Where have you gone, Jackie Robinson?
• From the preps to the majors, black players are turning away from baseball
Growing up in North Portland, John Millage Jr. was a three-sport standout and 'a phenomenal baseball player,' says Nathan Mosley, Jefferson High baseball coach.
But last spring as a sophomore, burned out after playing football and basketball, Millage didn't play baseball at Jefferson.
'I enjoy baseball, but sometimes I enjoy basketball more,' he says. 'It's easier to get a group of guys together to play basketball than baseball. We go to Irving Park or in the gym at SEI (Self Enhancement Inc.).
'In basketball, you get to be seen a lot more, too. More people come to watch a basketball game than a baseball game.'
Millage plans to give baseball another try next year, though. 'I'll be back on the diamond,' he says.
If Millage returns to baseball, he will be going against the trend, nationally and locally. African-Americans are spurning the sport that Jackie Robinson integrated at the major league level more than a half-century ago.
The number of black players in the majors, which peaked at 27 percent in 1975, has fallen steadily, from 19 percent in 1995 to 10 percent in 2002 Ñ the lowest rate since 1960. Seven major league teams finished this past April with just one black player each.
In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier, each big league team retired his No. 42.
'The Dodgers had to call up Lenny Harris from Triple-A that day or they wouldn't have had a black player on the team,' ESPN's Harold Reynolds says. 'What an eye-opener that was for me.'
Just as discouraging to Reynolds, who is black, is the dearth of black fans at major league games.
'How many black faces do you see in the stands?' asks the 42-year-old Corvallis native, who made the All-Star Game twice as a second baseman during a 12-year career in the big leagues that ended in 1994. 'There are more Japanese fans than black fans at Mariner games.'
Reynolds says baseball's leaders aren't doing enough to attract black players. He doesn't believe that things have changed nearly enough since 1947, when Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
'Baseball is the most racist professional sport in the world,' Reynolds says. 'It is way worse than any of the other major sports.'
More Hispanics now
One reason for the declining numbers is the influx of Hispanic players, who held 28 percent of major league roster spots last season, and, to a lesser extent, the arrival of more Asian players.
'Some years ago, a young African-American looked at baseball as his way out of the inner city,' says Tom Brasuell, vice president of community affairs for Major League Baseball. 'That has come half-circle, where Latinos look at it as their only means of advancing in society.'
Blacks aren't playing baseball as much at any level.
Oregon State coach Pat Casey has had two black players in 16 years at the college level. The Metro League had one black player this past season. Five of the nine varsity teams in the Portland Interscholastic League didn't have a black player; Jefferson, the 10th PIL school, didn't have a varsity.
'With the popularity of basketball, black kids have a tendency to want to be basketball players, period,' says Troy Berry, the newly named boys basketball coach at Benson High.
Berry, who is black, played pro baseball and earned 11 letters in football, basketball, baseball and track as a Benson student. He was on the 1981 Tech team that won the state hoop title.
'There has been a tremendous drop-off in interest in baseball with inner-city kids,' he says. 'It's really disheartening. It's a sad state when you can't get black kids to play baseball, the greatest game ever invented, but it's a fact.'
Jefferson has the most black students among Portland schools. The turnout there for baseball was so low, the Democrats were unable to finish seasons in 2000 and 2001. Jeff coach Mosley finished last season with a JV team of 19 players, including two seniors. Sixteen of the players were black.
About 100 players attended a recent Major League Scouting Bureau regional tryout camp at Mt. Hood Community College. Not one was African-American.
'Doesn't surprise me,' says Mt. Hood assistant coach Darold Ellison, who is black and attended the tryout. In the Northwest, 'numbers are really down,' he says. 'There are not a lot of blacks who play baseball these days, and I'm not exactly sure why. I mean, you don't have to be 6-8 or weigh 300 pounds. It's a sport where a normal-sized guy can excel.'
The bling-bling factor
Blacks are being drawn to basketball and, to a lesser extent, football. About 85 percent of NBA players and about two-thirds of NFL players are black.
The era of the three-sport high school star is over. Some athletes do compete in football, basketball and baseball, but not nearly as many as did a generation ago.
This is the age of specialization, where basketball coaches run spring, summer and fall leagues and prefer their athletes to focus on that sport. Football players have passing leagues and camps to attend in the spring and summer.
'There is pressure on those kids to play basketball year-round. They are playing 100 games a year,' says Madison High baseball coach Art Chase, who had two blacks among the 31 players who finished in his program last season.
