Everyone has little mind games to occupy themselves when waiting unexpectedly; mine usually involve sports lineups in some way. The habit isn't a holdover from my sports geek youth; it developed a few years ago when a Yankee fan at my corner bar kept announcing with great pride that proof of the Yankees greatness lies in the fact that at least two thirds of the major league teams had a former Yankee on them.
When delayed, I combed roster by roster (and yeah, this is easy for me as I play fantasy baseball in a very deep league, so I tend to know more minutiae than I should). I began to realize that because of the rate of player-movement, what the Yankee fan said about his Bronx bombers applies to nearly every team in major leagues. Unfortunately I didn't get to present my proof to him as he was banned from that bar (no small feat since it's a Yankee bar).
Recently while waiting for the shower water to warm up (I live in Manhattan where high rents don't guarantee hot water on demand) I decided to see if you could make a team of all black players. This used to be a no-brainer when I was a kid; you could pretty much just combine the all-star teams and within minutes, boom, you'd have a killer lineup featuring the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Billy Williams, Joe Morgan and the like. Yet since the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut in the major leagues last spring, much has been bandied about on the ever-shrinking number of blacks in baseball. The current percentage of blacks in the major leagues is near a post-segregation era low.
I started thinking, and I was surprised at how quickly my team took shape.
At first base, we have Prince Fielder, second base is manned by Rickie Weeks, at third is speed demon Chone Figgins, and the shortstop is the reigning National League MVP Jimmy Rollins. My mind simply boggled at the outfield possibilities sorting through a group that includes Chris B. Young, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton, Adam Jones. Admittedly not all of these players are all star caliber yet, but most are and the others are projected to be at that level within a few years—if not months. My surprise overtook my search, and I didn't even look for a catcher and pitcher (a much tougher challenge) as my mind raced off onto something else. Clearly top black athletes are choosing baseball as profession; the real issue is how to attract more.
Baseball has set up a well-intentioned program called Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities which involves several Hall of Famers promoting the game to young blacks. Also former Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos pitcher Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd set up a barnstorming tour of black players to play in inner city sandlots.
I think these sorts of initiatives are well intentioned but baseball needs to go further is addressing why the game has fallen so much further behind basketball and football in the minds among black youths. Think about what a 16-year-old has seen from baseball in his lifetime: a seemingly never-ending debate and perp walk of performance enhancer abusers. One of the alleged abusers is Barry Bonds, easily the greatest player in the game for the last 10 years. Yet even if he weren't target of well-founded suspicions, Bonds would fail as a role model due to his arrogant persona and hostile relationship with the media. In addition, while the 2001 World Series was one for the ages, baseball destroyed the lingering effects of a seventh game where the lead changed hands in the bottom on the ninth by immediately talking of contracting two teams, putting many fan bases up in arms. Those are a lot of obstacles to overcome in repairing a public image.
I love baseball, and I can vividly recall the day that bonded me to the game for life. It was Columbus Day 1967, and my brother had taken me to Norman's barbershop on 47th Street for a haircut. The TV was on, and Bob Gibson was pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series. Gibson had already won two games during the series and in this winner-take-all game, he seemed larger than life. People on the street checked in for score updates, and when Gibson homered in the fifth to give the Cards what was an insurmountable 4-1 lead (Gibson allowed only three runs in his 27 innings that October), the entire block turned into a party. I was sold.
Youngsters rarely get that sense of community through watching sports, but they are galvanized by the visceral excitement of video games, and this is one area where baseball is coming up short. Despite the phenomenal difficulty of hitting a small object thrown at speeds approaching 100 mph with a thin piece of wood, baseball by and large has failed to capture the excitement of that action in the video game world, but this new generation of young black players gives them a new chance to better market the game at the youth market.
Not only should Rollins, Young, the Uptons et al. be part of a baseball video game marketing campaigns, but Major League Baseball should invest energy in sneaker contracts. While the shoes that baseball players wear in action are unsuitable for casual wear, the shoes they train in aren't, and that angle needs to be exploited especially with so many shoe companies into limited edition models.
If baseball wants to win the hearts and minds of African-American youths, then it needs to go to the right marketing arenas and state its case. Even as I was impressed with my group of 2008 all stars, it pales with the one you can make for a 1978 or 1968 team. Baseball's current efforts have been effective at announcing a problem, but if they want to solve the problem, they will have to work harder.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.