Sheffield Only Half Right On Race Issue

By Michael Rosenberg
Updated: June 7, 2007

ETROIT — Gary Sheffield gave the right answer to a question he wasn’t asked.

Yes, Latino baseball players are “easier to control” than American-born players. No, this does not remotely explain the dearth of African-American major leaguers.

And it’s a shame that the Tiger’s comments got thrown into The Great American Racial-Comment Shredder (available everywhere — and it runs on hot air!). Sheffield made a worthwhile point, and this is exactly the right time to make it.

Thursday, Major League Baseball began its amateur draft. Over 3,000 players will be chosen. The vast majority have not graduated from college, will not make the major leagues and won’t make much money in baseball.

The sport sifts through talent like a drunk billionaire — buy everything and toss out most of it later. And Latino players absolutely get the worst of it.

Willie Horton told me Wednesday that when Mike Ilitch hired him as a consultant, in the summer of 2001, he went on a three-week tour of the Tigers’ various farm clubs. He ended up in Lakeland, Fla., where he was appalled to see the living standards of a few Tigers prospects.

“They brought them over here without visas,” Horton said. The players “wanted to go back home. They couldn’t go off base. You send them home or they go to jail. I gave them money to buy toothpaste, miscellaneous things.

“I had to come out and give a hundred dollars out of my pocket. They didn’t have money for anything. Those were Spanish players with the Tigers organization.”

Times have changed, both for the country (since 9/11, security regulations have tightened) and in the Tigers organization (Dave Dombrowski has helped modernize the team’s operations). Horton said he can’t imagine that happening to Tiger farmhands now.

But the attitude hasn’t really changed. Compared with their American-born counterparts, Latino players are like migrant workers. They deal with lousy work conditions because the alternative — going home, often to a poverty-stricken area — is so unappealing. On every rung of the ladder, they are afraid of getting sent home. Yes, this makes them “easier to control.”

So Sheffield is right about that, and kudos to him for saying it. But he also said this explains why there are so few black players in the majors. He is wrong about that.

“The main reason is economics,” said Don Motley, the executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “I still manage a college-level league that started in 1927, the Ban Johnson League. I am the first black manager they ever hired. I used to have half or maybe a third black ballplayers.

“Two years ago, I had two black ballplayers. A fixed-income person, their kids cannot afford to play this game anymore. To me, that’s what happened to these black kids who are not playing baseball.”

If there is a hoop in your neighborhood, you are just a basketball away from being able to practice. In baseball, you need bats, gloves, balls and a bunch of friends who can afford the equipment, too. It is much easier to start a pickup basketball game than a pickup baseball game.

In some Latin countries, baseball is so ingrained in the culture that kids will play with homemade bats, balls and no shoes. That’s not the case in America anymore.

The evolution of black baseball, from the Negro leagues to modern-day stars, is one of the great American stories of the 20th Century. (If you need a reminder, just read Joe Posnanski’s excellent book, “The Soul of Baseball.”) But the world did not stop spinning in 1964. Basketball became more popular, especially in urban areas, and so did a few other sports.

There simply aren’t as many black kids playing baseball as there were 20 or 40 years ago, and I don’t think that is so terrible. I have seen a few colleagues scream that baseball needs to do more to cultivate inner-city talent. Surely, that would be good for baseball, but would it really do much for the inner cities?

I have written numerous times about the lack of minority coaches and executives in various sports. To me, that is a clear injustice, because there is a pool of highly qualified candidates who simply aren’t getting a fair shake. This is different. Kids are choosing to play another sport. Is that so horrible?

If more black kids played baseball, I’m sure a few more would become big-league stars. Many more would find themselves at age 25 or 30 with no baseball future and no real skills outside of their sport.

This is the kind of chance Major League Baseball will offer in the draft today. I don’t really worry about the kids who don’t dream about it. I worry about the ones who do.