At our first Little League practice last week, I asked my players to introduce themselves by stating their name, favorite team and favorite major leaguer. Being from southern New England, the majority of them were either Red Sox or Yankees fans who loved David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez. No surprise there. What was shocking was when one of my little guys raised his hand and told me Ken Griffey Jr. was his favorite player.
Yes that Ken Griffey Jr. The one whose batting stance I imitated when I was 12 years old. My favorite player. The one whose last 40 homerun season came a full year before any of my current players were born.
Do you realize it’s about time for “The Kid” to legally change his nickname to “The Grandpa?” Griffey is older than all of my players’ parents – by at least ten years.
It just goes to show you how far baseball still has to go in virtually every inner city in this country. And if you want to know just how sparse African-American participation is in baseball, start with Little League. The odds of seeing more than a couple black kids on any roster are slim-to-none, which is why when Connecticut baseball coach Jim Penders calls baseball a “white-collar” sport in this country, he might as well being saying it’s a white-faced game.
Penders isn’t the only one who has expressed concern in recent years. Not even close. In fact, at the beginning of every Major League season, the race issue becomes a major talking point. This season, Torii Hunter said that people don’t realize how bad it is because they see dark-skinned Latin players and assume they’re black. He referred to those players as “imposters.”
Many believe the reason less African-Americans are playing baseball is strictly a financial issue. In 2008, Penders told the New Haven Register that he recruits the best players who can afford to come to school, as opposed to just the best players. But that points to an across-the-board problem, one that affects Americans of all backgrounds and isn’t just happening in sports.
It still doesn’t explain why baseball continues to thrive even in poor white communities while it has become an afterthought in almost every urban area. The sport is becoming as segregated as hockey, golf or tennis in most parts of this country, which basically means an entire generation is missing out on our national pastime.
Like most of Major League Baseball’s problems, it has only itself to blame. The two most well-known black ball players right now are Griffey and Barry Bonds, the same as it was 15 years ago. But Griffey is at the tail end of his career and Bonds has essentially been banished from the game. Bud Selig and company have done an awful job in recent years at marketing any of the current African-American stars, all but passing up Jimmy Rollins, C.C. Sabathia, Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard in favor of guys like Joe Mauer and Tim Lincecum.
It’s not that Mauer and Lincecum don’t deserve to be stars, but when you have a serious lack of interest from the black community on your hands, why wouldn’t you make the effort to reach out using your most valuable assets? Fielder and Howard in particular have the ability to resonate with young fans the way Griffey and Bonds did in the nineties. Last year, Fielder took home the Home Run Derby -an event that is still quite popular with the Little League crowd- and Howard became the quickest ever to reach 200 homeruns, getting there in just 658 games.
It’s not just chicks who dig the long ball; it’s everyone, especially kids.
And Fielder and Howard and now Jason Heyward’s homeruns can reach the inner cities. These guys are young enough to be fan favorites for another decade and baseball needs to take advantage of that.