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Why America's Pastime Is Losing Its Identity

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On a May 28, 2006 Barry Bonds succeeded in hitting his 715th home run to pass Babe RuthÂ's homerun record and now second to Hank AaronÂ's Major League Baseball (MLB) all-time home run record of 755, it is representative in a number of ways of the present state of MLB. Specifically, the state of the gameÂ's future in the African-American community comes to mind. And it might be an appropriate time to reexamine the decline of participation of the black athlete in baseball, which is a far more multi-faceted problem than commonly expressed.

While there is a dearth of interest among young boys and teenagers in the black community participating in organized baseball, the reasons most often provided are shortsighted and often too easy to come by. Without an honest discourse between the leaders of the black communities throughout the United States, as well as some candor coming from the offices of MLB, what seems an insurmountable problem to attract blacks to baseball, will forever remain.

And although it is simply too easy to blame any one entity for all of the fall-off of black players in baseball, the primary beneficiary, of ignoring players from the U.S. including white players, remains MLB. And it must be held accountable, regardless of myriad cultural reasons attributed to childrenÂ's lack of interest in baseball, predominantly in the inner city neighborhoods, for its lack of investment in them.

On February 28, 2006, MLB opened its first Urban Youth Academy in the U.S. At a cost of $3 million which took three years to complete, with the idea shopped around for six, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig clucked, Â"This is the first of what I hope is a series of academies all over America.Â" The facility is located at the campus of Compton Community College on 10 acres of land in Compton, CA, south of Los Angeles. It includes two regulation size baseball diamonds, a youth field and one for girlÂ's softball and a 12,000 square foot clubhouse with locker room, weight room and other training facilities. It is expected to be a prototype for other U.S. facilities, through the Urban Youth Initiative, which will serve not only as a catalyst for reviving baseball but a place for inner-city youth to enjoy each summer and after school.

Starting in June 2006, 125 children each day are expected to participate and to be given instruction by professional level coaches on playing the game. The monetary investment however was not solely supplied by MLB. $70,000.00 was collectively donated by Enos Cabell, Jr. and Tim Purpura, GM of the Houston Astros for batting cages and $500,000.00 was donated by L.A.Â's Anaheim Angels. Access to classrooms and computers are being made available by Compton Community College. Compton was picked primarily as so many African-Americans from MLBÂ's past arose from Compton, but also because the college donated a number of its facilities. It takes on average three years to build a Major League stadium. It is stunning how long it took to put in four ball fields and a clubhouse with so little financial investment from MLB and whose idea largely came to the CommissionerÂ's Office as a grass roots effort.

In 1989, former Major League player, John Young, developed a program called RBI or Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities in South Central Los Angeles for children ages 12-18. In 1991, MLB got involved and assumed its administration. MLB then teamed with the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association from 1993-1996 in providing grants to various cities demonstrating financial need. After five years, Young went national and by 1997 RBI collaborated with various chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. However, MLB and its individual teams have only provided $15 million for RBI since 1991.

The RBI program now includes both boys and girls and its objective is to also include nurturing childrenÂ's interest in school along with baseball as the main component. It claims that it has helped more than 150,000 children in more than 200 cities worldwide play baseball. And its Quick SMART! Program addresses the issues of alcohol, tobacco and other harmful drugs with city youth. Says Roberto Clemente, Jr., who founded the RBI program in Pittsburgh, Â"RBI keeps kids out of trouble and off the streets, while at the same time teaching them to stay in school. The educational components help them realize their potential and worth in receiving college scholarships based not only on athletics, but academics.Â" But one can question the programÂ's expansion worldwide before the job is done in the U.S.

Â"Campos Las Palmas has set the standard for what a baseball academy should be and weÂ're extremely proud of the work done here, not only on the field, but in the community as well.Â" No, this is not another baseball academy planned for the U.S. but a quote from Frank McCourt, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, upon his visit to the DodgerÂ's Dominican Republic baseball complex, in celebrating its 20th year anniversary, earlier in 2006. And while no one can find fault with the individual efforts of the RBI program nor with the idea of Urban Youth Academies in the U.S., it is necessary to contrast those programs with over the $60 million dollars each year which MLB and its individual teams pour into Latin American countries for player development.

