.

The good news is that their rivals down the road don’t have much to brag about; the Nationals only have two black players on their roster. So there.

Wait a minute. Let’s try that again …

The good news is that the Orioles are hardly worse off than any other team since the number of black players in the majors overall is nosediving toward levels not seen since the early days of integration. In fact, the percentage of black managers this year (13 percent, four of 30) is higher than that of players in 2004 (9 percent)!

Uh, that didn’t work, either …

The good news is that none of this should adversely affect young African-American ballplayers because there aren’t many out there to worry about it.

Ah, never mind. Forget the “good news” angle. This news stinks, about the Orioles and the entire sport.

Sociologist Richard Lapchick’s annual Racial and Gender Report Card, released yesterday, lays out the facts simply. The 9 percent figure is the lowest recorded since the report was first issued in 1983, and it’s down from nearly 30 percent a quarter-century ago.

The place once owned by American blacks has been overtaken by players from Latin countries – some black, some not, but all raised and promoted under differing circumstances and in far greater numbers than players born here.

And by “here,” we mean, in large part, the cities, like Baltimore, which once produced black major leaguers, served as home to the best of them (hello, Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray and all the rest) and supported them in person and in spirit.

Now, none of this applies. Baseball isn’t black America’s national pastime, not even close.

Which raises two questions for which many have searched for years for answers: Why is that, and what can be done about it?

The first question is easier. “You’ve got to have a bat, you’ve got to have a ball, you’ve got to have a glove, you’ve got to have a field, you’ve got to have role models,” legendary Patterson High coach Roger Wrenn put it yesterday.

“What [Baltimore youngsters] see is NBA superstars like Allen Iverson and they see the Ravens. Then they look at baseball and say, ‘Where’s me?’ ”

Worse, Wrenn said, the kids who do want to play see diamonds in wretched states of disrepair, if they see any at all. They see that the game has moved to the suburbs.

Baltimore has been fortunate not to have its high school varsity programs close en masse, but none of the schools has a JV this year, not even Patterson, which until this season was able to find outside financing for one.

Thus, baseball is lucky to be an afterthought to kids growing up in places like Baltimore, D.C., New York, Atlanta, L.A., and Oakland. Generations of great athletes have funnelled their skills and desires into sports that are far more accessible and culturally relevant. Now, said Wrenn, there’s a “disdain for baseball in the community.”

Great, that’s all baseball needs. Disdain from Congress at one end, disdain from a formerly rich source of talent and support from another. No wonder athletes from Latin America and black America are passing each other on opposite escalators.

Speaking of which, black baseball lovers here – while straining not to begrudge the success of their Latin brothers – have howled for years that baseball’s sheer greed has created this situation.

Building baseball academies in nations like the Dominican Republic, fully-equipped facilities to literally grow prospects, has fed the Latin boom. But the game is driven to do so by economics: Players can be signed younger, cheaper and without subjecting them to the draft, as players are in the United States.

Which brings us to the answer to the second question. Baseball no longer seems tone-deaf to these complaints, and the proof is rising in Southern California. MLB is building an academy modeled on the ones in Latin countries, in Compton (yup, the one made famous by NWA), due to open late this summer. Ground will be broken Tuesday for a second academy in Atlanta.

“My dream,” said MLB senior vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon, “is to have baseball academies spring up in the shadows of every major league ballpark in the country.”

That includes, he said, Camden Yards and the Nationals’ future home on the Anacostia. “I think ultimately we’ll have one in both cities,” Solomon said, “especially if Baltimore and D.C. start competing. If Baltimore puts one in, D.C. will want one, and vice versa.”

The ideal result of this, of course, would be homegrown players on both teams, playing before crowds that have the diversity lacking today. “This ultimately is going to do good for our industry,” Solomon said.

Well, what do you know? There’s good news after all.