Pittsburgh Sports Report
August 2004

Urban Redevelopment
African-American Athletes Ignoring Baseball
By John E. Sacco

When Pat Mahomes took the mound August 25, 2003 for the Pirates, he became the first African-American pitcher to start a game for the team since 1992, when Victor Cole started four games.

And Mahomes' start only occurred because Jeff D'Amico fell ill just before the game.

It was Mahomes' lone start of the season.

Amazingly, it has been 21 years since an African-American pitcher started more than 10 games for the Pirates in a season. Jim Bibby did it 12 times in 1983.

Those facts say more about the decline in African-Americans playing in the big leagues than they do about the Pirates' organization.

It is no less alarming, however, that less than 10 percent of the players on Major League Baseball opening day rosters this season were African-American. Less than five, not five percent, five players, were starting pitchers.

In an era when more players from more countries than ever are playing in the big leagues, less and less African-Americans are being seen on the playing fields.

Further evidence that African-American interest in the game is fading is that just one African-American college player, Richie Robnett of Fresno State, was among the top 100 picks in June's first-year player draft.

"I think one of the biggest problems is baseball is one of the most difficult sports to play," Pirates' manager Lloyd McClendon said. "In basketball and football, you can reach the professional leagues much faster if you have the ability. In basketball, you can be a good shooter and be a good player. In football, you can run or block. There are just so many things in baseball to master. Kids just don't want to spend the time. Baseball is tough. It's a long process to become a major league player."

Football and basketball are seen as the glamour sports in this country. African-Americans seem to have taken to those games and gone away from baseball.

The Pirates' roster currently includes just three African-American players: outfielders Tike Redman and J.J. Davis and first baseman-outfielder Daryle Ward. Davis and Ward were on the disabled list as of press time. And this is an organization that was the first in baseball to field an all minority (Latin and African American) team in the early 1970s.

GM Dave Littlefield said the team is aggressively trying to get better at procuring talent in Latin America.

"The numbers from Latin America are increasing while there's been a significant decrease in African-American participation in the big leagues," Littlefield confirmed. "I'm concerned whenever any pool of players decreases. We want the best players. Baseball has become more global and there are areas of the world where players have proven to be legitimate major leaguers. We're always looking to find people who can play baseball."

The Latino influence on the game is more apparent than ever.

At the start of the 2004 season, there were 79 players from the Dominican Republic, 45 from Venezuela, 36 from Puerto Rico, and a handful of others from Colombia, Cuba, Curacao, Nicaragua and Panama on opening day rosters.

In addition there were 16 Mexicans, 11 Canadians, 10 Japanese, four Koreans, four Australians and one Aruban filling those rosters.

According to ESPN reporter Pedro Gomez, just five years ago, there were 66 Dominican-born players on opening day rosters. Now, about one of every seven big leaguers was born in the Dominican Republic. That figure will only climb, especially considering that nearly 30 percent of all minor leaguers in 2003 were of Dominican descent.

"Anywhere you go in the Dominican Republic, you see kids playing baseball, whether it be organized or mostly unorganized," Gomez said. "Whenever you have that many kids playing, you're going to attract scouts there. They are playing ball down there in great, great numbers, much like in the United States 40 years ago."

Al Avila, assistant general manager of Detroit, and Omar Minaya, Montreal's general manager, agree that baseball is the best way out of poverty for most Dominican kids and their families. They see on television and read in the newspapers how many of their countrymen have made it to the majors.

"The quickest ticket out if a kid is in impoverished is through athletics, but in basketball and football," Gomez said. "Think about the number of scholarships given out to basketball and football players. It's rare to see a full scholarship given to a baseball player at any university. If you're an urban kid and look at the numbers, you see basketball or football as the easier way to get an education."

George Zuraw is a consultant for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He is a veteran baseball scout and understands the changing face of the game better than most.

He agrees with Gomez that the decline in African-American players in the major leagues is likely to continue.

"African-Americans are not playing baseball primarily because they don't have the facilities," Zuraw said. "You can play basketball on the street. A lot of African-Americans excel at football, and both basketball and football are instant gratification sports. To me, this is nothing new. It's been like this for awhile."

A quick look at the Pirates' top minor-league prospects shows a dearth of African-American talent.

It all is part of the trend.

Latin Americans have made inroads into baseball management in recent years, and the excitement players from the Dominican Republic and Cuba bring in the form of quicker, passionate and an even more confrontational style of play is invigorating.

"Of all the sports, we Latins believe that baseball requires the greatest amount of skill," Hall of Fame outfielder Orlando Cepeda said a few years ago. "That's why we take such pride in playing it well."

John E. Sacco has covered the Pirates and major league baseball for PSR since October 1998. He is a former member of the Baseball Writers of America Association, Pittsburgh chapter.

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