Major League Baseball’s Endangered Species …..

March 17, 2010 |

For the first time in our brief existence, last Thursday’s edition of the REX & RAY SHOW got a little heavy. The subject matter wasn’t conflicted or confrontational …. but, everybody had an opinion of some very disturbing statistics regarding Major League Baseball.

No, we weren’t talking about STEROIDS, SCOTT BORAS or the YANKEES/RED SOX RIVALRY.

We were talking about true implications for the history of America’s Pastime. Forget about the small stuff, like “Joe Mauer’s 2011 destination” and “Prince Fielder’s next zipcode.” Major League Baseball has an inherent crisis; an inevitable, foundational problem on its plate, and nobody recognizes it.

Well, nobody, except Torii Hunter.

And, if Bud Selig, or his successor doesn’t prioritize and publicize Major League Baseball’s cultural conundrum, these gentlemen might be among the beginning of an end for a distinct group …..

That’s right, the African American ballplayer is becoming a scarce reality. Sheer roster numbers are evidence that a cultural shift within baseball, itself, has consumed the identity of the sport throughout the past 35 years. Indeed, the product of pro baseball looks alot different today, as opposed to 1975.

I can distinctly recall that era, and African American players were a common, if not heralded group compromising the game’s core. A quick glimpse around the diamond, in any big league park, would yield an impressive representation of AMERICAN athletes, both black and white.

Yet, today, things are much different and if you look closely, the difference is obvious for the eye to see. The numbers don’t lie. Just consider the following demographical data regarding racial makeup in Major League Baseball, over the last 35 years …..

1975 – Caucasian – 60%, Hispanic – 13%, African American – 27%

1995 – Caucasian – 57%, Hispanic – 22%, African American – 19%, Asian – 1%

2009 – Caucasian – 60%, Hispanic – 29%, African American – 8%, Asian 2%

It’s quite clear to see Major League Baseball is experiencing a cultural shift as it relates to the players who comprise its rosters. In just 35 years, the amount of players from a Hispanic heritage has increased more than 100%, while the African American base has dropped more than 200%.

At the same time, a modest amount of Asian players are now playing Major League Baseball.  The overall number of Asian players is still minimal – and interestingly, the percentage of Caucasian players remains UNCHANGED in comparison to the 1975 figures.

I’m sure some readers have reached this point, while thinking “So what are you trying to say, Rex?” To be honest, I was just curious why the COLOR or CULTURE of baseball has changed so drastically. I don’t think it’s a case of discrimination – the best players are going to end up on Major League rosters, regardless of color.

I don’t care if they’re WHITE, BLACK, GREEN or ORANGE.

In fact, I think the racial makeup of Major League Baseball is more than likely just the end result of what is happening in the game of BASEBALL, in the United States.

I suspect American kids are no longer obsessed with baseball as a recreational sport. And, I’ll imagine several influences impact the situation.

When I was a kid, we LIVED baseball and God knows we created so many hybrid forms of the game to fit the amount of players available. If we had 10 kids on a particular day, we would close half of the field. If only a half dozen showed up, we’d move to the nearby tennis courts or a backyard and make do.

Heck, we played Homerun Derby, as well as the contradictory form of the game – yep, we’d play on a very small field and a homer was an out.

We LIVED for it.

Nobody played soccer or lacrosse. And, an invention called Atari was a scarce, but fun diversion on hot days.

We didn’t enjoy 376 different television channels, either. It was a simple choice : 2, 11, 13, 45 …..

Computers and cellphones were non-existent. I guess we didn’t know what we were missing, because I loved life as a kid – and baseball was a huge part of it.

Today, things are much different. If I walk through Towson Town Center or Arundel Mills, I will witness dozens of kids talking on their cellphones or texting. More kids will be communicating with that handheld device than with the person standing alongside them.

Most people would suggest that a different reason must be impacting the lack of African Americans playing baseball. Perhaps, I’m wrong – I’ve never walked a day in the shoes of an African American kid or adult.

