Check out that list of Philly standouts. The new team here underscores an old question: Baseball may be quintessentially American. It’s also increasingly white. It’s not breaking news, and we’ll get into the causes and—more importantly—potential solutions. But when there are two World Series teams that don’t boast a single American-born black player, it’s remarkable.
“To say we are challenged in our game by attracting many of the top athletes to play our great game is an understatement,” he said earlier in the season.
Clark knows, because he didn’t choose baseball. He chose baseball. 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 him, and even joked, that I was a basketball player in a baseball uniform,” Clark told me a few years ago.
It’s not unique to Clarke. 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. “Besides, I wasn’t really watching.” I had guys I watched, but I was more of a basketball player. “I wasn’t really sold on baseball.”
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There is something in that. Black kids born in the United States can’t turn this World Series around and see a person like theirs contribute on the field. That’s the first time since 1950, and so the issue is getting new attention this fall.
But even if, say, the New York Yankees beat the Astros and the San Diego Padres beat the Phillies in the league championship series, the difference would be only nominal. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton would give the World Series black star power; both Yankee sluggers are of mixed race. Josh Bell is a prominent black face in the Padres lineup.
That’s it, though. The playoffs featured some black American-born players – Mookie Betts of the Dodgers, Michael Harris II of Atlanta, Triston McKenzie of Cleveland. They were dots on the tapestry, not brush strokes that painted it. There are no similar players filling the bench or back, rotation or infield. NBA and NFL teams have black US-born players up and down their rosters. MLB teams do not.
What is lost is the opportunity for kids to see people who look like them and grew up like them, working together to improve a major league team. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports has been tracking racial participation in baseball and other sports since 1991. His annual report said 7.2 percent of the players on this year’s Opening Day roster were black — the lowest percentage in the report’s history.
So this is not a 2022 issue. It is a problem rooted and worsening for 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 Inner City Baseball Revival program, which included in its mission the goal of “promoting greater inclusion of youth of diverse backgrounds in the mainstream of the game.”
It is great in intent. In reality, it didn’t work. So why continue to stick with a well-intentioned strategy that hasn’t yielded results? It’s time for MLB to have a comprehensive plan not only in its major league markets, but also in minor league cities big and small.
In Washington, there is a living, breathing, still evolving effort to do something different. Maybe it works. And if it is, it should be replicated. The Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy launched its YBA Play program for prospective baseball players as young as 6 in 2016, two years after the facility opened east of the Anacostia River.
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“By offering access to an opportunity for kids to play baseball in a fun, engaging and fast-paced environment, we’ve found that prior access to the game, prior exposure to the game, is not necessary for kids to enjoy the game.” ” said Tal Alter, executive director of Washington Nationals Philanthropies. “When you get kids who enjoy the experience — no matter who they are or where they’re from — they stick with it.
The YBA Play program produced no major leaguers—which, however, is not the point. But there’s growing evidence that it builds a love of the game by teaching skills with drills that may not even be like the game of baseball — quick bursts instead of slow rumbles. The more competitive program at the next level of the academy – Hustle – involves more than 100 players a year. They are provided with facilities, equipment and coaching, all free of charge – removing the financial and logistical challenges that prevent so many kids from underserved communities from participating in travel baseball.
The first group of kids in the Hustle programs are nearing the end of their high school careers – many are playing varsity baseball and some are on track to play in college.
“I think it’s fair to say that the national team is important and our kids are absolutely paying attention to who’s on the big league roster,” Alter said. “We hear them talk about it all the time.”
There are people working on these issues at all levels of the MLB front office — and commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday addressed the clubs’ failure to install diverse people in front offices and managerial jobs. The league has a list of programs and events — the Hank Aaron Invitational, the Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Series weekend, diversity development camps, and on and on — that should provide more opportunities and identify more potential big leaguers. Indeed, baseball considered it something of a victory when four of the top five picks in July’s draft were American-born, black players, and all four participated in some of the league-sponsored development programs.
However, Astros manager Dusty Baker is the most prominent black character—really only A black character born in the USA – in this series. And he absorbed the idea of no black players saying, “I don’t think that’s something that baseball should really 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 fresh feel. Hopefully lists like the ones competing here will 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 choose baseball rather than the other way around. Without that something is lost.