By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Twins center fielder Torii Hunter scans the stands during the national anthem. He's not looking for a particular face. Just a black face.
He stops after a few minutes. It's no different in Minneapolis than in Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, Los Angeles or Chicago. He can count the number of African-American fans usually on one hand, almost never more than two.
Why should it be so surprising, though, if there are fewer and fewer African-Americans on the field?
"It's a legitimate problem," Commissioner Bud Selig says. "We're trying to do something about it."
Baseball's African-American population has dwindled from 27% in 1975 to 8%, lowest since baseball was fully integrated in 1959. Baseball has launched numerous programs in an attempt to counteract the decline — everything from the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) to building their first Youth Baseball Academy in Compton, Calif. But progress has been slow.
"This decline didn't happen overnight," says Tom Brasuell, Major League Baseball's vice president for community affairs, "so progress won't happen overnight, either."
Hunter, 30, and several African-American players have grown tired of waiting. They are contributing $10,000 apiece to launch an urban Little League program, the "Torii Hunter Project (ToriiHunter48.com)," inviting players of all races and nationalities to contribute. It is designed to sway inner-city youth toward baseball, providing equipment and transportation and upgrading facilities.
"We talk about this problem among ourselves all of the time. We call it a 'blackout,' " says Baltimore Orioles reliever LaTroy Hawkins, 33, who has sent in his check. "There's just not many of us left. Pretty soon, there will be none of us around. We heard all of the excuses. ... So we're doing something about it ourselves."
Twins left fielder Shannon Stewart, 32, was the first to submit his check. Soon came checks from New York Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield, 37, Seattle designated hitter Carl Everett, 35 on Saturday, Tampa Bay shortstop B.J. Upton, 21, and his brother, minor leaguer Justin, 18. Cincinnati Reds star Ken Griffey Jr., 36, made the most recent $10,000 pledge. Others came from Chicago Cubs' first baseman Derrek Lee, 30, and right fielder Jacque Jones, 31, Seattle left fielder Matt Lawton, 34, and Tampa Bay outfielder Joey Gathright, 25.
"We know people have been trying, but it's time to take things in our own hands," Hunter says. "I don't see more inner-city kids playing baseball. It seems like it's just getting worse. So we want to do it ourselves. ... No advertising people. No one from the commissioner's office. ... We, as players, are going to see what we can do about it."
That draws rousing support from Selig and others in baseball.
"This is exactly what baseball needs," Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi says. "Let's face it, we're doing a lousy job getting the African-American kids playing baseball. It's almost like we've had this elitist attitude. It's like we're saying, "This is baseball, you should play our game.'
"Well, those days are over. We're losing almost all of the inner-city athletes to basketball and football. And that's sad. Here's a game that prides itself on Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, and we can't get the next generation to even play."
Shortages of players and coaches
Only 10-15 African-American players are projected to be taken in the first five rounds of this month's amateur draft, according to Logan White, the Los Angeles Dodgers' amateur scouting director. Only high school pitcher Jeremy Jeffress from South Boston, Va., is a likely candidate to be taken in the first round, White says. According to the NCAA, only 6% of collegiate baseball players are African-American.
"We're not asleep. We go in and scout the players," White says. "I'm all over the country ... and the number of African-Americans playing college baseball would shock people. You can go ... weeks without seeing a black player. It is absolutely shocking."
Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox, MLB's only African-American general manager, says: "I'd love to get involved (with Hunter's program). ... There are so few scholarships, and we're losing these kids to other sports. It's become an expensive game to get good at. ... What's happening is that the best fields, best equipment and best instructors are in the suburbs and not the inner cities."
The MLB-constructed Youth Baseball Academy is scheduled to provide education and baseball instruction to players as is done in Latin American countries. Baseball's RBI program, which introduced baseball programs to inner-city teens, has been around since 1989. The Little League urban initiative program, which has contributed $500,000 to renovate youth fields and help provide for 10 teams to attend a Jamboree in Williamsport, Pa., during the summer, has been around for six years.
Hunter and the other players have agreed to sponsor four inner-city Little League teams — from North Richmond, Va., Mount Vernon, N.Y., New Haven, Conn., and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — to play exhibition games at the Little League World Series in August. The teams will be flown into Williamsport, stay in the dorms with the championship teams, eat in the dining room and soak in the environment.
