We have dealt with the decline in African-American participation in baseball quite a bit over the past few years, but the questions we raise remain difficult to answer.
We know inner-city kids trend toward basketball and football. We know baseball doesn’t market its great African-American athletes like the NBA or NFL. Even the celebration of Jackie Robinson through books and films doesn’t seem to inspire African-American youth to play the game Robinson so loved, and paved the way for others to enjoy and participate.
Monday, April 15, 1947, was the day Robinson debuted against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field, 66 years ago, as a first baseman (he later moved to second base). It is mind-boggling that Robinson’s story — which again is on the silver screen — has not inspired more African-Americans to play baseball. It did at one time, because in 1975, 27 percent of major league players were African-American.
Why hasn’t Robinson’s story inspired African-American families to attend more baseball games? There are still so few people of color at the ballpark on a given night.
It isn’t that Major League Baseball isn’t trying to find solutions. Commissioner Bud Selig has put together a panel of baseball people and dignitaries in other fields to come up with some answers.
Major League Baseball revealed some interesting data in its Player Diversity Report, released Nov. 13. Big-league 40-man rosters were 62 percent Caucasian, 28 percent Hispanic, 8 percent African-American, and 1 percent Asian.
According to MLB records, the percentage of players on 2013 Opening Day 25-man rosters who identified themselves as African-American or black was approximately 8.5, consistent with the last few years. One positive return: The first round of the 2012 draft featured seven African-American players, the most by total and percentage (7 of 31, 22.6 percent) since 1992.
The Giants have no black players. The Phillies have the most with five. The Red Sox, Diamondbacks, and Orioles each have only one.
“As a social institution, Major League Baseball has an enormous social responsibility to provide equal opportunities for all people, both on and off the field,” Selig said. “I am proud of the work we have done thus far with the RBI [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities] program and the MLB Urban Youth Academies, but there is more that we must accomplish. We have seen a number of successful efforts with existing MLB task forces, and I believe we have selected the right people to effectively address the many factors associated with diversity in baseball.”
That’s the thing. The RBI program has been a noble undertaking. RBI has seen more than 200 of its kids drafted to major league teams. But it hasn’t created that interest of a kid gathering up his pals and heading over to the park for a pickup game, like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks etc. used to do. Nowadays, if it’s not organized or structured, it usually doesn’t happen.
Yes, it is a different generation. There are a million other things kids can do. But shouldn’t one of them be baseball? Is it too hard? Is it that much tougher to gather a glove and ball and head to the park than head to the basketball court? Is a glove and a bat more expensive than a good pair of basketball shoes and a ball?
Maybe it’s something that parents don’t emphasize, knowing perhaps that it’s tougher for kids to get into college on a baseball scholarship. Football gets eight times more scholarships than baseball. So, the great African-American athlete has a much better chance of getting a full ride for football than baseball.
The visual part of it is also important. Let’s face it, LeBron James is everywhere. All over billboards and TV and YouTube. Who is baseball’s most prominent African-American athlete? Is it Matt Kemp or Giancarlo Stanton or Derek Jeter or Justin Upton or Prince Fielder or Adam Jones? Are they the centerpiece of our visual being? No.
Former Mariners star Ken Griffey Jr. told Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, “First of all, they’ve got to start off with better commercials. The commercials are [bad]. Think about it. You look at the NBA, NFL, their commercials, and they make you want to go out and play basketball, go play football. They show the excitement of the game itself. In baseball, it’s come to the [expletive] All-Star Game. And that’s it. They don’t show the excitement of the game.”
Every time an African-American athlete breaks onto the baseball scene, you wonder, will he be the one to spark the interest? The Red Sox introduced Jackie Bradley Jr. this year. He created excitement in spring training, but has fizzled lately.
And the African-American athletes themselves sometimes feel overwhelmed by the burden. There was a time when Ellis Burks was the only African-American member of the Red Sox, and Burks felt all eyes were on him and was extremely uncomfortable. Bradley now is the only African-American member of the Red Sox, and when/if he is returned to the minors, the Sox will have none.
Apropos of nothing
1. In our story last Sunday on Montreal wanting a major league team, we wrote that the “government” was using $200,000 to conduct feasibility studies. It’s the Montreal Board of Trade, a non-government organization, that came up with the money.
2. Still believe the Blue Jays will be a top team, and that Emilio Bonifacio will get his act together and create positive excitement rather than the horrible defense he’s shown so far at second base.
3. Kyle Gibson, in Triple A in the Twins organization, is probably a notch below the Red Sox’ Allen Webster, according to one scout, but should enter Minnesota’s starting rotation soon.
4. Would never condone what Carlos Quentin did. But you have to understand the frustration of someone who is hit an awful lot by pitches and spends time on the disabled list, and thus reacts emotionally, much as Kevin Youkilis did with the Red Sox. The result of Quentin charging the mound was that Zack Greinke suffered a broken collarbone. The league didn’t rule on the result, it will rule on Quentin charging the mound.
5. Chuck Waseleski, The Maniacal One, has started his 30th season contributing his statistics to the Globe.
6. Entering Saturday, Royals backup catcher George Kottaras was the only player to be on an active roster all season and not get into a game. Salvy Perez had played every inning of the first nine games.
7. With the Red Sox’ ticket-distribution streak over, the longest current streak now belongs to the Giants at 171. The Giants say capacity at AT&T Park is 41,545, excluding obstructed-view seats and standing-room sales, and including 40 new seats near the lower press box. They have sold 29,600 season tickets and 2.9 million total seats.
