A poster asked my take on Gary Sheffield’s comments that the reason there are more Latin players in the major leagues than blacks are because they are easily pushed around.
What an idiot. Sheffield is a lot of things, but smart and subtle are not among them. I’ve had several dealings with Sheffield and believe he thinks he’s smarter than he really is. He also doesn’t have that button to press that enables him to think before he speaks.
There a lot of reasons why there’s a decline in black players and increase in Latin players, but discrimination isn’t one of them. With the pressure to win, teams aren’t going to snub a player who can play. That’s not to say there might not be a manager who might go one way with all things equal for a final roster spot.
I talked to several people – Darryl Strawberry and Lastings Milledge among them to get the slant from different generations, and both said the choice is that of the athlete.
Here’s what I wrote:
NEW YORK _The reason was literally as simple as black and white as to why Jackie Robinson wasn’t allowed to play baseball prior to April 15, 1947.
Tonight at Shea Stadium, as Major League Baseball celebrates the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier that forever changed a sport and a nation, the issue of the number of American blacks playing the game is again a topic.
No longer does the hiring of a manager of color attract attention, but it is the scarcity of the dwindling number of black players that has become a hot button topic.
The reasons are varied and complex, far from black and white and not easily explained.
“I don’t think you can point to any one thing and say, `That’s the reason,’ ” said Mets manager Willie Randolph, who will wear Robinson’s No. 42 tonight.
“There are a lot of reasons. Some carry more weight than others, but they all contribute.”
At the time of Robinson’s death in 1972, roughly 20 percent of major league rosters were comprised of blacks, including Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Bob Gibson and Ernie Banks.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, reports the percentage of black players peaked at 27 percent in 1975. It dropped to 19 percent in 1995, and this year it is 8.4 percent.
The cause for the decline isn’t sinister, said former Mets general manager Steve Phillips, now an analyst for ESPN.
“It’s not that,” Phillips said. “This is a business about winning, and teams will go anywhere for talent. They are going to Japan. They are going to the Dominican. If there’s talent in Europe, they’ll go there.”
The decline can be explained in part by the harvesting of foreign talent, freedom of choice, cultural and a lack of interest.
Robinson not only opened the door for blacks, but also Hispanics, and baseball is the sport of choice in many Latin American nations.
If somebody is leaving, somebody else is coming.
“It’s simple,” Mets outfielder Moises Alou said. “There are more Latin players than ever before.”
Major league rosters are comprised of roughly 40 percent non-white players, of which 29.4 percent are Hispanic and 2.4 percent Asian.
“Baseball is the national sport in the Dominican Republic,” Phillips said. “It is the sport of interest in a lot of Latin American countries. It is not the sport of interest with many black athletes in this country.”
Darryl Strawberry was supposed to be the next Ted Williams. His son, D.J. Strawberry, wasn’t interested in following dad, and played basketball last season at the University of Maryland.
“Basketball,” Strawberry said without hesitation when asked if he could pinpoint one reason.
“Kids these days want to play basketball. Others want to play football. They don’t want to play baseball.”
Greg Maddux once said “chicks dig the long ball,” as part of a baseball-marketing slogan. Truth is, they dig slam-dunks and touchdowns.
There are fewer blacks in the major leagues because there are fewer players in college and that’s because there are fewer playing on the high school level.
“It’s not cool. It’s not the most popular sport in high school,” said Mets outfielder Lastings Milledge, four years removed from prep ball.
“Guys play the sports their friends follow. You go to a baseball game and there are maybe 150 people. There are 10 to 15 thousand at a football game, and maybe, three, four thousand at a basketball game.”
Robinson not only played baseball, but also ran track and played football. These days, he might have been forced to choose.
“When I was growing up, we played all sports,” Mets bench coach Jerry Manuel said. “And, baseball was always a glamour sport. Many kids now play only one sport, but it’s not baseball because it’s not the glamour sport anymore.”
It’s not cool. Rap is cool, and the rappers wear baseball hats, “but they don’t have an allegiance to any team,” Manuel said. “In the Hip Hop culture the caps are part of the outfit.”
The Hip Hop culture has adopted basketball and football, which black kids have been playing more on the college level since the 1970s when those sports began recruiting them on a wide scale.
Those sports have a quicker payout potential.
“Kids these days want that instant gratification,” Manuel said. “You can get to the pros quicker in those sports. Nobody wants to go through the minor leagues.”
Kids, black or white, dream of playing pro ball at an early age. Kids in the inner city don’t dream much about baseball because they don’t play it.
When Randolph grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, there were places to play.
“When I go back what strikes me is there is no place to play,” Randolph said. “And whatever field there are there aren’t maintained. Who wants to play on a field where a ball can hit a broken bottle or crack syringe and hit you in the face?”
Randolph said Major League Baseball must work more with city governments and corporate sponsors to build and maintain fields in the inner cities.
It’s the only way to generate interest with kids, who then would take that interest to high school and eventually create an upward spiral.
As there is no one explanation for the decline in blacks playing baseball, there is no one solution to stem the tide.
But teaching kids of the first, Robinson, could be a start.
“You’d like to hope so,” said Derek Jeter, who will also wear Robinson’s No. 42 today. “It’s kind of sad that the numbers keep going down and down every year.“But I think baseball is starting to make an effort to reach out to some of the inner-city kids.”