When Adron Chambers was left off the Cardinals’ World Series roster Wednesday to create a spot for the team’s RBI leader, Allen Craig, Red Sox utility outfielder Quintin Berry realized that he was the sole African-American representation on baseball’s grandest stage.
This exemplifies an issue Major League Baseball has been grappling with for the better part of two decades. The participation of African-Americans has been dwindling to the point where there is not one black starter or front-line player in this year’s Fall Classic.
Berry, 28, who was acquired by the Sox from the Royals in August for his speed, is unlikely to even get an at-bat in the Series. It’s a stirring testament to the decline of baseball’s popularity in the African-American community.
MLB records show that just 8.5 percent of players on Opening Day rosters were black. And now, just one of the 50 players participating in the World Series identifies himself as African-American.
Berry, whose father is black, said he is fully aware of the declining numbers and that many athletes of his generation chose to pursue basketball or football, more fast-paced and popular sports.
“Especially being from the neighborhood that I’m from, you don’t see a lot of guys playing this sport,” said Berry, who went to Morse High School in San Diego. “You see them playing football and choosing that alley.
“But I had to go where my body type and my ability was going to allow me to. It was weird, because nobody in my family knew much about baseball. My father was a football player.”
The problem is not a lack of effort by Major League Baseball. It has implemented RBI programs — for “Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities” — throughout the country to encourage young African-Americans to embrace the sport. But MLB in general has done a terrible job of promoting its sport, let alone to African-Americans who admire athletes such as LeBron James and Adrian Peterson.
Major League Baseball has long struggled with self-promotion, and the past 20 years have been a public-relations disaster considering the scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs. Seven-time MVP Barry Bonds was perhaps the most talented player of his generation, yet baseball wants nothing to do with him because of his association with PEDs.
While the NFL and NBA are busy ushering their all-time greats into the Hall of Fame, baseball wishes Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa would disappear.
Part of the issue is that baseball is a classical sport caught up in a hip-hop world. The games last well beyond three hours. The pace is slow. The commentators analyze the game as if they were detailing the government shutdown and not talking about a kid’s game. The sport takes itself much too seriously, and for the casual fan — which most kids are — that translates like organic chemistry.
With the sport considerably less appealing than basketball or football to the novice fan, there isn’t the eagerness for parents to register their kids for Little League. A generation ago, it seemed Little League was a staple of every community. Even if you didn’t like baseball, you played on the local park team. Now? Those kids are playing basketball, football, and soccer, or have become part of the X Games trend.
Former major league outfielder Chris Singleton, now a commentator for ESPN, believes the issue expands beyond the playing field.
“I’m looking at management positions in the game,” said Singleton, who is African-American. “I know we’ve had an issue with the declining number of African-American players on teams, whereas you had teams like Minnesota, which had one player, Aaron Hicks, and then when he got sent down, they didn’t have an African American player, which is kind of a first in a long time.
“You can even look at broadcasters if you want to and say there’s 30 teams and there’s one black full-time play-by-play announcer [Dave Sims in Seattle].”
There has been an influx of African-American talent such as Matt Kemp, Jason Heyward, David Price, Adam Jones (Berry’s high school buddy), and Andrew McCutchen, but many of those players would go unrecognized by the casual sports fan.
Also, one current African-American major leaguer said there’s a perception among African-American major leaguers that the game isn’t as welcoming to them as it is to others when their physical skills begin to decline.
A fundamental problem is that baseball didn’t have to emphasize its greatness, its beauty, and its allure to previous generations.
It was America’s Game. The national pastime. That is no longer the case.
Baseball has to restate its worthiness to a new generation, one that didn’t grow up breaking in new gloves with plenty of oil and a couple of nights under the bed post — for those who don’t remember Bo Jackson scaling an outfield wall or Dave Parker throwing out Brian Downing at third base on a bullet from right field.
Otherwise, the sport is simply selling itself on history and tradition, and as with many other genres, that isn’t good enough for the young folks.
“When I go home and tell my buddies what the game needs, they need guys with speed and athleticism and the role that I am doing,” Berry said, “hopefully that will help them or their kids down the line, maybe push them to try to get them into this sport.
“I am happy I am able to do this and hope people follow in these footsteps.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at GWashNBAGlobe.