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Saturday, February 8, 2014
Going, going, gone

By Howard Bryant
ESPN The Magazine

Bryant Illo
African-American roots run deep in baseball, but the presence of the black star is fading.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 17 Cuba Issue. Subscribe today!

BLACK HISTORY MONTH has arrived. The annual lament of the vanishing black player can officially commence.

African-American roots run deep in baseball, deeper than in any other professional sport. Long before Magic Johnson, African-Americans owned Negro League teams when they could not own much else. MLB integrated before the military did. By the 1970s, baseball looked like a different game, and not just because of the double knits and skinny bodies -- African-Americans comprised a high of 19 percent of big leaguers. That number today is around 8 percent. Baseball hasn't had a blockbuster black marketing star since Ken Griffey Jr., a rookie before Mike Trout was born.

But the ballad of the vanishing black ballplayer -- sung dutifully by the sport's leaders -- sounds hollow when the business of the game is constructed to find talent except black ballplayers. MLB is sinking billions into the Japanese market, most recently evidenced by the Yankees' seven-year, $155 million deal with Masahiro Tanaka (and the accompanying $20 million posting fee to Tanaka's Japanese team). All 30 teams invest heavily in Latin America, still the world's cheapest, most plentiful source of talent. Meanwhile, for various reasons, teams are turning away from high school prospects and toward college ones. In 2013, 68 percent of draft picks came out of NCAA or juco programs, up from 53 percent in 1995. This trend cuts against minorities; in a sport in which full rides are increasingly hard to come by, African-Americans comprise fewer than 5 percent of D1 players, according to the NCAA. That problem is only going to get worse under the new CBA, which drastically limits the signing bonuses teams can offer draft picks, which in turn discourages elite two-sport athletes from choosing baseball.

The good news is that MLB believes the black player is an endangered species worth saving. The RBI program, launched in 1989, has failed to move the needle on participation rates, so the league recently created a committee, headed by Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, to study opportunities to increase the numbers. The bad news is that in its 10-month existence, the committee has waded into a socioeconomic swamp where no easy answers lie. Along with the inequities of the judicial system, the instability of the black family is the most debilitating remnant of slavery. As Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins has said, baseball, more than other sports, is a father-son game, and the game is too complex and slow to be immediately appreciated without a strong male presence. Black men need to stick around and step up. No task force can address that. At the same time, the cost of travel teams has turned the game into a rich-kid sport. The public school system, which produced Willie Stargell, Rickey Henderson and Kirby Puckett, is threadbare, as is the public infrastructure that ran programs and maintained fields.

What baseball can do is reform the components of its structure that inherently limit black participation. Basketball and football both boast a powerful, largely egalitarian developmental pipeline to the pros (public schools, AAU, college). Baseball needs to create a pipeline of its own, a developmental system that identifies and sponsors talented players before they are priced out of the travel-team model. Then it needs to partner with the NCAA to fund more full baseball scholarships and give the college game a better chance of attracting black athletes. (There is a potentially massive opening to poach them from football in a time of concussions and other head trauma.)

But most imperative, MLB needs to overhaul a draft system that provides no incentive for individual teams to develop American talent of all races. For example, you'll never see a team create a Latin American-style academy in the U.S., because no team will fund and develop young players only to have them drafted by other teams. But if MLB were to get rid of the draft, essentially turning prospects into free agents (as most international players are), you would see an academy system blossom here overnight. Sure, the commissioner's office could always try to persuade teams to create academies for moral reasons. But history shows that financial and competitive selfishness solves moral problems even better.

Just ask Branch Rickey.

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