Civil Rights Game puts focus on reaching young African-Americans

Posted Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information Top five Dodgers: Actually lost two straight last week. The earth stood still. Braves: World Series chances dealt blow if Jason Heyward (jaw) is out. Tigers: Just imagine if Justin Verlander was pitching like Justin Verlander. Rangers: Beating up on bottom-feeders allowing them to find their footing. Pirates: Six wins shy of first winning season since Barry Bonds was scrawny. Bottom five Astros: Many say Houston is worst team they’ve ever seen. Hard to argue. Marlins: Hope gone for No. 1 pick, owner Loria seen sobbing in fetal position. White Sox: Showed a pulse last week with a six-game winning streak. Angels: Minds who put this team together might want to update their résumés. Cubs: Holding up their end during a banner year for baseball in Chicago.

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Players from nine different countries were in the visitors’ dugout Saturday night during the seventh annual Civil Rights Game.

The World Baseball Classic, held for a third time earlier this year, is a hit in every country except one.

Teams that want to be successful have a strong foothold in Latin America, as well as the Pacific Rim, and they aren’t afraid to devote the mega bucks necessary to keep international pipelines flowing.

Across town Saturday afternoon, the Under Armour All-America Game was held at Wrigley Field. That event, featuring the next wave of No. 1 picks, has become so important that it was shown on national TV.

Baseball, indeed, has gone worldwide, something that rates as one of the biggest feathers in Commissioner Bud Selig’s hat, and the desire to acquire talent knows almost no bounds.

Yet, a problem continues to fester, and that was the chief talking point among some of the game’s legends and some of baseball’s top executives during media availability ahead of the Civil Rights Game.

As the game continues to grow, the percentage of African-American players continues to dwindle.

“If we look at the percentage of African-Americans playing baseball today vs. the African-Americans playing baseball when I played, it has come down tremendously,” said Hank Aaron, one of the game’s all-time greatest players. “It’s a complicated issue, really. The commissioner is trying to figure it out. I’m trying to figure it out. Everybody else is trying to figure it out.”

This isn’t a new problem. The decline has been steady and staggering. Only 8.5 percent of players on Opening Day rosters this year were African-American.

Other sports are more glamorous to kids these days, and even easier to play. All that is needed to play basketball is a ball, a pair of shoes, a couple buddies and a park with a hoop.

Try to find enough kids in the inner city to play a game of baseball, and furthermore try to dig up all the equipment and find a field suitable for play.

And no longer is baseball cheap to play, at least competitively enough to get enough exposure to be in something like the Under Armour game. Good luck getting on a traveling team without any money.

“Baseball is expensive,” said Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, MLB’s executive vice president of player development. “I heard that phrase about 10 years ago, and it startled me. When I was young, baseball was free.”

Robinson helps to oversee the Urban Youth Academy initiative. There are three academies — in Compton, Calif., Houston and New Orleans — and three others are in the works.

African-American talent has been developed there, including a pair of first-round picks in June. Two of the Rangers’ first three picks were African-Americans, though Travis Demeritte and Akeem Bostick aren’t products of the UYA.

“There are signs of it [improving],” Robinson said. “We’re not happy with the numbers, naturally, but we’re trying to have these programs for these youngsters, and the good thing about it is it doesn’t cost them anything.”

But another Rangers draft choice, 2012 15th-rounder Jameis Winston, is part of the problem baseball is facing. Winston turned down the Rangers to accept a football scholarship to Florida State.

On Friday, he was named the Seminoles’ starting quarterback. If he had taken the Rangers’ offer, he’d likely be toiling away in the relative obscurity of the Northwest League or maybe the South Atlantic League instead of leading one of the nation’s top college football programs.

“There are so many things now that take the kids away from baseball,” Robinson said. “The elite players can go to different sports now. It’s a tough sell now. We’re not going to give up on it. We’re going to keep pushing and let them know we’re here for them.”

Baseball can’t be accused of a lack of effort in trying to attract African-Americans back to the game. But, Aaron and Robinson agree, more needs to be done.

“Anything that we can do that we can let minorities know we want them to play baseball, we need to do it,” Aaron said. “I think it’s going to be all right.”

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @JeffWilson

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