Baseball needs more black stars

There’s good news and bad news to report to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig from my family gathering this weekend. The good news is that John and Joshua, my 17 and 13-year-old great nephews like to play baseball. The bad news: They don’t like to watch it on television.

This means that John and Joshua, apparently like millions of other young black men, won’t be tuned into tomorrow night’s baseball All-Star Game, the annual midsummer showcase of the best and the brightest in the national pastime. For them, baseball’s leisurely pace and distinct lack of hipness, not to mention the virtual absence of players they can relate to, makes the game a loser.

For decades, the history between baseball and blacks was a rich and meaningful one, from the Negro Leagues to Jackie Robinson’s successful infiltration of the majors in 1947, an act that helped set the scene for the civil rights movement.

In the 1960’s, the list of great black players grew exponentially, and with the stardom of men like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson and Frank Robinson, my childhood hero, the bond between blacks and baseball grew ever stronger. In the part of Maryland where I grew up, pick-up Sunday afternoon baseball games among black men were all the rage come summertime, with decent crowds of spectators watching on makeshift wooden stands.

However, as the popularity of the NFL and the NBA grew, the ties between African-Americans and baseball loosened to some degree. Older blacks, who remembered the game and its sociological importance, never left, but as they died off, they weren’t replaced within the younger set.

As a result, baseball stopped creating black stars. In the 1990’s, either Ken Griffey, Jr. or Barry Bonds – both sons of former baseball players — seemed to alternately hold the title as the game’s best player. However, Griffey’s repeated trips to the disabled list left him unable to sustain his greatness for a long period of time, while Bonds’ presumed connection to baseball’s steroid era has rendered him a less than credible role model.
Today, Hispanic players like St. Louis’ Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez of the Los Angeles Dodgers are baseball’s biggest stars.

Oddly, Michael Jordan may have held an important key to reestablishing baseball as a relevant force in the minds of young blacks. Jordan retired to pursue a career in baseball in 1994, and his charisma might have transferred a level of coolness to baseball for the hip-hop community. Instead, Jordan famously flamed out, never rising above the minor leagues, and an opportunity was lost.

The irony is that my great nephews’ indifference comes amid signs that MLB’s recent efforts to reconnect with the African-American community are starting to bear fruit. Now in its 20th year, the Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program is a grassroots effort among the 30 Major League clubs to provide resources for urban youths who want to learn and play the game.

The percentage of black players in the majors rose to 10 percent last year from an all-time low of 8.2 percent in 2007, while Major League Baseball received its first ever “A” for minority hiring from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

Even though only 10 of the 71 players who were either voted or selected to tomorrow’s All-Star game are African-American, there are a handful of budding black stars who could bring back the cool to baseball. .

The world champion Philadelphia Phillies have a pair of terrific players, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 National League Most Valuable Player, and first baseman Ryan Howard, who won the award in 2006. Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford is one of baseball’s best all-around players, while Adam Jones, who roams centerfield for my Orioles, may actually lift the team over .500 for once.

If only they could just coax John and Joshua to put away their XBox and watch real baseball players play.