IN JANUARY 2005, during his freshman year at Vanderbilt, David Price decided to drop out of school, quit baseball and work at McDonald's. He picked his preferred location, near his home in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He told his father, Bonnie, about his plan. Then he informed Vandy coach Tim Corbin of his intention in a tearful meeting in the Commodores' locker room. Sure, Price was a 6'6" lefthanded pitcher who could throw upward of 90 miles per hour and seven months earlier had been drafted in the 19th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. But he had also just been shelled in a preseason intrasquad game, clearly a call to the Golden Arches. "It was definitely kind of out there," Corbin recalls, "but I couldn't laugh because he was so serious." ¶ Baseball has lost countless African-American athletes to basketball and the lure of the McDonald's All-American team, but not necessarily to McDonald's itself. Corbin needed an hour to convince Price that his future was in fastballs, not fast food. "He had to survive that moment to show he could survive as a pitcher," Corbin says. It was a crucial step, not only for Price but also for baseball in the black community. Today Price is the best African-American pitching prospect since Dwight Gooden, in an organization that has built around African-American players like no other current franchise.
Last season 8.2% of major league baseball players were black, the lowest figure in more than two decades. If there is hope for a renaissance anywhere, it is in Tampa Bay, an area steeped in African-American baseball history, with a big league team that is adding to the tradition. When the Rays summon Price from the minors, which is a virtual inevitability, they will be gearing up for the franchise's first meaningful stretch drive. As an ancillary benefit they will also be reminding inner-city Tampa that there is still at least one place for African-American ballplayers of any position.
The Rays have had the first pick in each of the last two amateur drafts, a testament to their recent futility. This year they selected high school shortstop Tim Beckham. Last year they chose Price. In 2003, when they also had the first pick, they tabbed outfielder Delmon Young. In 2002 they picked second and snagged B.J. Upton, then a shortstop and now their centerfielder. In 2001 they went third and took righthanded pitcher Dewon Brazelton. Those players do not have much in common, other than that they are all African-American in an era when African-Americans have been disappearing from the nation's diamonds.
"In this day and age that list is pretty unbelievable," says Rays outfielder Cliff Floyd. "As an African-American player it's a joy to see. Getting African-American kids back in baseball is a huge issue, and I'm proud to be part of a team that is doing something about it. They are obviously looking for talent—talent and nothing else."
Talent, regardless of color, does not always pan out. Brazelton, 8--25 in parts of five seasons, was out of the game before his 28th birthday. Elijah Dukes, another African-American player drafted high by the Rays, could not stay off the police blotter and was dealt last winter, to Washington. Still, among the first six hitters in the Rays batting order, three are African-American—Carl Crawford, Upton and Floyd. When Price arrives, he will join Edwin Jackson in the rotation, making the Rays the only team in the majors with two African-American starting pitchers. (The Angels and the Brewers have the most African-American players, with six each.)
Price is currently pitching for the Double A Montgomery Biscuits, and while McMuffins to Biscuits may sound like a lateral move, he has made huge strides since January '05. He throws a 97-mph fastball, complemented by an 89-mph slider that looks like a fastball until it takes a last-second right turn. In his first professional season Price was 8--0 with a 2.01 ERA at week's end, having started the year with Class A Vero Beach before his promotion to Montgomery in late June.
That has put added pressure on Tampa Bay's front office, which so far has pulled off the sweetest story in baseball this year. But in order to accomplish the unfathomable and make the playoffs this season, they probably need to bring up the Biscuit while he's hot (sidebar, next page). "It's what I think about every day, every time I step on the field," says Price, who'll turn 23 later this month. "What's going on in Tampa Bay is something you have to want to be a part of."
IF MAJOR LEAGUE baseball is serious about developing and promoting black players, it only makes sense that Tampa would have a central role. A onetime cradle of African-American baseball, it has one local Little League district (Belmont Heights) with alumni that include current and former African-American major leaguers Gooden, Dukes, Gary Sheffield, Derek Bell, Carl Everett and Floyd Youmans. Not surprisingly, between 1973 and '82, a golden age for African-American baseball players, Belmont Heights sent five teams to the Little League World Series.
But today, at the field on 22nd Street, many of the league's trophies are missing. "It looks like someone has helped themselves to a little bit of our history," says Artis Gambrell Jr., the Belmont Heights league president, scanning the mantel behind his desk. Gambrell started playing at Belmont Heights in 1975, when 27% of major leaguers were African-American, an alltime high. Back then the Little League had 26 teams spread over four age divisions. There was a public address announcer calling games, family businesses lining up to offer sponsorships and players flocking to the ballpark every Tuesday night to learn who had won the batter of the week award. The winner was awarded a box of Now and Later candies.
The P.A. announcer, Grover Stevens, developed his own catchphrase—"Well hit ball ... Buffalo!"—triggered by all the home runs that flew over the leftfield fence and onto Buffalo Avenue. The most powerful hitters, like Sheffield, could clear Buffalo entirely and hit EM Roofing across the street, beating up the roofer's roof. Eventually, however, the roofer moved and Stevens died and Buffalo Avenue was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. This season the Belmont Heights Little League only filled 14 teams in its four upper divisions. Players, instead of local businesses, paid for uniforms.