After my interview last week with Jason Whitlock, the most startling and contentious issue my friends and I pored over were his comments regarding Major League Baseball's activities, or lack thereof, in major urban American areas. In the idiosyncratic style which has made him a household name, (blunt, candid, no bullshittin), Whitlock discussed his belief that M.L.B. had made a conscientious decision to devote a large percentage of its developmental resources outside of the United States. According to Whitlock, M.L.B. and team owners were "uncomfortable" with the hip-hop images being projected from America's inner cities and decided to look elsewhere (mainly Latin America) in searching for the next batch of baseball superstars.
Ironically, after visiting ESPN's web site the next afternoon for my daily pilgrimage to the World-Wide leader, I noticed an article entitled, "Sabathia Pitches for more African-Americans in game." It seemed almost too good to be true. A day after our Whitlock interview was published, Sabathia was discussing the lack of African-Americans in baseball, describing it as a "crisis." According to Sabathia:
"I go back home to Vallejo," Sabathia said of his offseason time in California, "and the kids say, 'What's baseball?' It's not just an issue for my hometown, it's an issue for the whole country. I think Major League Baseball should do something about it. I don't know exactly what they could be doing, but I know it's not enough."
"What's baseball?" Are you kidding me? Have things gotten that bad that the game I grew up on in what was once the epicenter of the game, Brooklyn, N.Y., was going to become obsolete?
I read on and learned that "According to a 2005 report by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, only 8.5 percent of major leaguers were African American -- the lowest percentage since the report was initiated in the mid-1980s. By contrast, whites comprised 59.5 percent of the majors' player pool, Latinos 28.7 percent and Asians 2.5.." At the collegiate level, in 2003, the NCAA revealed that only 6 percent of the nearly 9,800 Division I baseball players were black, compared to 25 percent in all sports combined.
The article pointed to a number of factors which could have caused this precipitous decline. The cost of gloves, bats, uniforms and balls. The relative ease of finding a ball and a hoop for basketball. The guaranteed big-contracts for games like football and basketball.
But while Sabathias's and Whitlock's comments were aimed at baseball in the African-American community, a similar case could be made for the United States as a whole. While attendance records across Major League parks continue to soar (surpassing the 75 million mark last season for the first time in history), fewer and fewer kids continue to participate in our national pastime.
According to Dr. Steve Carney, a professor of sport management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, there are an estimated 41 million American kids playing competitive youth sports. The number of children involved in youth sports has risen significantly over the last 10 to 20 years. Sports such as soccer have seen an increase, from about 15 million in 1987 to more than 17.5 million in 2002. In Pop Warner Football, participation has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, from about 130,000 players to 260,000 players, according to the organization.
However, the only sport to experience a decline was baseball. According to Little League Baseball records, there has been a 1 percent decrease in enrollment every year since its peak in 1996. The organization has attributed the decline to the emergence of other sports in America.
When I go home and visit the park where I basically lived every summer playing baseball, I still see kids playing organized ball. But I never see the pickup games that were such an integral part of my life. I rarely even see people playing catch.
While the plight of the African-American ballplayer has been well documented these past few weeks, little has been made of the decline of baseball in the average American's life. And while we continue to live, learn and adapt in an increasingly globalized world, I fear that one of our country's brightest and most beloved trademarks is becoming ever more obsolete.