I grew up loving the game of baseball.
This started with my father who used to take me to the St. Louis Cardinal games back in the 70s. On summer evenings when he returned from work, we took the old Martin Luther King Bridge from East St. Louis and got cheap parking on the south side of the stadium.
Tickets were cheap too. The bleacher seats were $2 and they went on sale 90 minutes prior to every home game. (Trust me it ain’t like that anymore!)
We stood in line and got our spots in left or right field. We’d get peanuts and watch the game while listening to Jack Buck broadcast it on KMOX radio.
Our company was great too. Usually it was other older black men who loved baseball as well. They would make jokes and have “old man talk.’
This always excited me as I sucked all of that up. I loved my dad and enjoyed those old men as they told their stories and evaluated the players, the managers and the strategies.
My father’s favorite team was The Dodgers. This was common for black men as the Dodgers was the team who signed Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. There was a loyalty built-in the minority community because the Dodgers were the first to be inclusive and let us in.
I didn’t get it at that age of course. I was routing for the Cardinals. That is unless the Cincinnati Reds were in town. I loved the Big Red Machine and can still name all of their players.
This prompted my love for the game of baseball. I played it from an early age all the way through high school. As a child I watched the weekly games on NBC. And when I moved to South Bend, Indiana watched the Cubs and White Sox as much as I could.
Often I was the best player on my own teams and I wanted to be in the big leagues. I had some great teammates and competed against some awesome baseball players.
There were also plenty of black professional baseball players for me to admire too. Its not like I didn’t love me some Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and Johnny Bench. I loved watching a lot of baseball players. It wasn’t so much about the color. The point was that without even knowing it I was able to see black men that I could aspire to be like while playing a game I loved.
My guys were cats like Reggie Smith, Lou Brock, Bake McBride , Joe Morgan and Dave Winfield . My favorite baseball player of all time is probably Ricky Henderson. He had everything.. speed, power, and a helluva lot of swagger! This man played till the wheels fell off even if it meant playing for some semi-pro team after having a hall of fame major league career.
Nowadays there aren’t many black pro baseball players to look to. It seems like the last great generation consisted of the Barry Bonds’, Frank Thomas’ Kirby Pucketts’, Andre Dawsons’ and Ken Griffey Jrs of the world. That time is about up. We have a few guys left like Tori Hunter and Milton Bradley. But for the most part most minorities are from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba. There are many reasons for this and plenty of opinions out there to explain. I won’t get into those.
But I will speak on something I noticed when I umpired a varsity baseball game the other day.
The game was between two predominately African-American teams. One was a public high school and the other was a private.
I arrived at the game and wondered whether it was JV or not. This was because the players were for the most part pretty small. After speaking with some of them I found they were varsity players though the teams consisted of players who ranged from freshman to seniors. Most of the players played for the JV and varsity teams because they didn’t have enough players to carry both programs.
The next thing I observed was that the quality of the baseball game was horrible. The kids didn’t really know what they were doing out there. Most of the baseball I umpire are either little league, teen tournaments or adult. Those teams consist of mostly white players who seem to overall have a much better fundamental base than these older black players I saw.
During the game I talked to both coaches a bit. They talked about the struggles they have with the fact that most of these kids don’t play summer ball and they are so far behind in terms of the fundamentals. They are happy as I am that they are out there trying to learn the game. But it’s very difficult at that age when you haven’t learned the basics. When they play any team with any amount of training, an embarrassing loss is sure to come.
What I have heard for years on TV finally became a sobering reality to me.
The game of baseball… the game I love… the game I grew up with is not a game beloved by black boys and girls anymore.
Now it’s all about basketball and football.
There is no longer the infrastructure for little leagues within the black community. The fields are run over and neglected. It’s as if baseball doesn’t exist.
I can understand in a way. I mean since the age of Jordan kids have wanted to be like Mike. Not to mention one can be broke as a joke and as long as one guy has a basketball 10 guys can all play with it at once.
Baseball requires every kid to have his own glove. There has to be at least enough bats to go around so a player can use one he believes he can succeed with. It’s tough. But it’s also very sad to me.
Baseball is a beautiful game. An exciting game when played with skill and passion. And for all the reasons that apply, I am sorry that our kids are not playing and enjoying this national pastime.
I always said when I stopped being a sports official the next step was to coach. Initially I thought I would coach basketball because I have been around that game so much.
I want to do something to bring the game back to the black community.
I have a lot of work to do however. I attended an umpire’s meeting last night and learned that two local colleges with predominately black students are shutting down their baseball programs after this year.