'I have (black) kids at Madison who are plenty talented. I beg them to come out for baseball, but they don't want to play,' Chase says. 'I saw a survey a couple of years back. They asked inner-city kids why they weren't playing baseball, and they said, 'We would rather sit on the bench on a basketball team than play baseball.' '
Track provides competition, too, says D.J. Jackson, a former football, basketball and baseball standout at Jesuit High.
'Black athletes typically have speed, and many of them take up track, which is also held during the spring,' Jackson says. 'If they have to make a choice, a lot of them are deciding that baseball is not the game for them.'
Over the years, the NBA has targeted black youths as a part of its fan base. Call it the bling-bling factor. The NBA is cool. Its stars are mostly black, with plenty of flash. Its hipness quotient beats football and blows away baseball.
'I'm not a big fan of what the NBA is doing,' Reynolds says. 'It is a thug league. But the NBA has gone directly to the inner cities through its hip-hop campaign and marketed through shoes, music, videos and so on. I have never seen a baseball video with a rap star, or Christina Aguilera singing 'Take Me out to the Ballgame.' '
Ray Johnson, a high school principal in Southern California who coached prep baseball in the PIL for many years, sees the same influence.
'Baseball doesn't have the sexy appeal of football and basketball,' Johnson says. 'Those sports seem to have an excitable marketing value that is higher than that of baseball. That plays heavily into the minds of kids.'
There's more attention focused on basketball than on the other sports, perhaps inherently because spectators are closer to the court.
'You are more visible as a basketball player,' Benson's Berry says. 'You are indoors. The fans are close down on you.'
When Berry was growing up, his sports heroes were baseball players. Jose Cardenal. Willie Mays. Hank Aaron. Ernie Banks. Billy Williams.
'I used to play baseball from sunup to sundown, when the weather permitted,' says Berry, 40, a second baseman who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies out of high school, then returned to basketball, finishing up at Oregon State, where his teammate and roommate was Gary Payton.
'We would play a game called 'Strikeout,' ' Berry says. 'Or, if I was alone, I would throw a ball up against a wall and imagine I was in a game. You don't see kids doing that, or playing catch anymore in the inner city.'
Donny Reynolds, Harold's older brother, was a three-sport athlete at Corvallis High who starred as a running back and outfielder at the University of Oregon and went on to play two years in the big leagues. Baseball is a different game than it was in the '70s, much more power-oriented, and Donny Reynolds wonders if that's a reason for the game's shifting demographics.
'Go back and look at how the game was played in the Negro Leagues ÑÊbunting, base-stealing, a faster-paced game,' says Reynolds, 50, now a coach for the Colorado Rockies' minor league team in Visalia, Calif. 'Now it's 'hit it out of the park.'
'Face it, speed is correlated to (the black) race, and they have taken running out of the game. I'm not sure baseball is exciting enough anymore for a lot of black kids. And that makes me sad, when the better black athletes aren't playing the game.'
Jesuit High baseball coach Craig Webster agrees that the fast pace of basketball appeals to blacks more than the slower pace of baseball does.
'Basketball is fun to play, and the way most people are playing, it's up and down the court with the fast break,' Webster says. 'And specialization has just become the way.
'At Jesuit, we have had very few three-sport kids because of the academic load. The Tarvers (three brothers at Jesuit) are a good example. Zach played baseball when he was younger and would have made a great left-handed pitcher for us. Seth and Josh both played, too, but they decided to put everything into basketball.'
Harold Reynolds wishes that weren't the case.
'No reason they can't play baseball, too,' Reynolds says. 'We are forcing kids to decide. My brother Don would never have gotten to play both sports today. Football would have locked him up.
'I go to a Little League game and ask the kids if they're going to play high school ball, and they say, 'Nope, I'm playing basketball.' '
Weighing the pros and cons
The athletic challenge of basketball appeals to blacks, says D.J. Jackson, an outfielder in the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system.
'Basketball requires more athleticism than just about any other game,' he says. 'A lot of blacks have leaps and hops, which makes it fun. And for a lot of us, it's an escape. I pride myself in my basketball. I was a decent player at Jesuit. I enjoyed a game, or just going one-on-one. It's like, 'You try to stop me.' It's a game where you can talk (trash) a little bit more. Basketball exudes a little more of that culture.'
Yet Jackson, unlike many young blacks, chose baseball over football. An all-state running back at Jesuit, he signed a letter of intent to play football at Boise State, then decided on pursuing a career in baseball. Part of it was loyalty to and influence from his father, Derry, a catcher in high school in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
'I would love to make Dad happy by taking up the sport he loves so much and making it to the major leagues,' the junior Jackson says.
Jackson considered several other factors, including risk of injury and longevity.