Brasuell, who annually attends the American Baseball Coaches Association Convention, said there are also precious few African-Americans among the 3,000 youth coaches.
"You can count the coaches of color on one or two hands. ... So we're missing on some kids because they aren't being seen," Brasuell said.
"It's going to help having guys like Torii Hunter and Derek Jeter being active in programs like this because players nowadays don't live in the inner-city communities. It's not like the days Willie Mays was out playing stickball with all of the kids."
Boston Red Sox center fielder Coco Crisp, a member of the 1995 Los Angeles Senior Division RBI World Series championship team, believes the impact of the players involved with Hunter's program could be immeasurable.
"That these kids will actually know who's behind the program and see them play on TV, will be huge," Crisp, 26, says. "The RBI program is good, but I think this will help get kids more involved.
"Let's face it, the competition these days is rough. You've got all of the Japanese players and Latin players coming over now to play. That means fewer jobs. Baseball wants the best players out there, no matter what their color."
Better marketing needed
The program was an idea born in talks with Hunter and his agent, Larry Reynolds.
Reynolds contacted his brother, ESPN analyst and former major leaguer Harold Reynolds, who directed them to David James, director of the urban initiative program for Little League baseball.
"We've seen our numbers decline in the urban communities, too," says James, who gave no figures. "We saw a continuing decline in Chicago. We had gone five or 10 years in St. Louis and Kansas City where we didn't have any Little League program operating. This will impact the child that doesn't have the resources or talent to be an All-Star to come to Williamsport to play on the field."
MLB, too, is frustrated by the lack of African-American players and fans.
"It's happening more and more. You're seeing it reflected in the stands, as well," Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf says. "Other than the early days of Jackie Robinson and the first wave of black players, black attendance in major league baseball has been very, very small. We've tried everything we could think of, and nothing has worked.
"We even had trouble giving away tickets. We went to churches and schools in black communities, and that (didn't create) any enthusiasm.
"We're open to ideas."
Teams are starting to target ethnic groups in an attempt to increase their fan base, Brasuell said. Many teams will have different promotional heritage nights, such as Latino Night or Asian-American night. The Pittsburgh Pirates are opening a Negro League exhibit later this month at their ballpark.
Still, Brasuell said, much work needs to be done.
"We have not done the best job in letting (the African-American community) know how great our product is," Brasuell says. "We've got to get the word out how available these tickets are. ... One of the things that created momentum was in '97 when we celebrated the 50-year anniversary of Jackie Robinson throughout the season. Next year is the 60-year anniversary. We're going to have to get that momentum back and not lose it this time."
In the meantime, Dodgers scouting director White says the scarcity of African-American amateur players needs to be addressed and resolved.
"Look at the major cities," he says. "Chicago hasn't had a high-end African-American player (come from there) in years. There might be one high-end kid in New York. The Bay Area doesn't have anything. Even in L.A., what have we really had since Eric Davis and (Darryl) Strawberry?
"I just think the game has become such a socioeconomic game now," he says. "The average family can't afford to spend $1,500 to have their son playing traveling baseball or $100 for hitting and pitching lessons. We need to get these kids playing, and that starts from the floor up."
Black heritage unknown to youth
Hunter, who grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark., with a father whom he says was a crack addict, could have turned to football and basketball. But baseball was his passion, the sport everyone played.
"You go around the neighborhood in any city, and there are no kids playing baseball," Hunter says. "You stop and tell these inner-city kids about the history of the sport, and they have no clue. You mention the Negro Leagues, and they say, "What is that?' They don't know who Hank Aaron is. Willie Mays. Satchel Paige. ... But no one seems to care."
Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith attended Locke High School in south central Los Angeles, as did Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, and believes one of the biggest problems simply is patience.
"These kids are all looking for the quick fix," Smith, 51, says. "When they see players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron (James) go straight from high school to the NBA, that's their focus. It's not like the Latin American countries, where baseball is still the king. It's time to beat the bushes. It's time to send a message about our sport.
"What Torii and these guys are doing is great. Now these kids have faces and names to look up to. It can only help, before it's too late."