Baseball Still A Labor Of Love For Some In Black Community

By Drew Sharp
Updated: July 11, 2005

DETROIT — The last time Major League Baseball brought its midsummer spectacle to Detroit, various urban pockets pulsated with excitement.

Kids armed with little more than their imaginations enjoyed the nuances of a sport now branded as hopelessly out of touch with the modern youthful spirit.

The 1971 All-Star Game was an opportunity to take an old white T-shirt, cut off the sleeves, apply a little magic marker, place it over a black T-shirt and create a vintage Pittsburgh Pirates’ Roberto Clemente “jersey” that you proudly showed off to your masochistic American League friends.

There was a simple love for the game that’s been lost over time, especially within the black community.

Darryl Ott is familiar with the alarming figures.

The number of black major leaguers dropped below 10 percent last year for the first time in more than a generation, an embarrassment with roots at the rudimentary level. If you can’t get kids even remotely excited about the game at 10, there’s little chance they’ll stick with it wanting to improve their skill level at 14.

“The problem is two-prong,” said Ott, who has practically become a one-man organizational force within the Southfield youth leagues. “There’s a lack of money as well as a lack of love for the game. There’s only so much you can do regarding the money, but anyone can step up and try to bring the love back into this game. And I thought that’s been my primary role through this process, getting these kids excited about the game again.”

Ott, 53, is a testament to the infinite reach of one individual.

He saw the game that he and his family loved suffering from inattention within the black community. Ott sought to change that, start a youth league team in Detroit, but he grew disenchanted with the quality of the fields and the language of the participants.

So, eight years ago, Ott looked to Southfield and created the Indians, a team open to all but primarily built as a lure for 10 and 11-year-old black kids.

The Southfield Indians have blossomed from a single team that was basically a competitive laughingstock to a successful youth program with three teams for ages 10-15.

There are similar resurrections of youthful exuberance in assorted segments of Detroit. Where once grew only weeds of neglect, now are manicured fields.

Aware of the dwindling numbers of black ballplayers, Major League Baseball stepped up its youth program financial commitment, taking over the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program nearly 15 years ago. The City of Detroit received $1 million eight years ago, earmarked for upgrading the more dilapidated neighborhood diamonds.

There are now more than 100 youth baseball teams in Detroit, a significant improvement from 10 years ago.

That’s fine, but that’s only part of the solution. The abandonment of baseball isn’t racially exclusive — ask most 13-year-olds of all cultural backgrounds these days, and they’ll label the game as too slow.

Sports today are fighting each other for the attention of the 13-year-old. Coaches demand full dedication. Commitment is no longer seasonal with off-season football weight training and summer basketball camps.

“Thirteen- and 14-year-olds are now forced to decide which sport they want to play and completely devote themselves to that sport,” said Ott, “and black kids are going to be more easily swayed to basketball and football because of the way those sports are marketed toward them.

“Where are the role models in baseball? You’ve got LeBron James making big money right out of high school with big impact in the NBA. You’ve got Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick at quarterback and getting big attention in the NFL.”

And where’s baseball’s strongest influence?

Accessible only through his Web site, Barry Bonds skulks around with a cloud of suspicion over his head: Did he compromise the integrity of the all-time home run record chase by using steroids? Without question, there would be more neighborhood buzz for Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Comerica Park if Bonds’ health and reputation were fully intact.

Major League Baseball offered up Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, as a guest speaker at a community outreach rally Saturday night at Greater Grace Temple on Detroit’s west side.

But you wonder how many of the kids in attendance even knew of her father’s significance.

The commissioner’s office and the Tigers sponsored the event, but only after Greater Grace pastor Bishop Charles Ellis feverishly petitioned them.

“Coming to Detroit,” said Bishop Ellis, “I thought that it was important that Major League Baseball actually touch urban America. I’m sure the events they’re holding near the stadium are great, but they all have a corporate feel to it. They’re actually touching the community here.”

But can it leave a lasting impression?

That’s up to coaches like Ott, who selflessly offer their time and wisdom, and to parents who encourage their kids to push themselves toward their aspirations. The numbers will inch back upward in due course. There’s more than likely another 13-year-old future Willie Horton somewhere on the city’s ballfields who’ll bypass the shoulder pads for a glove and eye black.

But it’s not like it was when we were growing up — and it never will be again.

Baseball was our true love. We altered the rules to accommodate the number of players you had.

We sometimes played with teams of two or three. We made the neighbor’s garden to the right an out. And any ball rolling off the garage from the house across the alley in what was centerfield was playable — if the sole outfielder was fast enough, and willing to dive over the gravel, to get it.

Most now would happily settle for a modest infatuation.