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
And Mahomes' start only occurred
because Jeff D'Amico fell ill just before the game.
It was Mahomes' lone start of
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
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
"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."
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.