'I have a chance at a longer career in baseball than football,' he says. 'Football is more exciting, and, to be honest, I get more of a thrill out of it. It's like who can run around the fastest and hit hardest every play. I would probably love to play in college, but baseball is more of a mental game, and I like to use my brain more.
'A few years down the road, if baseball is not coming together like I want it to, I can go back and play college football.'
Derry Jackson says he went over the pros and cons of a career in football or baseball with his son, leaving the decision up to D.J. The elder Jackson says he was elated when the choice was baseball.
'I was always on pins and needles that he would get hurt in football,' Derry Jackson says. 'It's a fact that there's opportunity for a longer career in baseball than in any other sport. The salaries are good, and there's a vibrant farm system.
'It's a shame the black community has been so seduced by basketball. The odds of making an NBA team are incredibly less than those of making a major league baseball or NFL team.'
The road to quick riches
Kids perceive that they can earn the big bucks and fame more quickly in basketball. High school phenom LeBron James is the current poster child Ñ he was the No. 1 choice in the recent NBA draft. Before him were Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal. Straight out of high school to the big time.
In baseball, players rarely make the big leagues before age 21 or 22, and often not until 24 or 25.
'Even the kids playing baseball, after they pick up the balls after batting practice, they go out and shoot baskets,' says Jefferson coach Mosley. 'It's always on their minds, because that's what black kids see, that's what they do.'
The average salary for an NBA player exceeds $4 million per year. Some families see pro basketball as a way to prosperity.
'Black kids are playing Little League, but those 9-year-olds are not playing baseball when they reach high school,' OSU's Casey says. 'It's not because anybody is trying to cut them out. Those kids are making a choice, and sometimes it may not be their own. In many cases their parents are encouraging them to do that, because it's their way out.'
'Does anybody think LeBron James couldn't have been a heck of a baseball player? He chose to go to the sport that gave him the chance to have the greatest success the quickest.'
Likewise, many struggling inner-city families can't afford the escalating cost of baseball. Berry says baseball is becoming one of the most expensive sports, 'like tennis or golf.'
'There are all sorts of baseball leagues and tournaments that kids can play in to get noticed by scouts, like Perfect Game, Team One and the Area Code games,' Harold Reynolds says. 'When I was young, all you did was play American Legion and travel to different tournaments, and it hardly cost anything. Now they are charging kids $150 or $200 to participate in these things. Who can afford it?'
Jack Russell has seen the rising costs affect his talent pool during four years as baseball coach at Roosevelt High.
'A lot of parents just can't afford to have their kids play,' Russell says. 'A bat, a pair of shoes and a glove can cost $500.'
Johnson, the former PIL baseball coach, says the expense 'puts kids in the position where they have to choose not just from spirit of heart, but also where they want to put their financial resources.'
Johnson points out another problem, one that isn't race-specific: High school baseball is played in the spring, at the end of the school year.
'Athletes arrive at the start of school all excited about sports,' he says. 'By spring, a lot of kids who played football and basketball aren't as eager to play a third sport. Baseball winds up losing in the deal.'
In Oregon, the weather is another factor turning kids away from baseball, coaches believe.
'We start in February, when it is cold, dark and rainy,' Jefferson's Mosley says. 'Kids are like, 'Why should I go out in the rain?' '
It doesn't help, Mosley points out, that many black kids in North and Northeast Portland are in single-parent families.
'Mom has to go to work. What is the kid going to do?' he says. 'In our area, a lot of the time it is go to SEI (Self Enhancement Inc.), Boys and Girls Clubs or Irving Park to get away and do something. And they wind up playing basketball.'
In recent years, Grant coach Rob Kennewell has had as much success as anyone in the state with black players. The Generals, who reached the Class 4A quarterfinals this past spring, had 47 players in their program, 17 of whom were black.
But Kennewell feels the heat, he says, because of a lack of quality fields in North and Northeast Portland.
'It's not black kids not enjoying the game,' says Kennewell, who recently completed his 14th year at the Grant helm. 'It's the lack of inner-city facilities. There is a shortage of quality 90-foot diamonds. We have two in all of Northeast Portland. There are other fields, but they're the pits, and younger kids have league games scheduled on them.
'And it's not just the case in Portland; it's that way in the inner city everywhere. In New York City, you might be able to play some stickball, but I doubt if there are any 90-foot grass diamonds.'
Kennewell does what he can. He has a batting cage at Grant, 'and every kid in the neighborhood knows the combination,' he says. 'Right now, it's unlocked. Just pull out the net and start hitting.'
