Last winter, when the “MLB: The Show” video game series debuted its cover, the visage that adorned it was a shockingly welcome surprise. It was The Kid, Ken Griffey Jr., a man who is arguably baseball’s most mainstream star of the last two decades and unquestionably the game’s greatest crossover star in a generation.
And while it is not surprising to see an all-time great pushed on the cover of a video game to attract multiple generations of interest to push a contemporary product, his presence ignited multiple layers of discussion regarding the state of notoriety of today’s MLB stars.
Yet for many 20- and 30-somethings, it was a booster shot of excitement for the year to come on the digital diamond at the very least. This is because the sight of Griffey – despite having played his last Major League Game half a decade ago – reminds many of a time when baseball had a star as relevant as the top guy in the NBA, NFL, boxing, MMA, you name it. And he was not alone. Along with the exploits of Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas and Derek Jeter, there was widespread interest in the game because there was a headline black presence, which is how the game had always been throughout the history of its existence.
Fast forward to today and nothing could be further from the truth. Ask a random stranger who the best baseball player is today and they would likely struggle to come up with a valid name. In a study recently conducted by ESPN, Derek Jeter was named as the most popular name in baseball, followed by Babe Ruth. Jeter has not played since 2015, while Ruth has been retired for over eight decades and dead since 1948, the year after Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues.
Now dig down deeper and look for the game within the game to find who the best African-American players are, and one will find a legitimate struggle for true at-large name recognition for most, if not all, contemporary baseballers. While those close to the game know who Mookie Betts, David Price, Chris Archer, Giancarlo Stanton, Jason Heyward, CC Sabathia and Andrew McCutchen are, many of those names would produce nothing but empty looks.
This is due in part to the historical scarcity of African-American presence in the game. The population percentage of African-Americans or African-Canadians on MLB rosters has dipped to 7.73 percent, the lowest level since the integration of the game in the 1940s. Beyond that, the numbers have continued to decline annually. African-Americans are now the third most populous group in the game, behind the Caucasian and Latino ranks. And as a result, as the mass population has dipped, so has the potential for true stars in the game to emerge from the ranks of its previously dominant minority. And as a corollary of this, so has the reputation and prestige of the game within the African-American community.
This process has been long in the works. As the rise of the NBA in the late-1980s began and with the emergence of the NFL sealed, Major League Baseball is a far cry from the relevancy of the nation’s two most popular leagues. It is impossible to look at either sport and not see the majority presence of African-Americans not only comprising the rosters, but also being the driving forces in the leagues. It is not a stretch to say that the tenth most famous player in either league’s ranks is greater than the popularity of baseball’s most prominent presence.
Is baseball beyond redemption within the black community? That is a matter of perspective in many regards, because despite many ideas to the contrary, baseball – as a business – is booming. Gate revenues are at all-time highs, while a plethora of young stars gives the games the potential to not only have exciting young presences to look to today, but also to grow with in the same way that the previous generation grew and came to identify with Griffey.
But when we look to the biggest headlines around the game regarding African-Americans today, they have been largely negative. The two biggest mainstream headlines in 2017 with black ballplayers involved have not been positive ones, such as the excellence of Marcus Stroman pitching Team USA to its first World Baseball Classic victory. Nor has it been the presence of Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell keying the Cubs to their first World Series victory since the Teddy Roosevelt administration. Nor has it been the rise of Aaron Judge with the Yankees or Betts in Boston.
Want to look for the biggest positive story of the year surrounding an African-American and the MLB? Look no further than back to Jeter, whose number retirement (keyword), has been the most widely promoted event in the game this year. Once again, baseball’s eye on promoting its past and its most relevant star…. despite being closer to the Hall of Fame now than to the box score.
No, it has been issues more involved in the marginalization of race and politics than the game. The Adam Jones issue certainly doesn’t help. One of the game’s biggest stars being subjected to the cruelest of racial slurs while simply manning his position in the field shines an awful light on the cultural divide in the game. The fact that it was disputed whether the situation truly happened further infuriates those that identify with the issue in their everyday life as well. It furthers a stigma about what the game is – and isn’t – in today’s America. Long gone are the days of riding the waves of goodwill and opportunity from generations of African-Americans being held back from their full glory within the walls of Major League Baseball, when the sport truly was not just America’s pastime, but its focus.
Likewise, the criticism Fowler suffered for voicing a mild opinion on travel ban issues that potentially compromised access of his family (and his Iranian-born wife) to relatives abroad caused for him to called ‘un-American’ by fans both of his new team in St. Louis, as well as his former residency in Chicago, whom he had just helped guide to a World Series victory a year prior.
In a nation that is as polarized as it has been in many generations (if not ever), putting the few examples of exception in a game that is increasingly seen as a ‘white’ sport into a corner of discrimination is a surefire detriment to both keeping minority fans engaged, but also attracting new ones.
If baseball is to break through on an inclusionary level, it must be accessible to all, both young and old. Baseball’s accessibility is a multi-tiered issue that falls underneath the categories of cost, example, accessibility and desire, issues that each have their complications – but there is some hope.
