Indians’ Sabathia Makes Pitch For Blacks

By Tom Withers
Updated: March 15, 2007

WINTER HAVEN, Fla.– C.C. Sabathia looks around Cleveland’s clubhouse and sees something missing – black ballplayers. “There aren’t very many African-American players, and it’s not just in here, it’s everywhere,” Sabathia said Wednesday between morning workouts. “It’s not just a problem – it’s a crisis.”

Sabathia, the only black player on the Indians’ 25-man roster last season, feels baseball could be doing more to promote its game to inner-city kids who are gravitating toward basketball and other sports.

“I go back home to Vallejo,” Sabathia said of his offseason time in California, “and the kids say, ‘What’s baseball?’ It’s not just an issue for my hometown, it’s an issue for the whole country. I think Major League Baseball should do something about it. I don’t know exactly what they could be doing, but I know it’s not enough.”

According to a 2005 report by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, only 8.5 percent of major leaguers were African American – the lowest percentage since the report was initiated in the mid-1980s. By contrast, whites comprised 59.5 percent of the majors’ player pool, Latinos 28.7 percent and Asians 2.5.

Sabathia appreciates some of the steps baseball has taken to make itself more appealing to young blacks such as the Urban Youth Academy, which opened last year in Compton, Calif. Also, there’s the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, which has attracted more than 120,000 kids worldwide.

Still, it’s not enough to Sabathia, who along with Florida’s Dontrelle Willis are the only prominent black starting pitchers in the majors.

“That’s amazing. That’s unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t think people understand that there is a problem. They see players like Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado and just assume that they’re black.”

Sabathia is trying to do his part to make a difference and raise baseball’s profile. He sponsors the North Vallejo Little League, providing equipment and serving as a role model for 175 kids from his hometown he hopes will see where baseball can take them.

“I try to do a lot with the league and with the rec centers,” he said. “I want to show them. I came from there. These are the fields I played on. There is a way out, and it could be baseball.”

One of the reasons for baseball’s decline among African Americans may be that struggling inner-city families can’t afford the necessary equipment. Aluminum bats, balls, gloves and uniforms cost money, a fact that pushes kids toward basketball because all you need to play is a ball and a hoop.

In addition, because there are so few African-American major league stars, kids don’t identify with them the way they do with today’s top NBA and NFL players.

“They don’t see us playing,” Sabathia said. “When I grew up, I was a pitcher and I liked the Oakland A’s. I liked Dave Stewart. I was a big left-handed hitter, so I liked Dave Parker. You had Barry Bonds playing in San Francisco, guys like that. There were a lot of guys to look up to.”

If he was a kid today, would Sabathia be playing baseball?

“No way,” he said. “That’s the truth.”

The Indians have long been at the forefront of baseball’s race game. The club was chosen to play against St. Louis in the inaugural Civil Rights game on March 31 in Memphis because it was the first AL team to have a black player (Larry Doby) and first in the majors to hire a black manager (Frank Robinson).

The lack of black, non-Hispanic players isn’t just a problem at the major league level, either. In 2003, the NCAA revealed that only 6 percent of the nearly 9,800 Division I baseball players were black, compared to 25 percent in all sports combined.

Sabathia thinks another reason for baseball’s dip in popularity among urban youth could be traced to the lure of big-money contracts in other sports.

“Black kids see LeBron (James) coming out of high school and getting his millions,” the 26-year-old said. “So they see basketball and football as the quickest way out. But they don’t realize I got to the big leagues when I was only 20.”

Sabathia has spoken with Willis and Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins – all are from the Bay Area – about doing more to raise baseball’s profile. He credited Minnesota outfielder Torii Hunter, who is seeking the best African-American amateur teams from across the nation and sponsoring a tournament.

“We can all do more,” Sabathia said. “Talking about the problem isn’t going to solve it. It’s time to do something.”