- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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Major League Baseball has a spotty record when it comes to addressing the decline in African-American participation, but five months ago it decided to seek a solution to the problem. It formed a committee and filled it with some of the most esteemed names in the sport. This coincided roughly with the release of the movie "42" and the annual mass-wearing of Jackie Robinson's number. The committee was seen as a serious move, and it was announced with a furrowed-brow seriousness that got a lot of people's attention.
If you do a basic Web search for information on the committee – its meetings, its findings, anything at all – you find that it hasn't even been mentioned in news reports since the names of its members became a fleeting headline. It's a familiar story: We cover the press release and move on. They'll find us when they need us.
But MLB is discovering that there are people out there who really care about this. They see clubs running expensive and extensive academies in the Dominican Republic and wonder why the same resources – or even a meager portion of them – can't be employed by those teams to benefit underprivileged kids in America's inner cities. They see the game becoming less accessible and more expensive for kids in those cities and wonder if whatever baseball does is too little, too late. They see the vast market potential among millions of Americans being squandered and wonder why baseball insists on remaining stodgy and hidebound.
Steve Bandura runs one of the most successful youth baseball programs in the Philadelphia area, and nearly every one of his players is black. His Anderson Monarchs are a group of neighborhood kids who routinely beat the best "elite" travel teams, even the "elite" teams that are filled with mercenary players who are flown in from all over the country – at team expense – to play for a weekend, all in the name of a meaningless trophy.
Crazy, I know, but it happens. And that dynamic, the insidious seepage of the youth-sports industrial complex into the fabric of baseball, is a big reason why a committee is needed in the first place.
Or, depending on your angle, why it's not.
Bandura is doing all the things the committee is studying. He's getting kids to love baseball, to play it at a high level, to continue playing it after they hit puberty. His players are often the only African-Americans in an entire tournament. They're representing themselves and their community so well, Bandura says, "I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, 'Your team is so well-behaved.' I want to ask, 'Would you even consider saying that to any of these other teams?'" He doesn't buy into the oft-repeated cultural factors that allegedly doom baseball to third-place status behind football and basketball among black youth.
And so he wrote up a 15-page proposal on his experiences and used his connections with MLB's RBI program to get it into the hands of the committee. He gives a straightforward account of how African-American participation began its decline when neighborhood "free play" became obsolete. Organized leagues took over, and pretty soon the only kids playing baseball were the ones in full uniforms playing on manicured fields and praying their parents wouldn't embarrass them. As soon as the smell of money hit the air, a lot of Little League-aged kids were lured into expensive year-round travel ball, a distinctly suburban phenomenon.
Access, and not the appeal of $180 Air Jordans, has always been at the core of the issue. Bandura, in his little corner of South Philly, has managed to provide access and reverse the trend. His program also includes soccer and basketball, and he says most of the kids would rank basketball third.
"I'm trying to offer my services," Bandura says. "Nobody on the committee has any experience with inner-city kids. If you're trying to build something and we've already built it, wouldn't you take a look at it?"
Detroit Tigers president Dave Dombrowski is the chairman of the task force, and he understands Bandura's frustration but pleads for patience. The committee has met three times since April, and Dombrowski says, "There are a lot of people who are incredibly passionate about this topic. Like Steve, a lot of them have good programs and good ideas on how to address the problem."
Dombrowski is one of many intelligent people on the committee, and there's no reason to believe they won't dedicate themselves to crafting a comprehensive plan. But, as Dombrowski readily admits, MLB hasn't always been obsessive about its follow-through in this area. "Every time we meet, we identify more problems that need to be addressed," Dombrowski says. "There are many, many problems, and the problems in Philadelphia are different from the problems in California or Detroit or Chicago."
The task force is fighting skepticism from those who question the commitment. Baseball touts its seven Urban Youth Academies that are either "running or in development," but that doesn't tell the complete story. The concept is wonderful: Create a place inside the city where kids can play baseball or softball for free, get free instruction and play on teams sponsored by MLB. But the academy in Philadelphia was announced to great fanfare three years ago. As of today, a nearly $180,000 press box has been built, but no field. In Hialeah, Fla., the construction of an Urban Youth Academy was tied to Marlins Stadium. You know the ballpark: built on the backs of the taxpayers, with all the fancy art and empty seats public money can buy. The stadium has been open for two years; the Urban Youth Academy is nowhere to be found.
At the time, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said, "It is our responsibility as a major league team to make our community a better place for future generations." Back then, four years ago, there's a slight chance most people who heard or read those words didn't immediately scoff.
That can all change now. They have the opportunity to destroy skepticism with action. They can address the issue not by wearing an icon's number but by addressing the issue in a comprehensive manner. It's Dombrowski's vow that thoroughness now means they won't need to repeat the exercise five years from now.
And yet, the question remains: What can the committee do? How far-reaching does it want to be? How much money does baseball want to spend? The idea of baseball academies, with every team providing instruction and facilities in its own city, sounds great until you realize the people who run the Houston Astros probably aren't thrilled about investing in the development of a bunch of kids who grow up to be drafted by, say, the Detroit Tigers.
The committee is powerless to stop the youth-sports industrial complex. It's out there, running free and cashing checks, selling dreams. And frankly, MLB and college baseball have exacerbated the problem by concentrating their scouting on the big travel-ball tournaments and $500-a-day showcases that allow them to see the maximum number of players in the shortest amount of time for the minimum amount of money. Everything about it makes sense, but it's a self-fulfilling prophecy: If the only players you see are those with the financial means to gain entry to gain access, you're essentially creating a permanent underclass of kids who play baseball with no chance of advancement. And you wonder why they stop playing? Under that scenario, who's making that decision, the kid or the system?
It would be great if MLB had enough influence to convince the NCAA to find a way to increase Division I baseball scholarships (currently 11.7 for 35 spots) to make college baseball look less like an heir's meeting at the local country club. The problem, of course, is college baseball itself, which isn't a revenue-producer at more than a handful of colleges. David Stern can work with the NCAA to force basketball players to intern for a year at Kentucky, but the necessary connective tissue – direct financial incentive – doesn't exist in baseball.
So the committee has its work cut out for it. The problems are obvious, and each one comes with its own equally obvious solution. The issue is how badly MLB wants to reverse the trend, and how much it wants to spend to do so.
Speaking of which: What about Bandura's 15-page proposal? It was sitting on Dombrowski's desk as we talked. "He wrote a very thorough report, and everyone on the committee got a copy," he said. "I read it and was very impressed with what he's done. He'll be hearing from us. Just ask him to be patient."
2dKevin Van Valkenburg