But, I do see baseball’s popularity decreasing in American culture. In fact, a 2005 survey, called the “Boyd Study” computed and analyzed the racial makeup of NCAA – Division I Baseball Programs. The numbers are pretty clear, and they support the reality of Major League Baseball’s demographical data. Here’s the breakdown …..

2005 NCAA – Division I : Caucasian : 91%, African American : 5.5%

While most statistics would indicate the overall number of African Americans playing baseball is substantially reduced throughout the ballfields and stadiums around the United States, I suspect it’s really just a partial result of what is truly happening. I believe fewer American kids are playing baseball, regardless of race. And, in proportion to the respective populations of African Americans and Caucasians, there are simply far more “white” people in this country.

Thus, while kids of both races are not nearly as interested in baseball, the amount of Caucasians, in the United States, is so vastly superior to African Americans that the 60% threshold of Causcasian Major Leaguers remains unchanged. These numbers, too, don’t lie …..

As I’ve indicated, I can only sympathize and understand this situation through the eyes of a white kid. I am 100% reliant on input from people and technology to understand other races and their relationship with baseball.

During the REX & RAY SHOW, dominating opinions of African American callers regarded single parent households, as well as fewer opportunities to play baseball in inner-city neighborhoods, as mitigating causes behind the notable disconnect between their race and the game, itself.

While I don’t think it’s entirely fair to ignorantly assume that inner-city communities are exclusively inhabited by minorities (I’ve seen plenty of whites in Pigtown, Morrell Park, Highlandtown, South Baltimore and Waverly), I do see the connection between many prominent African American athletes and inner-city roots.

Many of these same athletes come from single-parent households. It’s the truth.

Callers did suggest that single-parent households aren’t likely to produce many baseball players, because baseball is a sport that usually requires parental intervention – from the perspective of a dad teaching a son the game’s basics. Say what you want, it’s relatively easy to pickup a basketball and start some crude form of dribbling and shooting, and an overly aggressive kid can find some initial success in a pickup football game.

But, NOBODY can pickup a bat, for the first time and start hitting baseballs. It takes patience and the guidance of someone who has a genuine interest in the student of the game …..

During Monday’s REX & RAY SHOW, we had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Franklin – radio voice for the Houston Cougars Basketball program. During our conversation, Tom took a few seconds to dish about Houston’s Aubrey Coleman, who leads the nation in scoring, with 25.6 points, per game. Tom lauded the young man as being a quick student – he never played basketball before his junior year, IN HIGH SCHOOL.

Got that? Aubrey Coleman was 16 years old before he ever played organized basketball. I don’t care about an athlete’s overall talent – you’re not going to become a “pro caliber” baseball player if your initial exposure to the sport begins as a teenager. It’s not happening – crafting your baseball accumen takes YEARS of development and failure. And, the unconditional love for the sport fosters during childhood.

I’m not diminishing the rigors of basketball and football, at the highest levels. But, notable athletes have transitioned their devotions to these two sports as teenagers and adults. And, they became “decent” football and basketball players – on the pro level.

Heck, you can teach/coach a grown man to play football and score touchdowns on the BEST TEAM IN THE NFL …..

But, there was absolutely no way Renaldo Nehemiah could pickup a baseball bat and start playing for the Yankees. Better yet, he wouldn’t make the Pittsburgh Pirates final cuts. Baseball is indeed a lifelong journey for the 20 year old ballplayer.

Being a great athlete is not enough for aspiring baseball players. Possessing the most coveted of coordinations skills is not enough, either – but it really helps. I don’t think the greatest or most athletic of sportsmen are found on pro baseball rosters. However, I do think Major League players are unquestionably among the most “skilled” of competitors, when it comes to overall ability.

Such skills are honed from childhood.

Rewind the calendar 16 years and many of us recall the greatest basketball player who ever lived, as he tried to fulfill a dream of playing pro baseball. As WNST’s Chris Pika can recount from firsthand exposure, this awesome athlete worked harder than anyone to recapture some skills and talent he once flashed on baseball diamonds, as a kid …..

