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Where are all the black baseball players?

By HUBERT MIZELL
Published May 16, 2004

My favorite all-time baseball player is Hank Aaron. In the sport, there's been nobody I more admire than Jackie Robinson. In history, has there been a hitter to match the dynamics of Barry Bonds?

African-American impact has been enormous, with Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Roy Campanella, Joe Morgan, Ernie Banks, Lou Brock and Curt Flood coming quickly to mind.

But, this season, as I peruse MLB rosters or scan fields while enjoying cable games, it is stunningly apparent how my black countrymen continue to disappear. Every summer, it is studied. Analyzed, Suggestions fly. Charges made. But the skid is unsubsiding.

Mostly, it's a choice thing. Black kids from Maui to Maine to Miami are far more magnetized by basketball and football. It's often about style, individual personality and exposure.

MLB initiated its RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner cities) program in 1989, achieving some good, like sending eight youths to the big leagues, including Carl Crawford of the Devil Rays, but it is not coming close to reversing the tide.

Thirty years ago, 27 percent of MLB guys were African-American. By 1995, that slipped to 19 percent. Last year, among 830 on rosters in the bigs, just 90 were black Americans (10.8 percent). Conversely, baseball's popularity with Hispanics is obvious; Latinos make up 28 percent of today's MLB players.

Commissioner's Bud Selig's office, when asked for the 2004 count of African-Americans active with American or National league clubs, said, "We don't maintain that statistic."

Maintain, indeed.

Black kids in our neighborhoods had rather emulate Allen Iverson than Derek Jeter. In "I want to be like . . . " conversations, most would choose Warren Sapp over the extraordinary Bonds. Few are exposed to Little League and other organized baseball.

I'm not sure the African-American swing away from baseball is reversable, although MLB should try even harder at stemming the fade. Trouble is, baseball isn't as cool to young African-Americans. It's easier to make individual impact and be flamboyant in hoops and football.

"Basketball is tied to rap music and clothing," Brewers shortstop Royce Clayton, a black Californian, told the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal. "Rap artists put basketball in their songs."

It's a trend even more apparent in college baseball. Among 12 SEC teams, there are 441 athletes and 14 are African-American. NCAA Division I has only 6.7 percent.

Josh Cox is the lone black player on his Gainesville high school team. "It saddens me," the Oak Hall second baseman told the Gainesville Sun. "When baseball was segregated, before Jackie Robinson came along, the game was missing something. It is missing something again. It is a sport African-Americans can excel at."

In the NFL, two football players in three are African-American. In the NBA, players are 80 percent black and many of the white players are Europeans. Baseball is maybe too slow for kids who sing, dance and dress at accelerated paces. Maybe it's too methodical. Too fundamental.

Whatever, it is sad. "There are not," Bonds said, "many of us left."

ONE-BAGGERS: Having the Lightning plow deep into the NHL playoffs is a break for Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who's ducking flak over a load of controversial changes, as well as Lou Piniella's reeling Rays, with a majority of Tampa Bay's more spirited voices so busy with Lord Stanley. ... We can debate, but in assessing who are the best basketball pros ever to come out of our state's colleges, my quick picks are Rick Barry (UM), Dave Cowens (FSU) and Artis Gilmore (Jacksonville) with Sam Cassell (FSU) moving up fast. Most amazing is that the Gators have never produced any of heavier NBA impact than the troubled, easily dislikeable Vernon Maxwell.

THE LAST WORD: It's going to get loud, nasty, racial and personal as fired Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson sues the university for his old job and lots of money, with the notable adversary being Razorbacks athletics director Frank Broyles, a former football coach in Fayetteville who starred as a Georgia Tech quarterback and is a longtime member of Augusta National Golf Club.

- Hubert Mizell can be reached by e-mail at mmizell02@earthlink.net

[Last modified May 16, 2004, 01:00:38]


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