Kennewell says Portland baseball also was hurt when Northeast Little League went out of business in the late '70s. Former major leaguer Darryl Motley, among others, learned the game in that league.
'And they closed down Blazing Field in Northeast Portland about that time,' Kennewell says. 'I thought it was the best Little League field in the state, even better than Alpenrose. If you lived in the neighborhood, you played there.'
Roosevelt's Russell thinks there would be more local interest in baseball if a major league team came to town.
'Our kids don't have anyone to identify with,' he says. 'In basketball, we have the Blazers. You give us a major league team, we are going to have a lot more players around the city of Portland interested in the game.'
Not many black coaches, either
Kevin Lovings, who recently resigned after five years at Sunset, has been the state's only black head prep baseball coach since 1993. He had four black players during his seven years of coaching at Roosevelt, 'but they also played football and basketball,' he says. At Sunset, he had no black players.
'The majority of black kids who enjoy sports are park players,' says Lovings, 34, a former catcher at Wilson High and Mt. Hood Community College who is now an assistant coach at Pacific University in Forest Grove. 'Basketball is a park sport. You can go there anytime. Black kids do.
'The fact that high school kids like LeBron are signing huge deals doesn't help the cause. A lot of kids are attracted to instant money and fame.' (Kansas basketball player) Aaron Miles was a heck of a baseball player growing up, but it is easier to market yourself for basketball.'
When Lovings was at Roosevelt, he considered himself a role model for aspiring black baseball players.
'Having a black coach was an attraction for them,' he says. 'When I played in high school, Ray Johnson at Grant was one of the few black coaches in the state.
'I sometimes feel alone in the profession. I try not to wonder what other coaches are thinking when I go up against them. Maybe black players have some of the same feelings.'
Harold Reynolds questions college coaches' commitment to recruiting black ballplayers, especially those playing in urban areas.
'I have heard that a lot of college coaches won't go into the inner city to recruit because of gang-related violence,' Reynolds says.
Only two current black major league players come from New York, Chicago, Boston or Philadelphia. Reynolds says big league teams share the blame.
'I'm tired of all the excuses,' he says. 'We have to open our minds a little more. If you can't get in there to Watts, stage a tryout camp in Orange County. If you can't get into New York City, find a way to get the kids out to Connecticut.'
Pat Casey, Reynolds' friend and former minor league teammate, says he would welcome more black players.
'I can speak for all college coaches in saying we would absolutely love it,' says Casey, who is white. 'When we go down in the urban areas to recruit, there aren't many black kids playing baseball. It's not a racist thing in any shape or form. Black athletes have chosen to specialize in basketball, and they are doing a fantastic job of it. When a black kid chooses one sport, it's usually not baseball.'
But Donny Reynolds believes that race continues to play a role in the opportunities presented to black players in pro baseball, in part because white fans are paying most of the bills.
'Most of the black players who make it are stars,' he says. 'They aren't bench players, with a few exceptions. Your business is about ticket sales. You want your players to reflect the people who pay the money. You try to be very objective about it, but what else could be the reason?
'I watch some of the black players get eliminated in spring training, and I shake my head. You hope it wouldn't be the case, but I would lean in that direction. The black player who isn't a star would be at a disadvantage in that situation.'
Adds Harold Reynolds: 'If you are black but not a top-flight player, you are not going to be in the big leagues.'
Harold Reynolds resents that baseball emphasizes recruiting Hispanics more than it does developing black players in the United States.
Major league clubs annually spend $60 million in scouting and development.
'They will build a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, but they won't put one in the inner city of L.A. or Atlanta,' Harold Reynolds says. 'It comes down to finances. If they can sign a Dominican for $1,000, why develop an African-American high schooler who might end up being a $1 million draftee?'
Major League Baseball says it is planning to open its first urban academy, in the Los Angeles area. Some wonder if it is too late.
California bucking the trend?
Ray Johnson, an outfielder during his playing days at Eugene's Willamette High, Mt. Hood Community College and Western Oregon University, doesn't expect the number of black baseball players in Oregon to rise dramatically, 'simply because the African-American population isn't large.'
But he sees hope in Southern California, where he has lived for the last two years and will begin as principal at Wilner Amina Carter High in Rialto this fall.
An area scout for the Atlanta Braves, Johnson scours talent from Los Angeles to San Diego, 'and we see a lot of African-American prospects,' he says.
But that's not the case throughout the country. And baseball proponents don't know what to do about it.
Benson's Berry, who says his first love is baseball, is coaching basketball for a living.
'I have two sons who don't play baseball, and it is killing me,' he says. 'They want to be basketball players.'