Rickie Weeks, a black ballplayer, was good though not a star at Lake Brantley High in Altamonte Springs, Fla., and graduated in 2000. He was thin, 180 pounds on a 5'11" frame, with exceptional speed but little power for an outfielder. Pro scouts took a look at him, but no club drafted him. No major college was interested. "We're scouting kids less for tools than we did before," Young says of the deemphasis of athleticism.
A pro scout who knew Cador, the Southern University coach, recommended Weeks as a player who would be a good fit for Cador's program. Cador gave Weeks a scholarship. Three years later the Milwaukee Brewers took Weeks, now a sinewy power-hitting second baseman, with the second overall pick in last month's draft. "A lot of times the pros and the colleges will take the polished player over the athlete," Cador says. "The coach in the SEC is getting paid big money to win. And if he doesn't win, he's going to lose his job. So he can't do what I'm doing. He's going to take the more polished player."
Ray Fagnant, a Red Sox scout who covers New England, New Jersey, New York and eastern Canada, says he had "maybe six" black players in his entire territory this year who were considered even borderline pro prospects. A National League team area scout says New York City has generally been without a big-time African-American prospect since Shawon Dunston 21 years ago. "Most of the better players in the city are Latin now," the scout says. "You don't see the [black] players you might have years ago. They don't play. And if a kid is a good athlete, the high school football coach or the basketball coach doesn't want to share him. We're just not seeing them play baseball. Now you can drive by a basketball court at two o'clock in the morning and it'll be packed."
Not a single African-American from Boston, New York or Philadelphia plays in the majors now. Only two current big leaguers—Floyd and Braves lefty reliever Ray King—came out of Chicago.
Many major league clubs, such as the Red Sox, the Oakland A's and the Toronto Blue Jays, emphasize drafting college players over high school players because the college kids are more developed and their potential is more easily defined. However, the carrot of a baseball scholarship is a rather small one. The NCAA permits a total of 11.7 baseball scholarships at any given time, and they are typically parsed among most of the 30 or so players on a roster. Full rides are rare. Parents can find more financial incentive in football, which is allowed up to 85 scholarships, and even basketball, which gets 13 for a roster that is half the size of baseball's. Even softball is permitted more grants (12) than baseball.
There are 34 blacks in the majors who attended four-year colleges, including such stars from major programs as Barry Bonds ( Arizona State), Barry Larkin ( Michigan), Charles Johnson ( Miami), Frank Thomas (Auburn) and Mo Vaughn ( Seton Hall). But those players appear to be remnants of another era because the flow from that pipeline has slowed to a trickle in recent years. Only five of the college-bred black big leaguers are younger than 29—and none of them are stars ( Juan Pierre, Ken Harvey, Willie Harris, Jerry Hairston and Jacque Jones).
At some point," Bob Muzikowski says, "there will be a tipping point, a societal change that we don't know about yet, and blacks will return to the sport." John Young believes a three-day conference among black leaders and baseball executives is needed to map out a recovery plan. The Indians' Dejon Watson says the sport needs to tailor part of its packaging to blacks. "We don't market our game very well," he says. "Take Nelly, the rapper. From a major league baseball standpoint he's a perfect marketing tool. He has played the game. Maybe get him to tell his story to reach kids."
Hall of Famer Frank Robinson is not so concerned with marketing campaigns. An 11-year-old in West Oakland, Calif., when Jackie Robinson changed baseball, Frank Robinson became part of the first generation of great black players in the major leagues, which also included Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays. Now 67 and the manager of the Montreal Expos, Frank Robinson says today's black stars share in the blame for the decline of the black ballplayer. "People seem to think they owe nothing but playing the game," he says. "You don't see minorities attached to the community or going home and giving something back. Now the stars and the top players, they hide. They don't go into the community. They don't go back into the inner city or where their roots were.
"Baseball is now third, maybe fourth in the [inner-city] household. Golf is now talked about more than baseball. Why? Because of the influence of Tiger Woods. He gives back through his foundation."
Says Sheffield, "We need to do more. We have to do a better job giving back." Several years ago Sheffield and Gooden wrote checks to the Belmont Heights Little League program for improvements, such as the installation of batting cages. Now Gooden, Sheffield and Everett plan to develop a youth center in Tampa. In the meantime Gooden, a pitching coach for the Yankees' rookie league team in Tampa, says he would like to run camps and clinics at the Yankees' minor league complex in his off-hours, perhaps busing kids there. "It's time to take the first step," he says.