Mets first baseman Tony Clark, formerly with the Detroit Tigers, has donated baseball equipment to Detroit public schools through his foundation. San Francisco Giants outfielder Marquis Grissom runs a foundation that supports youth programs near his childhood home of Red Oak, Ga., renovating fields and distributing equipment. "I believe in what [Hall of Famer] Joe Morgan once said," Grissom says. "If baseball is concerned about the decrease of black players, it should open clinics and academies in the inner cities of the U.S., just like they do in the Dominican Republic."
There is agreement at baseball's highest level. "I'm a product of the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, and I remember the strong level of interest in the African-American community," says commissioner Bud Selig. "Over the years that interest declined. We've tried to deal with it, but we clearly need to do more. That means expanding the RBI program and spending more money on building fields. The Baseball Tomorrow Fund, our joint program with the players, is building fields in the inner cities to give those kids the same access to baseball that they have to basketball and football. We need to intensify our effort. This [decline of black players] is startling."
Last year the Baseball Tomorrow Fund awarded approximately $1.4 million to 28 youth baseball and Softball programs, an average of $50,000 per program, or about half the cost of building a baseball field.
Major league baseball is planning to open its first urban academy, in the Los Angeles area. Members of the major league scouting bureau will help provide instruction. The academy is expected to include two full-sized fields, a youth field and one softball field. Along with the on-field training, there will be classroom instruction and the use of computers to teach the sport. The cost will be borne by Major League Baseball. "The idea is that every major league club will want one in the shadow of their own stadium," says Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's senior vice president, baseball operations. "Hopefully all 30 clubs will have one, and there will be more in places that are not major league cities." Such academies, Solomon says, would reach kids as young as eight years old.
"What I've learned is that we need to get lads when they're younger," says Young, the founder of RBI. The 185 RBI programs around the world are run with varying degrees of success. The programs in Houston, where Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Carl Crawford played, and Atlanta are regarded as strong centers. The ideal RBI program may be the one in Los Angeles, which is thriving—it sends youths to showcase camps and out-of-state tournaments—because of the financial support of Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown, who is white.
"We can do things here because Kevin Brown gave us a million dollars," Young says. "I get saddened sometimes because when I started RBI 14 years ago, 17 percent of the players in the majors were black. And now it's 10 percent. I feel like I've failed." Young understands, too, that inner-city demographics are changing, especially in places such as Los Angeles, Miami and New York, where the number of Latinos is increasing significantly. Blacks accounted for 65% of the participants in RBI two years ago; now they account for 50%.
"The RBI program is nice," the NL team area scout says, "but they're not getting the best athletes. Those athletes are going into other sports."
Says Phillies general manager Ed Wade, "If you're a young African-American, and you see LeBron James out of high school getting $90 million and going straight to the NBA and you have a choice of sports to play, baseball isn't going to have that kind of young role model."
Imagine a black youth watching the April 11 game at Minute Maid Park between the Cardinals and the Houston Astros, two of the best teams in the National League Central. The game is a thriller, with Houston second baseman Jeff Kent beating St. Louis ace Matt Morris with a two-run walk-off homer. The two teams used 23 players in the game. None of them were black—just as it was in 1946.
There is a saying in baseball that scouts go where the talent is, from the heart of a big city to the edge of a one-stoplight town. Every tank of gas is a chance to see the next Sheffield. "Nobody slips through the cracks," says Fagnant, the Boston scout.