added 4/18/2007 by Scott Barzilla
It is very rare that we ever get a good opportunity to comment on more global social matters, but Jackie Robinson day and recent "performance" by Joe Morgan opened up the door. Of course, it also gives me an opportunity to go two columns sans numbers. I'm sure the reading faithful are happy to see that. Of course, the number Morgan focused on was zero. That is, the Astros have zero African-Americans on their roster.
Naturally, the issue of African-American participation in the game came back into focus last Sunday. When you thrown in the timely comments by Don Imus, you see that race has been in front of everyone's minds over the past several weeks. Morgan and others lament the fact that African American participation has dwindled from 25 percent in 1975 to 8 percent this year. I promise those will be the only statistics you see. Like all statistics, they are misleading.
As usual, Morgan pointed his finger at the Astros for not having any African-Americans. The current incarnation of the Astros have gotten a reputation for being "lily white." It doesn't help that Houston's own John Lopez threw out the same term just this week. I guess Lopez was asleep when the Astros threw 100 million dollars at a Panamanian. Maybe he was on vacation for a decade when all of those players came through Venezuela.
The point is that anyone who blames the Astros for being racists just isn't paying much attention. Why would the Astros turn down good talent for a reason like that? It just doesn't make much sense when you think about it. This is especially true when you look at the past regime that had the likes of Cesar Cedeno, Bob Watson, Enos Cabell, Joe Morgan, and J.R. Richard. Of course, don't take my word for this. Let's look at the facts.
ESPN's Outside the Lines did an interesting report on this issue on Easter Sunday. Apparently, most of the traditional black colleges can't even fill out half of their rosters with black players. Folks, those are the teams TARGETING black athletes. So, obviously, the problem isn't going from college to the big leagues because the colleges are lacking representation. So, the problems go back to high school and prior. Paint the racist brush as broad as you want Joe, but you can't blame the Astros for a lack of black participation in high school baseball.
On the ESPN report, a youth sports director told the nation that he opened a league for black athletes and only nine players showed up. He went on to say that it was if Jackie Robinson's legacy was dying. I'm sorry folks. I love baseball, but I can't let this kind of revisionist history stand. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in ALL of the major sports. Few people know or remember that Robinson was one helluva football player at UCLA. In a different universe he might have been a great running back in the NFL. It was Branch Rickey that had the courage and so baseball gets the credit for integrating professional sports.
So before we ring our hands about how African-Americans have been disenfranchised lets remember that many of them are participating in the NBA and NFL. Heck, there are even a few in the NHL and MLS. So, this isn't a question of baseball being racist so much as it is a problem of kids choosing not to play baseball. Can baseball do more to stem the tide? Sure they could. Should baseball do more to stem the tide? This deserves more explanation.
Baseball has done a very poor job over the years of promoting the sport. We hear more about labor squabbles, steroids, and free agent tomfoolery than we do about the great players in the game. Players from the 1970s grew up watching the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, and the like. It shouldn't matter whether they were black, white, yellow, green, or purple. Lost in the dwindling numbers of African-Americans playing the game is the increase in foreign born players playing. Yes, global expansion of the game is a good thing, but fewer Americans period are playing the game. This is what should concern us.
As I leave you this week I leave with this thought: baseball needs to become cool again. When I sit in school with the teenage boys I hear a lot more talk about the NFL than baseball. There is nothing racial about their indifference to the sport. Find some marketable players in the game and market the heck out of them. Let young kids hear about the good people in the game and not about Scott Boras' latest heist. Let young kids hear about the good people in the game and not Barry Bonds last steroid test. Maybe then young kids will want to play baseball again.