I've been reading about Gary Sheffield's (expanded) comments about the relative absence of African Americans in Major League Baseball. To tell you how much I know and how deep this situation is, until Sheffield made his comments I just assumed that Sheffield himself was Latino. I know that Bonds is an African American, and that Griffey is African American…but after that? My mind is a blank. (Oh. Cecil Fielder's son Prince is African American.) The Tigers are now good enough for me to follow now, so hopefully that situation will change.But whatever the case I think that Sheffield's comments are worth thinking about, and fleshing out. I've read at least one commenter who got some of it right. And another who also came close. But there's more than a few idiots floating around. The following represents a piece I wrote over at my old haunts, with a few modifications.I was listening to the Kojo Nnamdi Show today, and part of the discussion centered on African American sports preferences. An old head like Gerald Early loves baseball like it was his second wife.
But for a guy like me? I'm down with baseball when the Tigers are doing work. I keep up with them enough to have been happy that Alan Trammel, Lance Parrish, and Kirk Gibson were brought back into the fold, but I don't live and breathe baseball.
I live and breathe basketball. When I'm not thinking about writing, or researching, or writing? I'm thinking about a crossover. A jumpshot. A behind the back look off bounce pass on the break. And truth be told? I can't play. I play well enough to hold my own, but I can count the number of times I've been in the zone during a pickup game on one hand with two fingers lopped off.
And I'm not alone. Starting with my generation I think, blacks have turned their backs on baseball.
One of the guys on Nnamdi's show made "the bling" argument. Black kids are transfixed by the dream of getting paid. Of getting on ESPN Sportscenter. Of being in the slam dunk contest. And more recently some have argued that black kids are just too poor to play the game given the resources required.
I don't buy this. I called in for the better part of a half hour trying to smack some sense in them fools.
NO one chooses basketball because of the promise of loot. After you CHOOSE basketball, and get good at it, you might try harder because you think you can make loot later down the line…but you don't pick up a rock at 6 and make a decision like that. And on top of that, while black kids are comparatively poorer it isn't like they don't have disposable income. How expensive is a baseball anyway? A serviceable glove? A bat?
For me what looms large are three things.
The first is the dearth of urban baseball diamonds. When cities started getting their budgets hamstrung, the first thing they cut was parks and rec. It's easier finding a Sharper Image within Detroit's borders than it is finding a nice serviceable baseball diamond. If you don't already have a group of baseball hardheads who are willing to dive through broken glass to snag grounders, nobody's going to pick up the game when the fields suck.
The second? Getting 6 people to play three on three, 10 people to play five on five is easy.Try getting 18 to play a pickup game of baseball. Who just happen to have gloves on them. Ain't happening. You can't find those types of numbers in the city anymore. Hell, how many times have we heard stories about pros practicing by themselves imagining themselves as Jordan, or Dr. J? Magic used to play one on NONE imagining he was Julius Erving taking the last shot. Do that with a baseball why don't you?
The third? The lack of a serviceable Little League infrastructure that can expose people to the nuances of the game. The reason why Detroit, Flint and Saginaw produce ballers left and right is because a dedicated basketball infrastructure exists that identifies and trains talent. It wasn't uncommon to see Isiah, Derrick Coleman, Chris Webber, all playing ball at Saint Cecilia during the summers.Nowhere in this model does "bling" play a role. Kids don't make decisions on what to play based on potential income.
And the thing is, if we were talking about white kids, I don't think anyone would make that type of argument. If the bling model held fast, then wouldn't white kids be moving away from the game too? Further while poverty is important here, what we're talking about more than anything is a poverty of resources at the institutional level. Cities that don't have enough money to provide for parks and rec. Little leagues that either can't be formed because of the lack of good diamonds (and concomitant lack of interest) or won't be formed because of perceptions about black talent.Sheffield was on the money about how Latinos in baseball are treated the same way that Latino immigrants are–like disposable and disempowered labor. The next step is getting him and others to do a better job of understanding the processes that kept people like me from playing, and the thing keeping another generation of playing the game that many people (now wrongly) call America's game.