May 24, 2014 at 1:39 am

John Niyo

Baseball must do more to get black players into the game

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 Its not something they even talk much about now, really.

Maybe because theyre tired of talking about it. Or because theyre 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 whats going on, Davis said.

Where its going, too, as the dwindling number of African-American players in the game continues to be one of Major League Baseballs biggest conundrums.

And with the Tigers hosting their 12th annual Negro Leagues Weekend at Comerica Park, its 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 todays 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, cant go unnoticed. Sixty-seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseballs 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. Thats 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 theyve got a lot of camps and academies going on in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, Davis said, nodding. Im 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, MLBs 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 doesnt get to the inner city, said Tigers television analyst Rod Allen, a former major leaguer who was part of Fridays panel discussion. So youre not able to go play against the best talent or go to some of the showcases. Therefore youre 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.

Its 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 youre not exposed if that talents not exposed to the right people you cant show what youve got.

Exposures one thing, but that comes after access, which is another problem, though one thats certainly not limited to inner-city youth. Its just that it hits there the hardest.

Obstacles big in inner-city

Basically, weve been out-priced in baseball, said Norman Taylor, head coach at Detroit King High the last 12 years. Kids cant 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 dont 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 games 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 states top prep players the investment has to be more than symbolic.

Otherwise, the progress wont be.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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