Baseball seeks more Black involvement, on the field and in the seats

Alabama State’s Randy Flores celebrates with teammates after winning the MVP award at the HBCU Swingman Classic last month at T-Mobile Park in Seattle. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Before free agency pushed salaries to stratospheric levels and social media made sporting careers public spectacles, Dave Winfield faced a choice. In 1973, Winfield became the only athlete ever drafted by the NBA, ABA, NFL and MLB.

He chose baseball, a decision that would tilt heads today but seemed entirely sensible at the time. No other sport captivated America, and especially the Black community, the way baseball did a few generations ago. The game had a 12-year-old Winfield racing his older brother Stephen to the baseball field a half block from his home in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn., so that he could emulate his heroes — Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson — and dream of being a pro.

“When I was growing up, baseball was the number one sport in America,” Winfield, 71, said in a recent telephone interview. “Young people don’t know that. ‘It wasn’t basketball?’ No. ‘It wasn’t football?’ No, it wasn’t. It was baseball.”

Baseball hasn’t gone the way of the eight-track tape, but it is rarely the first choice of the best Black athletes the way it was three decades ago, when Black players made up nearly one-fifth of MLB rosters.

This season, Black players from the United States comprised just 6.2 percent of Opening Day rosters, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. That was a full percentage point drop from last season, and the lowest since TIDES began tracking participation in 1991. Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts famously wore a shirt at last year’s all-star festivities that read, “We need more Black people at the stadium.”

For organizations such as the Youth Development Foundation, a joint venture between MLB and the MLB players’ association to increase accessibility and promote participation in baseball for underserved communities, hope remains of halting the decline and making incremental progress in representation on the field.

As baseball faces a decline in African American players, these nine athletes demonstrate why — and what the sport can do

The YDF funds grassroots programs, providing equipment and facilities in 40 states and parts of Canada, but also gives Black players platforms to showcase their talents. Last month, it held the inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic, an event for 50 players from historically Black colleges and universities during All-Star Weekend in Seattle, and the Hank Aaron Invitational, a two-week camp for Black high school prospects established in 2015 that has seen nine participants, including three from July’s MLB amateur draft, become first-round picks.

“If you don’t have kids playing this game, you don’t have fans in the future,” YDF executive director Jean Lee Batrus said. “We know that when you have diversity everywhere in our society, that makes the company stronger, but that also makes our game stronger. So that’s why we’re investing in these initiatives.”

In his role as special adviser to MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, Winfield has worked with hundreds of participants of the Hank Aaron Invitational at the Jackie Robinson training complex — formerly the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spring training facility — in Vero Beach, Fla. Winfield goes over the fundamentals of the sport, explains the stranglehold baseball once had on the country and peppers the players with questions to understand the intensity of their commitment.

“I ask them, ‘Do you like or love the game?’ Because there’s a difference. People might like it. But you’ve got to be committed to be good,” Winfield said. “Virtually all of these players, say, ‘I love the game,’ and you can work with that. You can accomplish anything if you love it.”

Jadyn Fielder, the son of Prince and grandson of Cecil, is hoping to extend the family’s baseball legacy to a third generation — out of affection, not obligation. Fielder has a lefty swing similar to his father’s but is more reliant on speed and punching the ball in play than knocking it over the fence. As a regular sidekick with his six-time all-star father in the clubhouse, it was easy for Fielder to observe MVPs such as Ryan Braun or Miguel Cabrera and become enamored by the game.

“It just comes so easy to them,” Fielder said. “I kind of watched that and really admired how they were able to do such crazy things.”

As one of the 44 players plucked from Jackie Robinson training complex to participate in the Hank Aaron showcase game July 30 at Truist Park in Atlanta, Fielder had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and to hear from Aaron’s widow, Billye, who shared stories of his pioneering journey and the purpose the players had that went beyond being good at baseball. “Service is the price we pay for the space we occupy,” she told them.

“I’m playing for something bigger than myself,” Fielder said of her directive.

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Keenan Jabeth, a rising senior at Vero Beach High School, also came away inspired from the Invitational, which was just a 20-minute drive from his house. He later got to patrol the same outfield as his current favorite player, the Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr.

The experience reminded Jabeth why he decided to skip playing football this fall to concentrate on the game that captured him at age 5. Jabeth had played wide receiver the previous three years, and attracted attention from college football recruiters, but said, “It wasn’t like a passion for me.”

“My aspiration is to play in MLB,” said Jabeth, a New York Yankees fan who considers Derek Jeter his all-time favorite player.

Jabeth’s three older brothers played baseball, two of them at the collegiate level, but his “regular friends” can’t get into it. The slow-moving game that needed to add a pitch clock in MLB this season to expedite the action is “boring” to them.

But with his colorful shades and copper-tinted dreadlocks sprouting from his ball cap, Jabeth makes room for self-expression and fun, such as leading his teammates in a mock boat-rowing celebration after delivering the winning RBI in the showcase game.

“I know right now, there’s not a lot of Black players in the league. But I know it’s going to be growing more and more as this younger generation gets older and older,” Jabeth said. “By the time it’s my time, hopefully, I’m playing in the league it will be definitely a lot of more Black people who are playing baseball.”

Baseball is the harder path to achieve fame and fortune in professional sports, but the one Jabeth accepts. “I love the grind of baseball,” said Jabeth, an outfielder who has committed to Florida International University. “I love how hard you’ve got to work to get to a goal, because that makes it more satisfying.”

Fifty years after sticking with the sport he first loved, and nearly 30 since his Hall of Fame career ended, Winfield knows a talented multisport athlete might face a more difficult decision.

“If this was today and I was growing up, there was a single mother raising my brother and myself. I couldn’t have played baseball,” he said. “We had no car. We had no money. Nobody could take off work and travel with us and pay coaches for some [individual] training. It would never happen.”

In the Netflix show, “Quarterback,” the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes — son of former MLB pitcher and Hank Aaron Invitational coach Pat Sr. — explained how he grew up wanting to be a professional baseball player until he became the starting quarterback on his high school varsity football team as a junior and got overwhelmed by the charms of those Friday night lights.

Winfield recalls fielding calls from reporters in 2019 when Kyler Murray became the only athlete to ever get drafted in the first round by the NFL and MLB.

“He had that Rickey Henderson type of talent and body. Short, but he was fast, and strong. I said, ‘I think you should play baseball.’ Obviously, he didn’t listen to me and he’s got a couple hundred million in his pocket,” Winfield said with a laugh about Murray, who agreed to a five-year, $230 million extension, with $160 million guaranteed, last year with the Arizona Cardinals.

Of all the factors that have negatively affected the trajectory of baseball for Black athletes, the salary clock is a deterrent that would appear to be around for a while. The timeline for elite athletes to cash in has been accelerated by rookie scale contracts in the NBA and the NFL that could see their players secure nine-figure pay days by the time they’re 25.

In the 2022 MLB draft, four of the first five players, and nine first-round picks overall were Black. Black players have made up at least six of the first 30 selections five times since 2012. Winfield is encouraged by the progress and the passion of the players he’s met at the Hank Aaron Invitational, but also mentioned that last year was the first World Series since 1950 that didn’t feature any Black players born in the United States.

“We got a long way to go,” he said.

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