Most MLB teams have more than one such facility in Latin America with the most located in the Dominican Republic, followed by Venezuela. When Camp Las Palmas opened in the 1987 season, it was the first facility of its kind and became the universal prototype for all MLB teams in Latin America. It sits on 75 acres of land, equipped with two full and two half baseball fields, a dining room, kitchen, recreation room and two two-story dormitories accommodating 100 players. In addition, it provides lessons in adapting to American culture, classes in English, and nutritional counseling.

Players stay up to 30 days at a time and can be signed at age 16 unlike players in the U.S. where players must at least complete high school or be 18 years of age. If they are enrolled in college, U.S. players must wait until the age of 21 to be signed. But then they go into the draft, which clubs claim deters them from investing in any development of U.S. players, as another club could end up as the beneficiary of such efforts. Also, Latin America does not face competition from the sports of basketball and football as baseball does in the U.S., therefore giving MLB many more prospects to choose from.

It is crucial to understand that offshoring of Latin American baseball players is arguably directly proportional to the loss of African Americans being developed in MLB. Black players were at their peak of their composition in MLB in the late Â'70Â's and early Â'80Â's or roughly 27% of all players. Today that total hovers around 10%. However, it is the combination of other factors which make the Latin American factor even more decimating to the black athleteÂ's chances of ever making it to the Major Leagues.

Ideologies include the increased incarceration of young black males, the lack of positive role models and the lack of two parent families as contributing factors. They, however, cannot necessarily be declared the primary determinants of the lack of blacksÂ' participation in baseball. It is argued that expense is a factor, as it supposedly takes $100,000.00 to build a baseball field and that even if there are baseball fields available, maintenance costs are necessary too. But urban and rural African-Americans played baseball on sandlots and played street stickball for generations, long before pristine $100,000.00 fields were considered a prerequisite to playing baseball.

Others argue that the National Basketball Association (NBA) has done a far better job at marketing to black youth, who rarely ever go to MLB games. And making the National Football League (NFL) is far more attractive than an arduous and lengthy learning process on the way to earning a MLB contract. Both the NBA and the NFL although now require at least a year of college play, are a fast track on the way to fast bucks for those lucky enough to make it. Still, the family fabric not only in the inner city, but more pronounced there, has destroyed the learning curve necessary to build a baseball following. Baseball requires a father or father figure such as a youth leader or mentor to have an impact upon, what used to be considered the National Pastime, the inner-city child. And if they are not hooked by age 13 or 14, itÂ's hard to get them interested later.

Requisite hand-eye coordination skills do not come to children naturally and must be learned, unlike the immediate impact of shooting a basketball or running with a football. It takes patience and fortitude for those skills that must be nurtured. Historically, such nurturers were fathers. But also absent today is the presence of present MLB players who do not involve themselves with the community like Hall of Famers, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson did. The black MLB player today must step up even more so, especially because of the lack of male role models in the black community.

The dissolution of the once three-sport player has also added to the demise of baseball in the inner city. Many public schools only field a football team or basketball team and have dropped baseball altogether. Intramural programs, the victim of budget cuts, only heightens the chances that black youth will be absorbed into gangs, due to lack of organized programs for them.

And for college baseball players, scouting is limited and even more so for the black baseball athlete who rarely competes in baseball in college due to the small scholarships awarded for baseball. Even Howard University has dropped its baseball program, which one would think is a no-brainer for the development of African American baseball players, given its vast appreciation of black history. The National Collegiate Athletic Association only allows for 11.7 baseball scholarships at any given time for a team of 30 players on a roster. Full scholarships are rare. Football, however, is allowed up to 85 scholarships and basketball gets 13 for a roster half the size of baseballÂ's. Both programs are provided far more full scholarships.

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Diane M. Grassi is an investigative journalist and reporter providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs, including key federal and state legislation as well as court decisions relative to the (more...)
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