Check out that list of Phillies standouts. This new team draws attention to an old issue: baseball could be quintessentially American. It is also increasingly White. That’s not breaking news, and we’ll get into the reasons and—more importantly—the possible solutions. But when there are two World Series teams that don’t have a single Black player born in the United States, it’s impressive.
“To say that we are challenged in our game to attract many of the best athletes to play our great game is an understatement,” said Tony Clark, head of the MLB Players Association and a major leaguer for 15 years. earlier in the season.
Clark knows, because he didn’t choose baseball. Baseball chose him. He played basketball at the University of Arizona, but his hardwood career was slowed when he suffered a back injury as a freshman. Even after the Detroit Tigers took him with the second pick in the 1990 MLB draft, “I looked at him a lot, and even joked that I was a basketball player in a baseball uniform, ” Clark told me several years ago.
That is not unique to Clark. When Tim Anderson was growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., he had a choice of what to watch and who to idolize.
“I liked Ken Griffey Jr.,” the Chicago White Sox shortstop said at the All-Star Game this summer. “Other than that, I didn’t really watch. I had some guys I watched, but I was more of a basketball guy. I wasn’t really sold on baseball.”
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There is something to that. Black children born in the United States cannot flip on this World Series and see a single face like theirs contributing on the field. That’s the first time since 1950, which is why the issue is getting new attention this fall.
But even if, say, the New York Yankees had beaten the Astros and the San Diego Padres had beaten the Phillies in the league championship series, the difference would be nominal only. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton would have given Black some star power to the World Series; both Yankees sluggers are of mixed race. Josh Bell is a prominent Black face in the Padres lineup.
That’s it, though. The playoffs included some Black players born in the United States – Mookie Betts from the Dodgers, Michael Harris II from Atlanta, Triston McKenzie from Cleveland. They were dots on the tapestry, not brushstrokes that colored it. There are no players like him who fill a bench or bullpen, rotation or infield. NBA and NFL teams have Black players born in the United States up and down the roster. MLB teams don’t.
What is being lost is the opportunity for children to see people who look like them and have grown up like them working together for the benefit of a major league team. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports has been tracking racial participation in baseball and other sports since 1991. Its annual report said 7.2 percent of the players on this year’s Opening Day rosters were Black – the lowest percentage in the history of the report.
So this is not a 2022 problem. It is a problem that has been entrenched and exacerbated over decades. It’s cultural. It is economic. It’s logistical.
Major League Baseball has explored a variety of ways to make their rosters look more like the populations of the cities they represent. In 1989, the league established the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, which includes in its mission statement the goal to “promote greater inclusion of youth from diverse backgrounds into the mainstream of the game.”
That’s great in terms of intent. In fact, it hasn’t worked. So why keep plugging away with a well-intentioned strategy that has yielded no results? It’s time for MLB to have a comprehensive plan across not only its major league markets, but in minor league towns, big and small.
In Washington, DC, there is a living, breathing, still evolving attempt to do something different. Maybe it works. And if it is, it should be duplicated. The Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy started its YBA Play program for aspiring baseball players as young as 6 in 2016, two years after the facility east of the Anacostia River opened.
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“By offering access to an opportunity for children to play baseball in a fun, attractive, fast-paced environment, we have discovered that prior access to the game, prior exposure to the game, is not necessary for children to enjoy playing the game. ,” said Tal Alter, CEO of Washington Nationals Philanthropies. “When you get kids who enjoy the experience – no matter who they are or where they come from – they stick with it.”
The YBA Play program hasn’t produced major leaguers – and that’s not the point, anyway. But there’s growing evidence that he’s building a love for the game by learning skills with drills that may not even feel like a baseball game — fast bursts rather than slow slogs. The academy’s next level more competitive program – Hustle – involves more than 100 players annually. They are provided with facilities, equipment and training, all free of charge – eliminating the financial and logistical challenges that prevent so many kids from underserved communities from participating in baseball travel.
The first cohort of kids in the Hustle programs are nearing the end of their high school careers – many playing varsity baseball, with some on track to play in college.
“I think it’s fair to say that representation is important and that our kids pay close attention to who’s on big league rosters,” Alter said. “We hear them talk about it all the time.”
There are people working on these issues at all levels in the MLB offices – and Commissioner Rob Manfred addressed Monday the failure of clubs to install diverse faces in front offices and in managerial positions. The league has a list of programs and events — the Hank Aaron Invitational, the Dream Series on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, diversity development camps, on and on — that are supposed to provide more opportunities and identify more potential major leaguers. Indeed, baseball considered it quite a victory when four of the top five picks in July’s draft were American-born Black players, and all four had participated in some of the sponsored development programs. by the league.
Still, Astros Manager Dusty Baker is the most prominent Black character – in fact, the only Black Character born in the United States – in this Series. And he swallowed the idea that there were no Black players by saying: “I don’t think that’s something that baseball should be proud of. It looks bad.”
It’s not just that it looks bad. It’s bad. What was once the national pastime no longer looks like the nation. The World Series, back in Philadelphia, has a new feel to it. The hope would be that rosters like those competing here become a thing of the past. Baseball needs to identify and develop ways to expose its sport to young athletes of all backgrounds and communities and get them to do so choice baseball rather than the other way around. Without that, something is missing.