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Decrease in African-Americans affecting baseball

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Follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blakesebring and at his blog www.tailingthekomets.com.

Local leaders noticing decline in numbers at all levels

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - 9:23 pm

When TinCaps outfielder Mallex Smith was growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., he started out playing football and basketball. Partly because his mother couldn't handle football's brutality, he switched to playing baseball.

``When I started playing baseball and mixing in with Caucasians, it was different,'' Smith said. ``The mannerisms were different, and people came from different backgrounds. I knew this was normally a white man's sport.''

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig realizes that stereotype is becoming the norm and on April 10 launched a diversity task force. Since 1995, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, the percentage of African-Americans in the Major Leagues has dropped from 19 percent to 8.5 percent on opening-day rosters, including four teams that do not have any.

This is a problem baseball can't ignore as it affects the game's talent pool and customer base.

For example, Smith is the only African-American player on this year's TinCaps roster which includes 13 players from the United States, eight from the Dominican Republic, two from Venezuela and one each from Colombia, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

``I enjoy being an African-American playing baseball, and I encourage other African-Americans to play, too,'' Smith said. ``Especially in the post-steroids era, we need more athletes.''

No one in Fort Wayne's baseball hierarchy is surprised by the decrease in African-American players because they've seen the same trend for years. Judging by the numbers in local Little League and the Wildcat Baseball League, there simply aren't as many African-Americans who are interested in playing.

Sites that traditionally fielded teams with large percentages of African-American baseball players have dropped to a third or less of previous levels. Several Wildcat sites like McMillen Park, Weisser Park and Hanna/Bunche schools have been eliminated because the attendance numbers did not economically support the cost of staffing.

Conversely, there are record numbers of participants in basketball and football.

``I'm thinking that you see instant glamor in basketball and football,'' Wildcat Baseball League president Bill Derbyshire said. ``Players can go right from high school to the NBA almost right away. You can spend a couple of years in college and go right to the NFL. In the connection with that, there's big money as well. It doesn't have to be going through the minors. It sure seems to be the path to fame and fortune is quicker with the other two sports.''

There's also more fan attention and overall popularity within pop culture for sports other than baseball. The crowds at high school and college football and basketball games are much larger than at games for college and high school baseball which is simply just another spring sport on a busy schedule.

``We live in a microwave society, and kids want to see action immediately,'' said Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Joe Jordan. ``Baseball doesn't bring that to them. If you're not a baseball fan, you'd think there were only four or five plays that are exciting. It's a slow-paced game, and our kids today are about fast-paced things. If it's not something you grew up with, it's not going to be very appealing to you.''

An odd fact is there are probably twice as many roster spots available in Major League Baseball than there are in the National Basketball Association.

Other suggested possible reasons include societal issues with the breakdown of the family structure, baseball schedules that play more games during the week compared to football and basketball and the cost of equipment.

There are also a lot more local role models in the NBA (Brad Miller recently and Deshaun Thomas soon) and the NFL (Anthony Spencer, Bernard Pollard, Trai Essex and Tyler Eifert coming up) compared to MLB (Jarrod Parker).

``I think golf is doing a better job with that than baseball,'' said Metro Youth Sports president Jim Winters. ``Go over to McMillen Park and they have the Lifetime Sports Academy where kids are trying to play golf but not baseball. Basketball is cheaper than baseball where you need the equipment and the field. There's a lot that goes into it.''

In 1989, Major League Baseball instituted the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) to encourage participation. Fort Wayne's portion of the RBI program runs through the World Baseball Academy at the Academy of Sports and Health Centre. WBA is trying to partner with several area nonprofit groups, including Wildcat, Little League, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club, to provide scholarships and opportunities to baseball players who may not normally be able to afford its programs.

WBA Executive Director Caleb Kimmel estimated there are more than 100 Fort Wayne children involved in the program.

``We don't do as much team stuff as we do individual development,'' Kimmel said. ``It's all really focused on trying to inspire kids to be great people off the field as well as quality people on the field. We've kind of walked slowly through this and tried to play a small role in the bigger battle. We can really help individual kids get better and become leaders in the community.''

The theory is those kids will bring other kids to the game. That's not comprehensive enough for some.

``When they brought RBI to our city, they never talked to me about it,'' Winters said. ``If they want a program in the inner city, then they should have brought it to the inner city and let us go after it. If you really want to get some athletes, then invite some coaches and people involved in the black community to the table. It has to blossom from the inner city, and it can't blossom from a total white league and then start from there.''

Others believe the RBI program on the national level has already been politicized.

``They hurt the ability of towns like Fort Wayne being able to get free equipment or uniforms in the process,'' said District 10 Little League Administrator George Glick. ``I think they are market-focused, and owners and others are saying, `Hey, if we're going to have this program, why aren't our direct markets recipients of that?'

``Little League is mostly in the suburbs, and we are not their target audience. Most of the major cities do not have as many Little League sites. Major League Baseball owners have looked at the RBI program to help promote youth baseball their town for the Major League team.''

In other words, Glick implies, the teams are using the RBI program as simply another marketing tool, not necessarily as something to bring new players to the game. As an example, he said District 10 used to be able to take players to a Chicago Cubs game and get 50 percent off tickets near the dugouts. Now that process is restricted to the poorest-drawing days and the discount might be $1 per ticket.

``The emphasis for RBI has totally changed,'' Glick said. ``Torii Hunter was a contributor to the Little League program for $100,000, and now that money goes to the RBI program. Now Little League is no longer a priority for that program.''

As an example of how that money might be used, consider the Southwick Little League program which is played at the former Harding High School site. The field needs work, the fences are held down on the inside by cement blocks and boards now serve as the back-stop. Other parts of the fences are held together with keep-ties.

Southwick Little League Vice President Travis Wood said the program opened last year with 75 players and this year there are more than 150.

``We're having a heck of a time getting East Allen County Schools to spend any money on this or even talk to us,'' Wood said. ``The only thing they are doing for us is cutting the grass. We need more funding because we have kids who want to play, but most of their households consist of single parents. Most of those are single moms who are using all their money to live.''

The diamond's scoreboard lacks electricity and league officials are using plastic tarps to cover the roof of the building at the field which has been damaged by rain and snow.

``It's embarrassing when you are trying to start a new program and help kids to feel good about themselves,'' Wood said.