Check out this list of Phillies highlights. The new team here highlights an old problem: baseball might be quintessentially American. It’s also getting whiter. This is not breaking news, and we will get into the reasons and, more importantly, the possible solutions. But when there are two World Series teams that don’t have a black American-born player, it’s surprising.
“To say we have a challenge in our game to attract many of the best athletes to play our great game is an understatement,” said Tony Clark, the head of the MLB Players Association and himself a player 15-year-old big leaguers, early in the season.
Clark knows, because he didn’t choose baseball. Baseball chose him. He played basketball at the University of Arizona, but his career on the hardwood 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 really looked at it, and even joked, that he was a basketball player in a baseball,” Clark told me several years ago.
This is not unique to Clark. When Tim Anderson was growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he had the ability to choose what to watch and who to idolize.
“I liked Ken Griffey Jr.,” the Chicago White Sox shortstop said at this summer’s All-Star Game. “Other than that, I didn’t really look. I saw some guys, but I was more of a basketball guy. I wasn’t really sold on baseball.”
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There is something in this. Black kids born in America can’t turn this World Series around and see a face like his contributing on the field. It’s the first since 1950, which is why the issue is gaining 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 only nominal. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton would have given the World Series some black star power; both Yankees sluggers are of mixed race. Josh Bell is a prominent black face in the Padres lineup.
That’s it, though. The playoffs featured some American-born black players: Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, Atlanta’s Michael Harris II, Cleveland’s Triston McKenzie. They were dots on the tapestry, not brushstrokes that colored it. There are no similar players filling a bench or a bullpen, a rotation or an infield. NBA and NFL teams have black players born in the United States on their roster. MLB teams do not.
What’s been lost is the opportunity for kids to see people who look like them and who grew up like them working together for the betterment of a big league team. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports has been charting racial participation in baseball and other sports since 1991. Its annual report said that 7.2 percent of players on the rosters of Inaugural Day this year were black, the lowest percentage in the history of the report.
So this isn’t a 2022 problem. It’s a problem rooted and compounded over decades. It’s cultural. It is economical. It’s logistical.
Major League Baseball has explored various ways to make its rosters more closely resemble 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 of “promoting greater inclusion of youth from diverse backgrounds in the mainstream of the game.”
This is great in intent. Actually, it didn’t work. So why continue with a well-intentioned strategy that hasn’t paid off? It’s time for MLB to have a comprehensive plan not only in their major league markets, but in minor league cities big and small.
In Washington, DC, an attempt to do something different is alive, breathing, and still developing. It may be working. And if it is, it should be replicated. The Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy started its YBA Play program for baseball players as young as 6 in 2016, two years after the facility opened east of the Anacostia River.
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“By providing access to an opportunity for kids to play baseball in a fun, engaging, fast-paced environment, we’ve found that pre-game access, pre-game exposure, is not necessary for kids to enjoy playing baseball. game,” said Tal Alter, CEO of Washington Nationals Philanthropies. “When you have kids who enjoy the experience, no matter who they are or where they’re from, they stay.”
The YBA Play program hasn’t produced any big leaguers, which isn’t the point, anyway. But there’s growing evidence that it’s building a love of the game by teaching skills with drills that might not even feel like a baseball game — fast bursts instead of slow ones. The academy’s most competitive level program, Hustle, includes more than 100 players annually. They are provided with facilities, equipment and coaching, all free of charge, eliminating the financial and logistical challenges that prevent so many kids from underserved communities from participating in travel baseball.
The first cohort of kids in the Hustle programs are nearing the end of their high school careers: many are playing college baseball, with some on track to play in college.
“I think it’s fair to say that representation is important and our kids absolutely pay attention to who’s on the big league rosters,” Alter said. “We hear them talk about it all the time.”
There are people working on these issues at all levels of MLB front offices, and on Monday commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the clubs’ failure to put different faces in front offices and workplaces of managers The league has a list of programs and events — a Hank Aaron Invitational, the Dream Series on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, diversity development camps, etc. — that are designed to provide more opportunities and identify greater potential players. Indeed, baseball considered it a victory when four of the top five picks in July’s draft were black players born in the United States, and all four had participated in some of the league’s sponsored developmental programs.
Still, Astros manager Dusty Baker is the most prominent black character, really not more Black character born in the United States, in this series. And he absorbed the idea that there were no black players, saying, “I don’t think that’s something that baseball should be proud of. It looks bad.”
It doesn’t just look bad. it’s bad What used to be the national pastime no longer resembles the nation. The World Series, back in Philadelphia, has a fresh feel. The hope would be that lists like those competing here will become a thing of the past. Baseball must identify and develop ways to expose its sport to young athletes of all media and communities and reach choose baseball and not the other way around. Without it, something is lost.