Showalter has different way
We wondered why, for the most part, Orioles manager Buck Showalter doesn’t hold runners at first base in the traditional sense, with the first baseman on the bag. He holds runners as most managers would a runner who isn’t fast. The first baseman is a few feet off the bag, yet the pitcher will still throw over.
While Showalter chooses not to reveal the reasons, the biggest advantage is that the first baseman — in this case Chris Davis — can cover more ground.
“I know for me, if I’m off the bag it makes it easier to get my feet to move faster and react to the ball better,” said Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli. “I don’t know the exact reason they do it over there, but I would say for me it puts me in a better fielding situation.”
Sure, base runners can take more liberties. Well, sort of. The runner can inch out knowing the first baseman isn’t on the bag. The Orioles can pull this off because they know they have a fantastic catcher (Matt Wieters) who can throw out runners. But what ends up happening is because the Orioles still throw over, the runner is actually closer to where the first baseman is receiving the ball. It can be a deterrent. Through the Red Sox series, the Orioles had caught 5 of 6 would-be base stealers this season.
Davis does sneak back to the bag when he knows a pickoff throw is coming. So far, the maneuver has kept base runners closer to the bag. There have been fewer stolen base attempts than if the first baseman were holding on the runner traditionally.
Davis appears more relaxed in getting to where he needs to be after the pitch is thrown, and the positioning closes more of the hole between the first baseman and second baseman.
Showalter doesn’t say where he learned it or why he does it. Bobby Valentine did it for a time with the Mets.
Updates on 9
1. Jose Iglesias, SS, Red Sox — The Pirates really wanted Iglesias in the Joel Hanrahan deal. Their scouts felt he would eventually hit. Well, his offense, at least for now, has come along. “The Pirates really wanted a young shortstop they could build around and Iglesias was the guy they earmarked,” said one baseball executive. “The jury was out by some teams’ evaluations on him, but there was no denying his defense and no denying that he had a chance with the bat as he matured. Maybe that time has come.”
2. Chris Carter, LF Astros — There’s a feeling among Houston personnel that the 6-foot-4-inch, 245-pound Carter, who was acquired from the A’s, could emerge as a 30-home run guy. Carter has been hot after a 1-for-19 start with 10 strikeouts, with a 7-for-11 run including a 406-foot blast at Safeco Field last week.
3. Denard Span, OF, Nationals — The Nationals are pretty happy with Span, whom they acquired from the Twins this offseason to be their leadoff hitter. Entering Saturday, he had reached base in 21 of 45 plate appearances (a .467 OBP), and he’s watching 4.26 pitches per at-bat. “He gets more at-bats than anybody else,” said teammate Jayson Werth. “As the game goes on, you go through a lineup, you’re going to have to, as a pitcher, have to get through the lineup. It’s going to be tougher for him. He’s throwing more pitches. He’s got to throw more pitches that mean more. By the time you get to the third time through, the guy’s throwing a lot of meaningful pitches.”
4. Chase Headley, 3B, Padres — When you ask scouts and GMs who could be the most sought-after player at the trade deadline, the name that comes up most often is Headley. Part of it is that he plays third, is a good hitter, and teams in contention project Headley would thrive in a more competitive situation.
5. Josh Willingham, OF, Twins — The feeling is that if the Twins aren’t in the race in early July, Willingham would become available. “He’s a power righthanded bat that any contender could stick right in the middle of their lineup and get outstanding production,” said one National League GM. “You’d have to give something up, but he’d be worth the expenditure. He can really hit.”
6. Matt Garza, RHP, Cubs — By mid-May, Garza should be in the rotation after recovering from recurring problems with his left side, which he strained in spring training after recovering from elbow soreness. After Garza makes a few starts and shows he’s healthy, he should begin to garner interest from contenders. He’s already on a few teams’ wish lists.
7. Allen Webster, RHP, Red Sox — One scout who has watched Pawtucket recently said this of Webster: “I don’t think I’ll see a better pitcher in the minor leagues than Allen Webster. Throws 97-99 miles per hour with life. He has a changeup he throws for strikes, an excellent breaking pitch and slider. If Ben Cherington never makes another trade he can rest assured that the two kids he got from the Dodgers [Webster and Rubby De La Rosa] have tremendous arms. De La Rosa could likely be an excellent closer, but why not keep extending him as a starter? Who knows, he may be a 200-inning guy who throws 100 m.p.h.”
8. Nate Freiman , 1B, Oakland — Freiman is a huge (6-8) first baseman/DH who was picked up in the Rule 5 draft from Houston. He attended Wellesley High and Duke University and has driven in 111 and 105 runs the last two seasons in Single A (Lake Elsinore) and Double A (San Antonio). The dilemma for any team who dabbles in Rule 5 is how long it can carry the player before giving him back? So far, the A’s have decided Freiman is worth keeping. His power potential makes the 26-year-old tempting for the A’s to keep up all season.
9. Jason Giambi, 1B/DH, Indians — Giambi (left) was activated last week, a move that doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but Terry Francona loves Giambi’s leadership and feels he can still contribute with the bat. “He can still hit,” Francona said. “He’s going to give us a nice dimension off the bench that we can utilize late in games or in key spots. He’s been tremendous for our team and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do on the field.”
From the Bill Chuck files: “Through Wednesday, Jackie Bradley Jr. was 0-12 on fastballs with five walks and four whiffs.” Also, “Last season, in his first two starts, Clay Buchholz threw 45.6 percent fastballs and batters hit .381; this season, he’s thrown 52.4 percent fastballs and batters are hitting .194.” . . . Happy birthday Steve Avery (43), Brad Pennington (44), Bobby Sprowl (57), Joe Lahoud (66), and Marty Keough (79).Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.