It hurts Darrell Miller when he goes into Los Angeles and looks for baseball players.
It hurts Miller to see baseball fields where, he says, “They are in such bad shape you wouldn’t walk your dog because you might sprain your ankle and you wouldn’t let a horse race because the horse is too valuable to get him hurt. But you let athletes play baseball on these fields.”
It hurts Miller when he tries to find Little League programs of the type that produced major league stars like Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis and finds instead, “Nothing. Just stories about money disappearing and nobody to run the teams.”
It hurts Miller when he talks to black teenagers who want to be like Mike and not Babe. “It’s all about Michael Jordan and not Babe Ruth,” Miller says.
Most of all, it hurts Miller that he sees fewer and fewer black kids interested in playing baseball. It hurts him in his heart for Miller loves baseball, loves the feel of a well-worn glove and the hardness of the ball, loves the sound of a bat making solid contact. He loves totally the lessons he learned while playing baseball.
“Baseball teaches you so much about life,” Miller says. “You know how? It teaches you how to handle failure. The game is mostly about failure. You fail to hit the ball way more than you hit it and from that you learn how to be a man.”
Miller is giving this passionate speech from his home in Yorba Linda. He is fixing a bottle for his 18-month-old daughter, Nicole. His 6-year-old son, Darrell Jr., is outside throwing a ball. Miller, the older brother of Reggie and Cheryl, who both chose to be more like Mike than Babe, has recently been named director of player development for the Angels.
In this job Miller will start dealing with minor league players. Since 1993, though, he has worked as an inner city coordinator for the Angels. Miller played professional baseball for 12 years--"four years and some change in the big leagues,” Miller says, laughing.
When Miller, 41, got done playing baseball, he became involved in the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, a national effort to rev up Little League and high school baseball in cities.
First of all, Miller says, “I’m not blaming anybody. I don’t want to sound like a black man blaming people. It’s just happened. I don’t know how or why, but since the 1980s, baseball has floundered in the cities.
“I’ll just speak about Los Angeles now. What I’ve seen is elimination of Little League in the inner city. The Inglewood Little League is the only one running, it seems like. Compton used to have one, Southwest Los Angeles had one, they’ve all dried up. Something happened to the fields, gangs took over, kids weren’t getting skill levels good enough at schools and then they get discouraged and not wanting to play.
“And now we go to inner city schools. If you’ve ever gone to an L.A. city school game, you see first that there is no land available. Schools were built at a time when not a whole lot of land was available. So you’ve got a mishmash combo of soccer and football fields. You see no fences, backstops five paces behind home plate, about four feet wide, 12 feet high, and a catcher never gets a chance to field a pop fly. There is no such thing as a passed ball, fields are just terrible.”
As city black kids have chosen more and more to play basketball and football, sports that offer more chances at full college scholarships, Miller says he is sad to say that baseball, the game, is regressing.
“We, as a whole, as an industry, have dropped our standards compared to 20 years ago,” Miller says. “Yes, I know there’s been expansion, but we’ve had a population increase too. We should be fine. But we’ve lost more and more of the city athletes. Look at some of the players Los Angeles has produced. Davis, Strawberry, Ozzie Smith, George Hendrick. We’re not getting that now.
“My little brother, Reggie Miller, he’s a pretty good little athlete, but if he came out of college now, the way basketball has changed, the pure athleticism has changed a great deal, Reggie would have a much harder time now. Football, basketball, those sports have just blown up. Ours has gone a step or two backward. The talent pool for us has just shrunk.”
Miller compares the state of inner city baseball--the lack of facilities, of coaching and instruction, the absence of equipment and organized programs--to the state of baseball in places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. “Except,” Miller says, “in those places now there are major league schools and camps and places for kids to go to learn how to play the game.”
As a kid, Miller says, “I played every sport, football, baseball, basketball, even broom hockey, as long as it was available. I just don’t want baseball eliminated from anybody. If you look at what the minor leagues hold for you, it might sound great. But for 90% of the [draft] picks, the money isn’t great. It’s starting at poverty level, you’re playing 150 games. But colleges don’t offer very many full scholarships in baseball. If you’re in the minor leagues and don’t make it to the big leagues, then you don’t get a college degree.
“I really, honestly, in my heart of hearts, through four or five different circumstances, believe baseball has lost an entire generation of inner city athletes. Most of them are playing football or basketball. Twenty percent of those kids could be playing baseball. I want those kids to have a chance to play baseball. Just the chance.”
Spoken from the heart. Which is what baseball needs. People who speak from the heart. And then act.
Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: email@example.com