Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Innocence Lost, Part III

To read Part I, Click Here.

To read Part II, Click Here.

Willie Harris and the immortal Jackie Robinson were both born in the same small town of Cairo, Ga. At the moment, Willie also has another commonality with Jackie. As Jackie was when he crossed the color barrier in 1947, Willie is the only African American player on his team, the Atlanta Braves.

Times are different but the similarity of the surface situations cause many to ask why.

Gone are the golden years of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson. Following the pioneering times of Don Newcombe, Lou Campinella, Larry Doby and of course Jackie Robinson, African Americans not only excelled in baseball, they dominated. The success caused many to wonder the what ifs of Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson.

Then something happened. A mere 60 years after Jackie sacrificed for an entire people, they began leaving the game he loved so much.

Bethune-Cookman, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Fla., has only two African American baseball players. The rest are hispanic or white. On a recent HBO Sports documentary, the head coach discussed attending summer camps and struggling to find African Americans to recruit. It is a struggle echoed by all baseball programs at HBCs.

Hall of Fame player Dave Winfield believes he has found the problem. He calls it the 3 Cs. Cost, continuity and competition.

"It didn't cost anything to play," he says. "Whether it was Little League or park and rec ball, you could play until you were drafted without having to pay. Now you might be able to play through Little League, but if you want to get better, you start paying to play. Then the continuity of being able to play for nothing every year stopped. The connection and the continuity of playing all the time and the ability to reach new heights stopped. And now the external competition has risen where 40 years ago you didn't have as many other sports competing. They thought the Super Bowl would fail and look at it now. How about basketball, soccer, extreme sports? Everybody has grabbed a piece of the sports and entertainment pie now."
In the 60's and 70's, baseball was the glamour sport for black America. Basketball was riddled with drugs and hardly ever shown on television. Football was the purview of white America, the lines so divisive a player in the following decade would describe it as a "plantation system". But in baseball, giant men named Mays, Aaron, Morgan and Flood walked the earth.

Then, basketball cleaned up its drug problem and found a man named Magic. Football cut loose its fetters, opening riches and the most coveted position of power, the quarterback, to men named Moon, Cunningham and Williams. Money and fame came quick and easy. In the age of MTV and video games, instant gratification ruled. Why slog through years in the minor leagues when you could sign for millions of dollars draft day?

In the cities and even the small towns, the patches of dirt became abandoned. Young men moved to the asphalt courts where you only needed a leather ball and the ability to impress. A travelling team meant crossing over to the next series of courts to play in a different summer rec league.

But not all agree with this perspective.

Joe Beasley, Southern Regional Director of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, believes there is no "diminished enthusiasm for African-Americans playing baseball". To him and his organization, the problem is major league organizations do not recruit enough African Americans. A statement that flies in the face of the fact that a Major League team does not recruit anybody. They sign players from lower levels. Lower levels like Bethune-Cookman where even though its student popluation is 90% African American, its baseball team is less than 10% African American.

When I first began this piece, I was angry. The passionate line of attacking my team for no apparent reason had been crossed. I also had witnessed the demagoguery of Jesse Jackson's organization in the past. I again began to wonder if these gulfs could ever be spanned when we continue to drive ourselves apart with meaningless passion plays as the things in life for which we truly care die.

Then, I remembered Travis and Dexter. How they both shaped a young boy from south Georgia and showed him that even in the awful hurts of our differences there was still hope. Their memories reminded me that hope does not come from a blind corporate behemoth of a major league franchise. Nor does it come from the demagogues clinging to relevance by latching on to high profile targets. Hope always comes from the smallest changes. The ones rarely noticed.

Hope will come from a baseball field. When, a child turns a double play. It will come from a classroom. When a child who has never had the opportunity to visit a museum opens an art book for the first time. Hope will come when we remember what we learned as children. Despite our difficulties and differences, innocence does not have to be lost.


Grayson: Atlanta, GA said...

Lemme interject my 2-cents... somethings ARE best read in print. This "epic" is one of them. Send immediately to Rebecca Burns at Atlanta Magazine:
rburns at atlantamag.emmis dot com

Anonymous said...

Grift, your writing is rising above this blog stuff. Time to write a book. It might mean less time at Moe's & Joe's, but you seriously have the chops to write a book (and it's hard, hard work, and I tried and couldn't, but you can). Go 4 it.

Cynthia said...

As the mother of a 6-year old boy obsessed...and I do mean obsessed with baseball, I have to say that Dave Winfield is exactly right.

There are very few black children in the league my son plays, and it's not because of some great racial divide. The league itself offers scholarships to those who need it, and everyone is welcome to play.

But regardless of color, the kids to excel in baseball are the kids whose parents PAY: for equipment, private batting coaches and cage time, and the traveling tournament teams.

Did I mention my son was 6? We have easily spent $500 - 700 just this season for him to play baseball, and will probably spend another $200 on his summer tournament team (mostly travel and registration expenses).

Even at a young age, any sport is not fun unless you are winning. You are not going to win unless you have top players on your team - the ones who can afford to be top players.

Why do we crazed parents do this? Because our son loves, loves, loves baseball. He wants to play for Rice University. He wants to play for the Astros. But he isn't even going to make the intermural team in Middle School unless we provide the training that ALL THE OTHER KIDS are getting.

Even at their young ages, my children want to know why there are so many black players in basketball. You can buy a good ball for $6, and courts and pick-up games are free. Summer leagues cost virtually nothing (or are underwritten by the NBA or private sponsors).

With excellent young players in the league like Willie Taveras, there are still icons for young children to admire. Whether their parents can afford to get those children from point A to point B is another story.

griftdrift said...

Thanks everyone for the feedback. Trackboy I take that as a very high complement. As far as a book, I've had one in my head for about a year but you are right. It's hard.

CLG, thanks for the story. It's shocking to me how "professional" young baseball has become.

If any of you have HBO be sure to catch this month's Real Sports. There is a story about Tommy John surgery being performed on pre-teens. It saddens.

Cynthia said...

I've been thinking about what I wrote, and I have one more thing to clarify...

It's not like all the young black players in the league come from poorer families. There are PLENTY of African-American doctors, lawyers and businessmen with children in the league. I think probably in 10-15 years there will be a resurgence of talented young black players whose parents did pay for all the extra training for their young stars.

Innocence lost, indeed.

Amber Rhea said...

It's not like all the young black players in the league come from poorer families. There are PLENTY of African-American doctors, lawyers and businessmen with children in the league.

Yes, there are, and progress is being made.

But we should not ignore the relationship between class and race.