The nation remembered the great Jackie Robinson Jr. in ballparks around the country on Tuesday, but there is concern over the decrease in the number of black players currently on Major League rosters.
African-Americans accounted for 8.5% of Opening Day rosters this year, a number virtually unchanged from last year, but way down from the 18-19% that was seen from the 1970s through the 1990s. There are a myriad of reasons for the decrease, such as an interest in sports like basketball and football, baseball lacking the "cool" factor of a sport like basketball, and an influx of Latin and other foreign players into the game over the last 20 years.
In fact, the number of white players is down too, as is the number of Americans of all races. The game has become more international, and continues to trend in that direction.
However, Major League Baseball is concerned enough about the decrease in black players to aggressively pursue young African-Americans in the inner cities through their Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program, which began in 1989. A USA Today report says there are as many as 220,000 participants in the RBI Program, with more programs set to be installed this year.
USA Today's analysis of Opening Day rosters found there were 67 black American players on Major League rosters when the season started, and three teams didn't have a single African American player on their rosters; the San Francisco Giants, the Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis Cardinals.
Meanwhile, when you look at the Phillies' roster, and especially their starting lineup, you see one that has several African American players and, more importantly, star players.
Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd, Domonic Brown, Ben Revere, Tony Gwynn Jr., and John Mayberry are all black players who have major roles on this team. Rollins and Howard are legitimate "superstars," while Byrd and Brown are All-Stars.
The Phillies account for 10.4% of all African American players currently playing in the Majors. Without doing an in-depth look at other MLB rosters, it's pretty safe to say that's a very good representation, and it's in stark contrast to the history of racism the team, specifically manager Ben Chapman, forced Jackie Robinson to endure while he broke the color barrier in baseball, and the treatment of the team's first black superstar Dick Allen by Phillies fans.
The team has come a long way over the last few decades, and it seems fitting the Phillies are playing the Braves during the Jackie Robinson celebrations, as both teams field all-black outfields (Atlanta's Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward and Philly's Brown, Revere and Byrd).
Of course, there is no easy answer on how to get more young, African American kids to take up baseball. Basketball is a much easier sport to play as a young kid, because it's cheaper and more convenient. All a kid on a meager income needs is a basketball and a hoop and he's all set. You don't need to find eight friends to get a game of baseball going. And frankly, the NBA's public relations department and sneaker companies have done a great job marketing the game better to young black kids.
Football is the number one sport in America, and basically sells itself. Russell Wilson chose football over baseball, and Jamies Winston will like do the same. If a young black player is talented enough, they will likely choose the sport that doesn't require them to play in the minor leagues for 2-4 years. They'll likely choose the sport that gets them a scholarship to college and then puts them on the faster track to playing professionally.
That's also why Bo Jackson's decision to choose baseball over football in the late '80s was so shocking.
Simply put, there is no easy answer to the problem and no easy fix. Major League officials are doing a lot to increase the game's reach into the inner city. But they've got to elbow their way past LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Calvin Johnson, DeSean Jackson and the other, more popular sports, in order to get a seat at the table.
Making games more affordable to inner city families with less pocket money could be a start. The RBI Program is a concerted effort, but more needs to be done. Somehow, baseball has to become "cool" again. And understanding that baseball is not just an American game anymore but is an international game, should temper everyone's expectations as well.
ESPN's Michael Wilbon said many blacks have segregated themselves out of the game, for many of the reasons listed above. And honestly, baseball isn't as popular with white kids as much as it was in the past either. So, it's not strictly just a racial thing.
All baseball can do is continue to reach out, continue to try and get kids of all races to take up the game, feature the African American stars of the game, and hope there is a baseball revival in the nation's inner cities.