From left, ex-Tiger Craig Monroe, coaches Dave Clark and Darnell Coles and Rod Allen listen to Ron Teasley, center, talk about his experiences at the Celebrate Legacy Luncheon at Comerica Park. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — It’s not something they even talk much about now, really.
Maybe because they’re tired of talking about it. Or because they’re tired of getting branded as militants when they do. Or maybe because, as Tigers outfielder Rajai Davis says, it should be obvious to everyone by now.
“We realize what’s going on,” Davis said.
Where it’s going, too, as the dwindling number of African-American players in the game continues to be one of Major League Baseball’s biggest conundrums.
And with the Tigers hosting their 12th annual Negro Leagues Weekend at Comerica Park, it’s one that could hardly be avoided Friday as the team held a luncheon for more than 100 Detroit-area high school baseball players and their coaches.
Former Negro Leaguer Ron Teasley, a Detroit native and coaching pioneer in this city, was the guest of honor, sharing stories of his life in baseball, a few jokes about today’s big league life, and some sage advice for the kids in an hourlong question-and-answer session.
When asked for tips about getting noticed as a ballplayer, Teasley deadpanned, “The best way is to play good baseball.”
But the numbers, he also said, can’t go unnoticed. Sixty-seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier — Teasley signed with Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers a few years later — the sport finds itself grappling with the same problem, in some respects.
The number of African-Americans in the majors is at its lowest level since 1958 — just 8.3 percent of Opening Day rosters this season, according to the league. That’s down from a high of 18.7 percent in 1981, based on a study by the Society for American Baseball Research. Three teams — Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco — began the season with no black ballplayers on the active roster.
Foreign imports certainly have played a part in that decline. More than a quarter of the Opening Day roster spots this year were filled by foreign-born players.
But the reasons run deeper than that, clearly.
“All I know is they’ve got a lot of camps and academies going on in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic,” Davis said, nodding. “I’m just wondering if we have any here, in the inner city.”
They finally do, as a matter of fact. There are now a few MLB Urban Youth Academies in operation, including year-round facilities in Los Angeles and Houston. The league has announced plans for others in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Miami. Meanwhile, MLB’s 25-year-old RBI program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) currently boasts more than 200,000 participants and a growing list of alumni dotting major league rosters.
But there needs to be much more — more sponsors, more ideas — to get real traction here, and it appears the league at least acknowledges that. Outgoing commissioner Bud Selig last year formed an on-field diversity task force, with Tigers president Dave Dombrowski serving as chairman and former manager Jerry Manuel running the day-to-day operations.
More exposure needed
The biggest push involves the youth academies, recognizing that the game within the game has changed. Little League and high school baseball are getting trumped and trampled by travel teams and showcase tournaments.
“And I think sometimes travel ball doesn’t get to the inner city,” said Tigers television analyst Rod Allen, a former major leaguer who was part of Friday’s panel discussion. “So you’re not able to go play against the best talent or go to some of the showcases. Therefore you’re not being seen by the people that are making decisions.”
Davis said he struggled with that himself. He grew up playing Little League and American Legion ball in Connecticut, lettered in three sports in high school, then played junior-college baseball before getting drafted in the 38th round of the 2001 draft.
“It’s a lot more difficult to get a scholarship when very few know about you,” said Davis, 33, who spent six years in the minors before breaking through with the Pirates in 2006. “You might have talent, but if you’re not exposed — if that talent’s not exposed to the right people — you can’t show what you’ve got.”
Exposure’s one thing, but that comes after access, which is another problem, though one that’s certainly not limited to inner-city youth. It’s just that it hits there the hardest.
Obstacles big in inner-city
“Basically, we’ve been out-priced in baseball,” said Norman Taylor, head coach at Detroit King High the last 12 years. “Kids can’t afford to pay $850 a summer to play 40 games. The most I can ever remember paying to play was $15, and that was for my PAL registration. …
“And when you close down the recreation centers in the city and when you allow the parks to be an unsafe place to be … then what do the kids do if they don’t have a place to play and no one to play with?”
Taylor then rattled off a long list of names, starting with Teasley and the late Ron Thompson, among others, who “gave their lives, really” to keep kids in the game in Detroit over the years.
That list goes on, and so must the discussion. Because while Friday was a night to celebrate the game’s integration — a “passing of the bat” pregame ceremony featured Detroit Stars old-timer Walt Owens, current Tigers Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson and Davis, and Dazon Cole, one of the state’s top prep players — the investment has to be more than symbolic.
Otherwise, the progress won’t be.