A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Floyd Wants To Pitch Baseball To Young Blacks
Cliff Floyd NEW YORK
NEW YORK— If you want to know why Cliff Floyd is a rarity, a black major-league ballplayer from the Chicago area, all you have to do is listen to him describe what it was like playing baseball as a kid in Markham.
“I’d go to other towns and neighborhoods and say, ‘Wow, I wish one day I could play on something nice like this field,”‘ said Floyd, a Met. “We’d go play baseball in those neighborhoods at 7 at night. We couldn’t do that in mine. You don’t play at 7 at night in the ‘hood, you know what I’m saying? It wouldn’t be good.
“Our concession stand got broken into every night. We could never get enough kids to go play. We’d have to forfeit games because kids didn’t show up. When they did show up, they’d be mad we lost. I was like, ‘Well, y’all never come to practice.’ “It was never anything to look forward to. Let’s face it: I don’t care who you are, you still know nice things and you still know what’s good for you. Having your own bat, shoes and uniform would make anybody happy.”
There are only a handful of black major leaguers who are originally from the area, including the Cubs’ Jerry Hairston of Naperville and St. Louis’ Ray King and Kansas City’s Emil Brown, both from Chicago. It’s a sad commentary on the state of baseball in the African-American community, but no sadder than looking in the stands during a major-league ballgame and seeing very few blacks in attendance.
Somehow, baseball has lost its way with African-Americans, and it’s a shame. There have been so many good players, first in the Negro leagues and then in the big leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Now only 9 percent of the players in the majors are black.
There are any number of theories about why this is, but baseball has missed out on a generation of talented black athletes who prefer basketball and see more opportunity in it, even though the odds of making the NBA are astronomical.
Major League Baseball is trying to make up for lost time with programs aimed at regrowing the sport in the inner city, but it’s slow going. It will take people like Floyd to help change the mind-set in the black community.
“I live in Florida now in the off-season,” said Floyd, who homered in the Mets’ 6-1 victory over the Cubs. “I have this discussion with my family all the time, and I say it’s not right for me to help in Florida. It’s not that I don’t want to. But I’m from Chicago. That’s my roots. Those are the kids I know. That’s the area I grew up in.
“I keep saying to myself, ‘One day. One day.”‘ One day, when his career is over, he plans to move back to the Chicago area with his family. He doesn’t know how he wants to help revive baseball in his old neighborhood, only that he’s determined to do it.
“You don’t have to start a whole Little League and have 12 teams playing on Saturdays,” said Floyd, 32. “You can have a traveling team. You can have one good team with a good coach. I want kids to understand you can be from the ‘hood and still have nice things—uniforms, gloves. But we’re going to have discipline. We’re going to have respect.
“You don’t know what might happen. Kids might see other kids playing and be attracted to the game. If I get one guy to come out of it with something positive and keep him off the streets, then that’s going to help.”
Floyd was a baseball and basketball star at Thornwood and was the Tribune’s High School Athlete of the Year in 1991. Montreal made him a first-round pick that year. It almost sounds simple, but Floyd had to get comfortable with the idea of being a ballplayer. This is what the sport is up against.
“When I was younger, I kept saying to myself, ‘I really don’t want to play baseball.’ Basketball, I loved it. We’d go into the city, people dunking, stands packed, nice uniforms. But then as I got more involved in baseball and started traveling a bit, I saw that there was a lot more going on with baseball than African-Americans saw.”
One kid at a time. One future ballplayer at a time. One heart at a time.
When he goes back to Markham, he doesn’t see kids playing baseball. He isn’t sure whether a class of grade-school children there would be impressed that he’s a major-league ballplayer.
“Hopefully they would be because one day it might be them,” he said.