In the end, he couldn’t do it. And, this was arguably within the “peak” window of his athletic life – at 31 years old.

Have I heard of pro baseball players with very little experience? Not really. I’ve delved deeply into baseball’s recent history and I could only find one tangible example of a player who never played the game during their childhood, so to speak.

And, let me assert that I have no problem believing it – if it’s true …..

According to past Orioles sources and media guides, Daniel Cabrera did not start playing baseball until he was a teenager. I can envision it. Daniel Cabrera has always been a “project.” The anticipated hope each and every season, from 2004 thru today, is that Cabrera might finally “get it.”

Everybody certainly hopes …..

Yet, as I look back at Cabrera’s career, he was continually labeled as “stubborn” and/or unwilling to accept tutoring from baseball minds. Jim Palmer finally gave up – as Cabrera did not heed his help and advice. Who would disregard tutelage from one of baseball’s most intelligent and knowledgable Hall Of Fame pitchers?

Daniel Cabrera lacks some of the most basic baseball skills. Have you seen him run the bases or handle his glove? God help him.

Better yet, have you seen him with a bat in his hands? He is, without question, the worst hitter I’ve ever seen in my life.

The statistics prove my suspicions. Just look at Daniel Cabrera’s career batting achievements …..

Major League Career – 26 at bats, 0 hits, 24 strikeouts

Minor League Career – 2 at bats, 0 hits, 1 strikeout

How does a pro baseball player manage to strikeout in 25 of 28 at bats? Daniel Cabrera has been ejected from baseball games more often than he has put the ball in play, with a bat in his hands …..

It’s easy to answer – he’s not a baseball player. He’s a guy who displayed an ability to throw a mean fastball, as a teenager. Nothing more, nothing less.

The Orioles gambled on a risk. In the end, the risk cost the Orioles nearly $7 million and alot of wasted time. But, that’s a discussion for another day.

However, I do think Daniel Cabrera serves as a prime example of a teenager who tries to start playing competitive baseball for the first time. He might have some amateur success, but the glaring absence of skills commonly instilled as a child will eventually surface.

Perhaps, our African American callers were right – a greater percentage of ALL kids are not playing baseball. However, it’s probably not rooted in a dislike for the game. Yeah, some kids think baseball is boring. But, a greater number either had no exposure to it, or they failed at it.

We’ve all observed this common sight – a high school linebacker needs something to do in the spring, but his skills are not enhanced for good glovework or a disciplined trip to the plate, Thus, he takes his football mentality to the lacrosse field.  Aside from personal tastes, lacrosse is a sport more fitting for an impatient or lesser-skilled athlete.

Make no mistake about it, kids require a teaching component from the moment they handle a bat. You will hear that hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do. Well, there’s a twist to that – hitting a baseball with a disciplined eye and sweet stroke is one of the hardest things to do. It’s very much like hitting a golf ball – without proper teaching and technique, a hitter will develop poor habits.

Cite Drew Forrester as an example.  When his son, Ethan, is ready to pickup a baseball bat or golf club, who will be there to teach him?  Exactly …..

Like golf, baseball also requires a hefty expense for equipment. Basketball and football require a BALL for most pickup games.

To be honest, numerous factors are undoubtedly contributing to the decline in African American players, in Major League Baseball. I’m sure there are plenty of answers. As I’ve said, having a father figure in a child’s life is paramount for many causes – and development as a baseball player is just one of the MINOR ones.

I can recall many African American heroes from my childhood …..

Unfortunately, their cultural presence is disappearing from stadiums across this land. It is what it is ….

I don’t believe there is any possible way of stopping of it. It’s not a problem Major League Baseball has created or enhanced – while Bud Selig and his cohorts are responsible for many of the games ills, this one isn’t one them.  That said, it’s still a problem for them.

I guess it’s just another example of how our world is changing – for the worse …..