Tune into local sports radio these days and you’ve got a better than average chance of hearing someone commenting (critical or otherwise) on the lily-white makeup of the Astros’ roster. Of course, this isn’t exactly a new development. The ‘Stros have been Team Vanilla for years now. But they’re not alone. Fans of the Atlanta Braves are currently witnessing a white-out as well, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Atlanta GM John Schuerholz received a visit on Monday fromJesse Jackson’s Rainbow-PUSH Coalition
Now, put aside for a moment (if you can), the sheer ridiculousness of this meeting. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that African Americans in this country face far greater problems than the possible extinction of the black baseball player (although, if they do go the way of the dinosaur, would Carl Everett eventually deny their existence as well?). And hopefully by now we’ve all learned to take anything even remotely associated with Jesse Jackson with a healthy grain of salt. But why exactly has the African American MLB population dwindled to less than 10 percent? And should we even care?
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Let’s address the second question first because, to me at least, it’s far easier to answer. Look, there’s way too much money involved and far too many jobs on the line in this day and age for a professional team to disregard players of any race. You either field your best squad or you lose games, lose money and get fired. If we were in the midst of watching baseball revert back to its pre-Jackie Robinson form, that’d be one thing. But this is not the result of a conscious decision to exclude black players. This is simply a matter of shortage. And, to tell you the truth, it’s hard for me to get worked up about it. If there’s a dearth of black players in the majors, doesn’t it follow that there’s also a lack of baseball interest in the black community? And if African Americans are distancing themselves from the game, why should I care? It’s their prerogative, after all.
So what are the reasons behind the dwindling interest? Here are the explanations I hear most often:
1. Baseball is boring. Let’s face it: baseball is not exactly the best sport for our A.D.D. society. Hell, I’m not even as passionate about the game as I was back in the day. No doubt MLB deserves plenty of blame due to labor strife, steroid scandals and a flawed economic model. But there’s also no denying the fact baseball can be the perfect cure for insomnia, especially when the regular season bogs down in the middle of the summer.
2. Baseball is expensive. Yes, the price of bats and gloves has gone through the roof, but I have a really hard time buying this one (no pun intended). First of all, it seems to imply that the entire black community lives in poverty. Secondly, it doesn’t account for all the kids who grow up playing stickball or some other dirt-cheap variant of the sport. Yes, it’s easier to pick up a basketball and go shoot hoops. Same goes for introduction to football and soccer. But that hasn’t stopped poorer (relative to the United States) Latin American countries from producing a plethora of top baseball talent.
3. Young black kids don’t have much in the way of African American MLB icons to model themselves after. This may be true today, but it ignores the fact that most current major leaguers grew up during the 70’s and 80’s when there were plenty of great black players. So this seems completely irrelevant if we’re looking for reasons why the number of blacks in professional baseball is decreasing.
4. Baseball doesn’t lend itself to the sort of style and flair preferred by today’s African American male. Believe it or not, I’ve heard this argument on numerous occasions. I don’t know, seems to me guys like Reggie Jackson and Ricky Henderson played the game with plenty of panache. Anyway, I’m not crazy about this rationalization either, because it seems to label young black athletes as hot dogs more interested in showing off than winning.
When you get right down to it, perhaps all of these things (and more) play some sort of role in the declining number of blacks in baseball. And to a certain extent, I can understand the Rainbow Coalition’s concern because everyone enjoys cheering for someone like themselves, someone they can call “their own.” But if today’s African American athlete is choosing basketball and football over baseball then, by all means, let them. Because, as far as I’m concerned, baseball is no longer America’s Pastime. Instead, it’s merely a way to pass time between the end of the NBA playoffs and the start of the NFL season. – Jason Friedman