Thursday, April 15, 2010
The commissioner and his quest
By Ian O'Connor ESPNNewYork.com
NEW YORK -- Bud Selig is staring down a challenge, one more profound than the hunt for a reliable urine test to detect HGH. On the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's 1947 debut at Ebbets Field, Selig is trying to recruit the young African-American athlete away from the country's basketball courts and football fields.
Start with the business end of the proposition. As a commissioner, Selig wants the best of the best in his sport. Like any right-minded CEO, he wants to draw gifted employees from every available talent pool -- white and black, Hispanic and Asian, domestic and international.
But a segment of the population that has produced so many elite professional athletes -- African-Americans -- now sends the vast majority of those athletes to the NBA and NFL, leaving a disconnect between baseball and an era when the Henry Aarons, Willie Mayses and Bob Gibsons suggested the procession of black stars entering the game would only widen over time.
"Somewhere we lost a generation or two of African-Americans," Selig said Thursday. "I don't know why that happened, but we are coming back."
Some have charged racism is to blame for the fact African-Americans have represented only 8 to 10 percent of baseball rosters in recent years. Torii Hunter even told USA Today he shared a theory with fellow African-American players that baseball executives pursued Latin prospects so they could "go get an imitator and pass them off as us," comments he would later retreat from.
This is where baseball's business interests end and its moral compass kicks in. Selig is a longtime friend and admirer of Aaron. He spent Wednesday with the home run king -- the real one, anyway -- for a ceremony in Mobile, Ala., to honor Aaron, whose childhood home was moved onto the grounds of the minor league ballpark bearing his name.
Six Hall of Famers were in the crowd -- Mays, Ozzie Smith, Reggie Jackson, Bob Feller, Rickey Henderson and Bruce Sutter. The racial makeup of today's game wasn't the official topic of the day, but Jackson, who played in an age when 27 percent of big league players were African-American, said the subject was the unspoken undercurrent of the event.
Selig, a regular at the annual Jackie Robinson Foundation dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, embraces CEO Della Britton Baeza and founder Rachel Robinson.
"Do we all want to see more black players in the game, and black fans staying engaged with the game? Of course we do,"Jackson said. "I've had my issues with Bud, and I'm no rollover for him, but I do believe Bud is very concerned about this and I know baseball isn't keeping black players out. So I don't know what the answer is."
There's no easy answer here. There's no simple way to explain why African-American athletes dominate the NBA and NFL, and yet the Mets fielded just one (Gary Matthews Jr.) on an active 25-man roster in Colorado that included 16 players born outside the U.S. The Mets, the soulmates of Jackie Robinson's Dodgers, are a franchise with a progressive-minded ownership family that employs an African-American manager and a Hispanic GM.
Where has the black big leaguer gone? You know the list of educated guesses by now:
Lack of field space in metropolitan areas. The ever-soaring costs of baseball equipment. The bigger public platforms provided to amateur basketball and football stars.
"You can't do in baseball what Derrick Rose or Kevin Durant did in basketball,"Jackson said. "You don't go to college one year and then lead the major leagues in homers."
John Wall will be an immediate starter in the NBA, and just about every sports fan in America will know his name before he leads his first professional fast break. College basketball offers up nonstop national TV appearances and the NCAA tournament, and college football has its prime-time BCS bowls. The exposure is a seductive sell.
Baseball? Division I college programs are largely ignored, and there's no one-and-done option for those high school phenoms fixing to turn pro. "No, it doesn't happen overnight in baseball," Selig conceded. "It's not like the other sports where you go right through to the league. You have to go through a farm system in baseball.
"But in the long run, your potential in baseball is better than it is in the other sports because it's easier to stay away from injury."
Atlanta's Jason Heyward is his sport's John Wall, and yet he spent three years toiling in the minors, a country mile from the nation's consciousness. For the cause of advancing baseball's African-American presence, he's straight out of central casting. A Georgian with a combination of power and speed, Heyward will be adored by Braves fans.
Aaron has said Heyward "can mean an awful lot to what ails baseball," and Hammerin' Hank is right. But Heyward alone won't make a significant difference any more than Junior Griffey or Ryan Howard or CC Sabathia could.
Aaron has found it depressing to see the dearth of black prospects in big league camps. He wants baseball to act, and at his Wednesday ceremony he spoke with Selig about the dire need for change.
The commissioner points to the Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities program, operating in more than 200 cities, serving some 150,000 kids and producing graduates the likes of Sabathia, Jimmy Rollins and Carl Crawford.
"And we've already built development academies in the inner cities," Selig said. "We've got one in Compton [California] that everyone raves about, we just opened one in Houston and we're building one in Miami and Atlanta."
But nearly every big league club owns a youth academy in the Dominican Republic. Why haven't the Mets and Yankees funded one in New York? Why haven't the Cubs and White Sox funded one in Chicago?
"My ultimate goal is to have an academy in every major league city," Selig said. "I really believe we're a social institution with important social responsibilities, and we're making progress.
"You look at Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Jason Heyward, a lot of young African-American stars. We've got to continue to do better, and we will."
On matters of racial consequence, Selig speaks from the heart. In 1955, he successfully lobbied his University of Wisconsin fraternity to admit its first black member. He understands that honoring Jackie Robinson, and having every big leaguer wear his number on April 15, doesn't change the current face of his game.
At 75 years old, Bud Selig knows that winning back the African-American athlete is his last hill to climb.
Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.