Series teams' talented, young black players show baseball can still attract top athletes from within African-American community

October 23, 2008|By DAVID STEELE | DAVID STEELE,david.steele@baltsun.com

All those concerned about how large an audience this year's World Series will draw might be overlooking a demographic that, after a long absence from nearly every aspect of baseball, is showing signs of coming back.

Michael Singletary is not only part of that group, but is also committed to it. Singletary is president of James Mosher Baseball in West Baltimore, the oldest known youth baseball league for African-Americans on the East Coast. This week, he was telling one of the league's players that it was important for him to watch the Tampa Bay Rays-Philadelphia Phillies showdown that began last night.

"He's kind of leaning toward basketball and football," Singletary said, "and I told him: 'Look at this World Series. See someone who looks like you.' "

Seven of them, in fact: the Philadelphia Phillies' Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard (the past two National League Most Valuable Players), and the Tampa Bay Rays' B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, Cliff Floyd, Edwin Jackson and David Price. All but Floyd are younger than 30, and all are, in various senses, stars.

The last time a Series had more black players on active rosters was 1997, when the Florida Marlins and Cleveland Indians had four each - and they didn't have the wattage this group has.

The undercurrent of heightened interest among black fans, baseball and otherwise, tells you that this development hasn't gone unnoticed. Baseball has noticed, too, as much as it has noticed the overall numbers - barely more than 8 percent this season - are approaching those of the early years of integration. Just three years ago, the Houston Astros arrived at the World Series with no African-American players, the first such team since 1953.

It has been a subject of great debate why baseball and American blacks have gone through such a long, protracted divorce - and whether it actually is a problem. The fact remains that the stars of the Rays and Phillies stand out in stark contrast to the rest of baseball at every level.

"It shows that baseball can still attract the best African-American athletes this nation can provide," said Major League Baseball executive vice president Jimmie Lee Solomon, charged with rebuilding the bridge between blacks and the national pastime. "They are the creme de la creme of major league baseball. ... What a tremendous story the African-American players are sharing."

And Solomon wants it shared, too, which is where Singletary and leagues like his come in.

Formed in 1960, James Mosher will celebrate its 50th season next year, and, as in many big cities, participation has dwindled - previous decades have had twice the number of players as this past season's 320. The league was used as an example of the struggle of urban youth baseball in a book released last spring, African Americans Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, by Sharon Freeman.

"In Baltimore, baseball is something like No. 5 in popularity," Singletary said. "That's amazing, because it's been No. 1 forever. Nothing against those sports, but any time lacrosse and track have moved ahead of baseball, that really says something."

The young, gifted, black Rays and Phillies might be an aberration or the beginning of a new talent wave. It definitely is a rare opportunity that Singletary, and others like him, don't want to waste.

"It is exciting," he said. "And I'm hoping all of our kids are watching."

For a far loftier reason that boosting the ratings.

Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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