To honor legacy, revive baseball in city, some say

April 15, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporter

The numbers - which will likely be recited often this week as baseball celebrates the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier - are troubling.

Though 40.5 percent of major league baseball players on rosters last season were players of color, only 8.4 percent were African-Americans. That percentage has been steadily declining since 1975, when 28 percent of all major leaguers were African-American.

But when you examine the reasons behind those numbers, it's even more troubling, according to those involved in the game at the grass-roots level in Baltimore.

"It's kind of ironic, but less than 60 years after Jackie Robinson achieved his great feat, baseball is dead in the inner city," said Terry Leverett, the baseball coach at Southwestern. "Black kids are not playing the sport. Sixty years is not that long ago, when you think about it. But we are doing a disservice to these kids today by not trying to get them interested at a young age. You want to celebrate what Jackie Robinson did? OK, great. Go and get the next generation of kids involved."

Leverett is one of the few city coaches who can point to one of his former players and show kids it's still possible. In 2000, outfielder Travis Ezi, who set a state record for batting average (.711), was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 12th round and given a $70,000 signing bonus. Ezi is one of the last African-American players from Baltimore City to be discovered in recent years.

It's no secret that the rising popularity of basketball and football, as well as lacrosse, in the past 30 years has considerably decreased the talent pool of African-American athletes that baseball has to draw from. But there are other issues to consider, Orioles scout Dean Albany said.

"I don't think it's anyone's fault, but we have to do a better job of making the game more affordable to more people," said Albany, who also coaches several youth league teams in the area. "A lot of kids who grow up in the city simply can't afford to go out and do it. They can't go home to their parents and say, `I need $125 for a baseball glove.' Or a bat that costs $200. Not when that same kid can spend $15 on a basketball, and 10 kids can go out and play."

Even if a kid borrows a glove, buys one secondhand or shares a bat with teammates, it doesn't eliminate the cost of getting to showcase camps, where most American players are discovered by scouts.

"You take a showcase like Perfect Game, which invites all the best high school kids every year to come to Jupiter, Florida," Albany said. "Well, over the course of four days, that might cost a kid between $800 and $1,200."

For the most part, however, the problems begin much earlier than high school. Leverett said the biggest issue is the lack of baseball fields in cities.

"Kids can't even play if they wanted to," Leverett said. "In order to change this trend, you have to go into black neighborhoods and start at the grass-roots level. Let's tear down two or three blocks of these dilapidated, abandoned houses and build a baseball lot. The kids would play baseball if there was an opportunity. But there isn't one. And so the kids end up playing basketball year-round. Instead of rebuilding some of these houses, tear them down."

Leverett says the situation has gotten so desperate at Southwestern in recent years, he's had trouble fielding a team. When he first started coaching there 18 years ago, his teams could beat any school in the city.

Now he has to beg kids, many with no baseball experience, to come out just so he can field a team with nine players. And he regularly has to spend his own money to purchase used baseball gloves from stores such as Play It Again Sports because the kids don't have their own.

"Last year, I had 14 kids on the roster, but only eight or nine would show up for games," Leverett said. "One kid said, `I've got other things to do.' This year is probably the worst baseball team I've ever had because the kids aren't baseball players. They might have been if they'd played the game when they were young, but they didn't, because there wasn't any baseball in middle school for them to play. But at least this year I have enough kids to field a team. ... I have some basketball players on the team. They may or may not show up."

Tai Thompson, a successful coach at Edmondson from 1990 to 2002, said he grew increasingly frustrated when he watched talented athletes choose other sports.

"I'd have a kid who was 6-foot-5, and he could jump to the moon, but he could also throw 95 mph," said Thompson, a juvenile corrections officer. "A coach would walk up to him and say, `This is a basketball player. Get him on the court.' The kid is thinking, `If I can get a Nike contract and play basketball, then my life is good.' So in terms of watching a kid develop, planting a seed is what's missing."

Thompson said that even when inner-city kids do decide to come out for the team, there are fewer and fewer coaches now who know how to properly teach fundamental baseball techniques. So even if a talented player does surface, he might not get the coaching that will help him flourish and be discovered by a college or major league scout.

"Kids don't know the physics of the game," Thompson said. "That's what missing. And it takes away from the enjoyment. All they want to do is hit home runs. My last two years at Edmondson, just to prove a point, I took a kid off the track team, Justice McLeod. He'd never played. He couldn't hit at all. But I told him, `I want you to bunt the ball and run as fast as you can. Don't do anything else.' So that's all he did. He'd bunt it back to the pitcher, and the pitcher still couldn't throw him out.

"He ended up getting drafted by the [Seattle] Mariners. I'm just sorry that I didn't have him until his 10th-grade year."

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