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This Problem Is More Than Skin Deep

The Dodgers were confronted by what has become a major league rarity when their series with the San Francisco Giants continued at Dodger Stadium on Saturday night.

On the mound for the Giants was Jerome Williams, one of only four African American starting pitchers in the big leagues and the only right-hander.

In addition, on a larger and more disconcerting scale, Williams was also one of only 83 African Americans among the 827 players on opening-day rosters and disabled lists, a total representing less than 10% of the big league populace and a precipitous decline from 19% in the late 1980s and 27% in the mid-'70s.

At a time when baseball has again been celebrating the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut in breaking the color barrier, the numbers equate to the continuation of an alarming trend.

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“I’m very concerned,” said John Young, the veteran scout who has been trying to do something about it as a director of the RBI program -- Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- he founded in 1991.

The problem, however, is multi-faceted, deeply rooted and unlikely to be solved quickly, Young and others said.

Dave Stewart, for instance, made reference to Commissioner Bud Selig and said:

“In Bud’s words, the game is better today than it has ever been, but I think it has taken a drastic step backward.

“When you look at the numbers of blacks playing the game and the numbers in decision-making positions off the field, they’re way down from even three years ago.

“There was good progress and a feeling among black players I think that baseball was trying to do something positive” when the celebrations for Robinson started in 1997.

“Now ... it’s as if there’s been a quick turnaround,” Stewart said. “Why that’s happened only the people internally know, but it’s not good.”

Fourteen years after he became a 20-game winner for the fourth time, Stewart has given up on the goal of becoming a general manager.

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Only three African Americans have ever held that position, and only Kenny Williams holds it now, with the Chicago White Sox.

Stewart said he thought he had climbed all the requisite steps and was “sitting in a prime spot” as assistant general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays when he was shocked to learn they were hiring J.P. Ricciardi in November 2001.

That was then, and Stewart has done his venting.

Now he has become a player agent based in San Diego and recently negotiated Eric Chavez’s six-year, $66-million contract with the Oakland A’s.

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As he scans the market for clients, Stewart said there were talented young black athletes playing the game, “but they view it now as a game for whites and Hispanics, and not a place where they’re going to be successful.”

At what point baseball lost touch with African American athletes in the inner city isn’t clear, but the sandlots emptied over a period of years, and the NBA and NFL did a better job of marketing their products.

Inner-city athletes -- and athletes generally -- saw in basketball and football an element of instant gratification, major league officials say, that was tougher to achieve through the requisite years in baseball’s farm systems, and the industry began filling the void with comparatively cheaper talent from Latin America. Latin players account for 24% of the major league total, down slightly from last year.

“I think there were societal changes to which baseball was slow in responding,” Young said.

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In addition, he pointed out, the industry itself was and is changing. Many clubs are reducing scouting staffs and focusing on college players in the amateur draft, looking for a quicker return on their investment and hoping to reduce the risk inherent in selecting high school players.

“We can provide bats, balls and facilities,” Young said, “but if a black athlete isn’t going on to college, and the number of blacks playing college ball isn’t high, then there’s a real possibility he won’t be scouted at all the way clubs are laying off scouts every day.”

The top two players in last year’s amateur draft -- Delmon Young and Rickie Weeks -- are black, but neither was from the inner city.

RBI founder Young says he has confidence in Selig’s commitment to address and reverse the trend but that centralized direction is still needed.

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Young said he was going to suggest to the commissioner that he form a committee with such individuals as Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, and Harry Edwards, the UC Berkeley sociology professor, “to properly identify the problems and put together a comprehensive plan. We’re losing an important talent and cultural base every day.”

There are positive developments.

Baseball is about to break ground on an academy in Compton, and Little League now has an urban initiative to which MLB is contributing $250,000 a year. The Baseball Tomorrow Fund, a cooperative between MLB and the players’ union, is building diamonds nationally, and the RBI program is now in 185 cities globally with 250,000 participants and several big league graduates.

A star-studded list of baseball and entertainment figures will attend the 10th annual RBI Hall of Fame dinner June 14 at Universal Studios. For baseball, amid the ongoing loss of African American players, the question of “guess who’s coming to dinner?” has far broader implication.

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