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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Baseball blackout?

It's naive to blame dearth of African-Americans inábaseball solely on MLB

Posted: Tuesday May 11, 2004 2:08PM; Updated: Thursday May 13, 2004 5:28PM
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Jumping to the defense of Major League Baseball is tough. When it comes to dropping the ball and PR blunders, baseball commissioner Bud Selig andáteam owners have no equal this side of the folks calling the shots at NCAA headquarters.

It's easy to blame the baseball honchos for the decline of African-Americans in their sport. They deserve to be held responsible for theálack of blacks in theáfront office and dugouts. But not for the dearth of African-Americans on the playing field, asásome have suggested.

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If we've learned anything, it's that professional athletes aren't selected based on their choirboy attributes or skin tone. Most front office-types would sell their soul to win and are looking for the players who can best help them do that. Any scout worth a damn lives to brag about having signed the next Barry Bonds or Dontrelle Willis. So the issue at play here is far more complicated and deserving of thoughtful scrutiny.

Then again, it doesn't take one of the game's new-breed of statistical wizards to reveal that the pipeline of African-American talent to the majors is as dry as its been since 1960. Black youngsters simply aren't playing the game as much as they used to.áA variety of reasons have been tossed about, everything from kids exercising a preference for sports like basketball and football to the deteroriation of organized sandlot programs in urban communities. Thus, the numbers of blacks playing baseball are on decline at the high school level, and college recruiters are finding fewer and fewer players to bring on campus.

According to the latest figures available from the NCAA, African-Americans made up 6.8 percent of the Division I scholarship baseball players. That's compared to 57 percent of basketball and 43 percent of football players.

Still want to blame Uncle Bud and MLB? Then, what do you say about historically black colleges -- schools like Bethune-Cookman and Texas Southern, just to mention a few -- ushering white and Hispanic players on campus to fill out their baseball rosters? And this phenomenon is playing out at most traditionally black schools, according to the latest NCAA statistics.

Last weekend in Houston, Mississippi Valley State made headlines by finishing runner-up to Texas Southern at the Southwestern Athletic Conference tourney. The Delta Devils posted a school record for wins (36). Fifteen of the 24 playersáon this year'sáteamáare white -- including two of the five MVSU guys on the all-tournament team. And the head coach, Doug Shanks, is white, too.

There just aren't enough African-American baseball players to go around -- high school, college or pros. To fill the rosters of the Delta Devils or the Atlanta Braves.

"It's not a matter of race," offers Wallace Dooley, aáSWAC official. "If a coach finds players and they come play for him, then they play for him. We don't have any quotas or anything like that. Coaches evaluate talent and offer scholarships based on talent."

Shanks, a longtime force in Mississippi's summer-league ball, says his hiring four years ago didn't create much of a ruckus because the MVSU program had long been dormant.

"Some schools don't like, I guess, that white people are coming over to a black conference," says freshman outfielder Ross Meyers. "At Alabama State, a parent or whatever asked if we were still an HBC school because we had so many white people on our team."

The school that produced NFL star Jerry Rice might be pushing the envelope, but today almost every historically black college fields a baseball team that includes whites and Hispanics. The small group of top-flight black high school players often sign pro contracts or sign on with one of the top college baseball powers.

When he scouted the Mississippi junior college championships two weeks ago, Shanks saw "only three or four" African-American players among the six competing teams. So what's the problem? MLB sponsoers theáReviving Baseball in Inner Cities [RBI] program, a development league that provides opportunities for kinds in urban areas to play the game, but Shanks believes the problem isnt' limited to inner cities.

"Where you see black players now are not in the urban areas, but in the baseball hotbeds in the suburban areas," Shanks says. "You can mention million of reasons for it, but basically the reason for it is daddies. It's the deterioration of the family, because baseball starts out with junior throwing with daddy in the backyard. They don't go out and say 'Let's go kick the soccer ball.' It is usually 'Let's go out and throw a baseball.' That is the missing link.

"You see the dropoff in Little Leagues, and then high school coaching in metropolitan areas is [poor], whereas in suburban schools you have more people who care about baseball. So the next thing that dies out is your summer league. It is a serious cycle."

Shanks' theory about sociological repercussions are but one theory on the phenomenon. But it's clearly na´ve to place the blame for the declining numbers at the doorstep of Major League Baseball.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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