Once, not so long ago, in the city, their hearts belonged to baseball

OTHER VOICES

July 12, 2005|By Drew Sharp

DETROIT - The last time Major League Baseball brought its midsummer spectacle to Detroit, various urban pockets pulsated with excitement.

Kids were armed with little more than their imaginations enjoying the nuances of a sport now branded as hopelessly out of touch with the modern youthful spirit.

The 1971 All-Star Game was an opportunity to take an old white T-shirt, cut off the sleeves, apply a little Magic Marker, place it over a black T-shirt and create a vintage Pittsburgh Pirates' Roberto Clemente "jersey" that you proudly showed off to your masochistic American League friends.

There was a simple love for the game that's been lost, especially within the black community.

The number of black major leaguers dropped below 10 percent last year for the first time in more than a generation, an embarrassment with roots at the rudimentary level. If you can't get kids even remotely excited about the game at 10, there's a little chance they'll stick with it, wanting to improve their skill level at 14.

Aware of the dwindling numbers of black ballplayers, Major League Baseball stepped up its youth program financial commitment, taking over the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program nearly 15 years ago. The city of Detroit received $1 million eight years ago, earmarked for upgrading some of the more dilapidated neighborhood diamonds.

There are now more than 100 youth baseball teams in Detroit, a significant improvement from 10 years ago.

That's fine, but that's only part of the problem. The abandonment of baseball isn't racially exclusive - ask most 13-year-olds of all cultural backgrounds these days, and they'll label the game as too slow.

Sports today are fighting each other for the attention of the 13-year-old. Coaches demand full dedication. Commitment is no longer seasonal, with off-season football weight training and summer basketball camps.

"Thirteen- and 14-year-olds are now forced to decide which sport they want to play and completely devote themselves to that sport," said Darryl Ott, a youth baseball organizer in Detroit, "and black kids are going to be more easily swayed to basketball and football because of the way those sports are marketed toward them.

"Where are the role models in baseball? You've got LeBron James making big money right out of high school with big impact in the NBA. You've got Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick at quarterback and getting big attention in the NFL."

And where's baseball's strongest influence?

Accessible only through his Web site, Barry Bonds skulks around with a cloud of suspicion over his head over whether he compromised the integrity of the all-time home run record chase by using steroids. Without question there would be more neighborhood buzz for tonight's All-Star Game at Comerica Park if both Bonds' health and reputation were fully intact.

Major League Baseball offered up Jackie Robinson's daughter, Sharon, as a guest speaker at a community outreach rally Saturday night at Greater Grace Temple on Detroit's west side.

But you wonder how many of the kids in attendance even knew of her father's significance.

The commissioner's office and the Detroit Tigers sponsored the event, but only after Greater Grace pastor Bishop Charles Ellis feverishly petitioned them.

"Coming to Detroit," said Bishop Ellis, "I thought that it was important that Major League Baseball actually touch urban America. I'm sure the events they're holding near the stadium are great, but they all have a corporate feel to it. They're actually touching the community here."

But can it leave a lasting impression?

That's up to coaches like Ott who selflessly offer their time and patience as well as wisdom and parents who encourage their kids to not only dream but also push themselves toward those aspirations. The numbers will gradually inch back upward in due course. There's more than likely another 13-year-old future Willie Horton somewhere on the city's hard-scrabbled ball fields who'll bypass the shoulder pads for a glove and eye black.

But it's not like it was when we were growing up - and it never will be again.

Baseball was your true love. You altered the rules to accommodate the number of players you had. We still played with teams of two or three. We made the neighbor's garden to the right an out and any balls rolling off the garage from the house across the alley in what was center field still playable if the sole outfielder was fast enough - and willing to dive over the gravel - to get it.

Most now would happily settle for a modest infatuation.

Drew Sharp is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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