View Count: 100 |  Publish Date: March 17, 2013
Baseball's fails to reach black America

Globalize, globalize, globalize. Thats been Bud Seligs - and by extension Major League Baseballs - mantra as the World Baseball Classic has unfolded this month.
But the push to bring baseball to all corners of the globe comes as one of the sports key demographics continues to vanish right here at home.
For the first time in memory, the Giants, reigning champions, have no African American players in camp this spring. Its a stunning development on a team whose history is molded by Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson and Dusty Baker.
I didnt realize it had gotten that dramatic, said Noah Jackson, whose First Base Foundation program works to give minority athletes in the Bay Area the opportunity to play baseball.
The Giants are, according to Comcast Sports Nets Andrew Baggarly, the only team in the majors without an African American player this spring. Theyre extreme but not alone: This is just a tangible sign of an ongoing league-wide trend. The number of African American players in the game has steadily declined, from a high of almost 30 percent in the 1970s, to just 8.05 percent last year.
So as MLB rushes to convert the world to baseball, what can it do to strengthen one of its homegrown cornerstones?
My fear is that this is not the sport of choice, said Giants general manager Brian Sabean. Were thriving up here at this level, but we cant produce players fast enough. Were no longer the national pastime.
Major League Baseball has put programs into place to attract and support youth in underserved communities. The RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program is beginning its 25th season and has, according to director David James, impacted more than a million young people. There are three RBI programs in the Bay Area, including the Junior Giants program, which is now affiliated with RBI. And while there are success stories - both Coco Crisp and Chris Young of the As are RBI alumni - the program has been unable to reverse the trend.
The RBI program gives youngsters an opportunity. MLBs Urban Youth Academy is designed to support those who want to go further in the sport, providing year-round instruction and educational programs for young baseball and softball players.
There are seven academies in place and plans to expand throughout the league. The longest-running program is in Compton (Los Angeles County), and according to Darrell Miller, MLBs vice president of youth and facility development, the academies have served more than 10,000 kids in seven years and more than 100 of those have been drafted.
Most kids who are playing at a higher level are in travel ball, paying to play and paying for instruction, Miller said. But a lot of kids cant afford that kind of support. We try to give kids more opportunity.
The forces at work against minority players are numerous, from the high cost of travel ball programs - the primary platforms where young players can be noticed - to the lack of college scholarships.
Under NCAA rules, Division I baseball programs are allowed 11.7 scholarships to divide among a roster of about 35 players. In contrast, football offers 85 full scholarships for a roster of 70 and basketball offers 13 full scholarships for a roster of 15.
While football and basketball players are guaranteed full rides, a player opting for baseball will still be stuck with most of an enormous tuition bill or have to enter the general financial aid pool.
Athletes look at baseball and wonder, Whats the end game? said Sabean, who noted that the proliferation of higher-profile mid-major basketball and football programs makes the challenge for baseball even greater.
The biggest issue is the lack of virtually any minorities in college baseball, Jackson said.
Thats a huge obstacle because, according to Miller, almost 70 percent of American-born athletes in professional baseball come out of Division I programs.
We have to resolve that issue, said Miller, whose brother Reggie and sister Cheryl both famously earned basketball scholarships. But the NCAA governs that.
Jackson, a Mill Valley resident and Bakers godson, played college baseball at Arkansas and at Cal, where he wrote his senior thesis on the lack of African Americans in the sport. He played minor-league ball in the Cubs system and worked for several years as a scout for the Padres. He has seen the issue from all angles.
Jacksons First Base Foundation - which arose out of his own experience as a young African American in the game - tries to address the shortcomings. He runs a travel ball team called the California Warriors, which aims to give kids a chance to play in the big summer tournaments. Travel ball programs cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 a summer, making them prohibitive for many families. College coaches scout the tournaments, in part, because they know theyll see athletes who have the financial resources to play in college despite being limited to either a partial scholarship or none at all.
We just try to get exposure for kids, said Jackson, 31. And we try to even it out financially. We also help them apply for financial aid in college and understand that there are resources for them if they want to play baseball.
In 10 years, Jacksons foundation has served 600 athletes, including 150 African Americans. Hes proud of his success stories, such as OKoyea Dickson, a Hunters Point resident who played at College of San Mateo and Sonoma State and was drafted by the Dodgers in 2011. Devin Pearson, a three-sport standout at Carmel High, is now playing baseball at Cal.
Jackson wants to give young athletes role models and hope. The dominant minority in the game is Latin players, born outside of the United States and launching dreams back home. But young American minorities dont see a system that works for them.
This season, the Atlanta Braves will field an all African American outfield: Jason Heyward and the Upton brothers. But most of the rising young American stars of the game - players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Buster Posey - are white.
Too many kids in high school dont see any minority faces, and they find out its not a welcoming sport, Jackson said.
The push to globalize the game may create a new pool of talent for baseball. But while MLB is busy marketing around the globe, it needs to do a better job of nurturing Jackie Robinsons legacy here at home.
Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: Twitter: @annkillion


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Time: 4:38  |  News Code: 209679  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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