An inspiration is needed, as was the case with Griffey a generation ago. He was an identifiable and marketable presence that could sell the game with not only his image and success, but his style too. And to that extent, maybe it all falls at the feet of Hunter Greene, who could be the Luke Skywalker of the game, as the new hope for a dwindling segment of the game. The 17-year-old’s mainstream notoriety is growing daily as the MLB draft approaches: He has already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a prep star, in a heralding fashion such as LeBron James and Bryce Harper received while moving along to their forefront status in their respective games and pop culture today.
Greene has been said to be the most talented high schooler of all-time, so much to the extent that he could just as easily make an impact with the bat and glove, as he does from the pitcher’s mound. And while he could become the first high school pitcher to ever be taken with the top pick in the amateur draft, the potential that Greene carries once he reaches the majors could be as significant as any player entering the game in many years — both in the past and to come.
While many baseball prospects enter the game with such a high level of hype, it is rare that it reaches the levels that Greene’s is at. Harper and Stephen Strasburg are the rare examples, with former Cubs pitcher Mark Prior being the other most recent example. However, the x-factor for Greene remains what he brings in intangibles. He is a well-spoken, good-looking, high performing young African-American with a reputation that is already built before he reaches the beginning of the long road to reaching the Major Leagues. While minor league baseball is rarely a sought-after event to watch, he will have many eyes on him from day one of his pro career, and if he can live up to his billing and reach the majors in short order, he could instantly be the biggest African-American star in the game. And one that carries to potential to not only reach out to, but also genuinely relate to, a generation that by and large ignores the sport.
This is a lot pressure to carry, sure. But it is the formula that worked for Griffey and Dwight Gooden before him, and could still be made real again.
Yet there are issues to be addressed beyond having the drawing card at the top level. Major League Baseball itself is an expensive undertaking to see live. Ticket prices can be high, concessions even higher and even with a slate of games two times greater than any other major sport, it still fails to regularly be hospitable for those that are not financially endowed. Yet before that, the sport has a whole can be incredibly difficult to access both on the summer league circuit and at the high school level.
Like most other sports, the amateur exposure leagues have moved to such a specialized, circuit travel level, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for many young minorities to participate in them. Even many of the notable Major League talents have had to have great luck or assistance to get the necessary level of exposure to get an opportunity to succeed in those amateur leagues. It is a game where parental involvement is essential as well, whether it be having the means to buy individual equipment, or to help travel kids to games. For parents that do not have the ability to be absent from work or home to make these sacrifices happen, it carries over to further complicate the issue for the kids as well. This is why it is much easier to walk down the street to find a basketball game on a child’s own reconnaissance, than it is to travel miles away to participate in meaningful baseball competition by the same measure.
With cuts to athletic programs in high school ranks making it difficult to afford the necessary equipment for the game, the inner-city schools that field teams often do not have enough quality equipment to field competitive teams. So while there are more than enough able talents to engage in the sport, the lack of accessibility to the game either steers them towards sports easier to participate in, but ones they stand a more difficult shot of reaching the top level in.
Major League Baseball and its member organizations do attempt to plant the seeds within the community to get younger minorities involved. The RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program has been a crucial outreach league for years, providing a chance for young African-Americans to play against one another, have suitable facilities to play on and equipment to utilize. Hall of Famer and long-time baseball executive, manager and spokesman Frank Robinson has spearheaded putting the program over, and continues to do so to this day.
It will take more than just the initiative to make this work. It will also take involvement from today’s stars in these communities. As always, the youth looks to athletes to be its role models and focal points from afar. However, when they can touch these athletes and participate with them, the inspiration goes to another level. Having these talented few African-American stars of today in those communities will make baseball more of a reality, rather than a ticketed event from afar that they cannot afford to access and have little patience to watch at home, because they are not invested in anything they see.
This brings us to a final issue of access that complicates baseball today: the notion that it is too boring. Yes, attention spans are shorter than ever and baseball, even with its pushes to speed up the pace of play, is still the most plodding of all major sports. The younger generations struggle to make it through these events due to the multitude of reasons why attention spans can be shorter.
Golf is a much less exciting and more difficult game to follow, but it did not stop Tiger Woods from achieving the unprecedented notoriety that he did. So it is difficult to believe that baseball cannot hold the attention of either a young person looking to gain interest in it, or an older person that has the same desire.
This is a bigger issue than just a color divide, but it is one that is coming from further behind with the African-American community than any other. If the exceptions are pointed out and highlighted as something to aspire to embracing, the black community will re-engage with the game. It is a culture that is based on embracing the underdog status and rallying around our own. So why not do that in baseball and rebuild a presence in a game where African-Americans have easily (and always) stood out when applying themselves to it? The opening is there.
The idea of an immediate salvation is not realistic. Baseball re-building itself within the black community will take time, attention and intention. But while the popular idea is that solving baseball’s racial relevancy issues must start by introducing and igniting the fire for the game in the youth, it is truthfully an issue that involves all eras seeing value in the game.
Any notion of the presence of African-Americans not being a vital part of the game is nonsense. As always has been the case, there are tremendous talents being produced by the culture, and more on the way. The question truly is: What are we going to do about making sure not only that they are embraced by their culture, but how are we to make sure that more and more join their ranks in the days to come, both on the field and encouraging them on in the stands?