"If I'm a kid and I don't see any faces like my own, why do I want to play baseball when I can play football or basketball?"
The decline of the black ballplayer has coincided most notably with the rise of the Latino player. (The number of white players in the major leagues has held between 58% and 62% every year from 1995 through 2002—down from 70% in 1990.) Latins held a record 28% of roster spots last year, up from 20% in '96 and more than double the 13% in '90. Their number should continue to rise as 46% of the 6,196 minor league players at the start of this season were foreign-born, with most of them coming from Latin America.
Major league clubs pump $60 million annually into Latin American scouting and development, which includes club-run academies at which a 16-year-old can stay for up to 30 days while the team decides whether to sign him to a pro contract, usually at a fraction of what a U.S.-born player would cost. By contrast, players born in the U.S. are subject to the major league draft and cannot be signed until they or their high school class graduates. Also, in Latin America major league clubs seldom have to compete for their players' attention with football and basketball, college recruiters or computers and other diversions prevalent among teenagers in the States.
One bright January morning during a visit to the Dominican Republic three years ago, an American reporter noticed scores of young ballplayers going through drills on a diamond in a Santo Domingo public park. The reporter asked a bystander what kind of teams these were. The bystander replied that they weren't teams at all, that the young men met every morning on their own to work out. In their midst were big leaguers such as Pedro Martinez, Pedro Astacio and Jose Mesa.
Such passion for baseball has become as rare in urban America as a well-maintained ball field.
What used to be fertile ground for African-American ballplayers now produces mushrooms. The infields at the Belmont Heights Little League complex in Tampa are so unkempt this June afternoon that giant toadstools give off shade. The grass and weeds are a half-foot high. The sun is shining. The complex is empty. Nobody is playing baseball. When there are games, Al Davis says, sometimes they are stopped so that adults can comb the uneven fields for broken glass. The only clue that this once was home to a model program for black ballplayers is a sign attached to a rusted blue canopy above the metal bleachers of the one full-sized diamond. It reads, DWIGHT "DR. K" GOODEN SENIOR LEAGUE FIELD.
In the 1970s you could have watched a game at Belmont Heights any night of the week during the season, and chances were there'd be a future major leaguer on the field. Gooden, Sheffield, Derek Bell, Carl Everett and Vance Lovelace all played here. Billy Reed, the beloved Hillsborough High coach, was often at the complex, coming straight from practice to give the little guys lessons and encouragement. The Belmont Heights team reached the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., four times.
"What I remember," says Gooden, 38, the 1985 Cy Young Award winner, "was they'd have registration day on a Saturday. And if you didn't show up early enough, you'd get turned away because all the spots filled up. We had six teams on every [age] level. Now each level has three teams. They have so few kids playing they have to go play teams from other parks just to fill out their schedule.
"We used to play all the time, not just Little League ball. Eight or nine of us would get on our bikes and ride to another neighborhood and play a bunch of other kids. And maybe next time they'd come to our neighborhood. And if there was a game on TV or radio, we were watching or listening. Nothing like that happens anymore. Nobody's playing."
And there aren't enough Billy Reeds around these days.