Contributor's notes: Jeff Beresford-Howe
With the resounding "Ping!" of the aluminum bat, the North American baseball season commenced on Friday at colleges and universities all across the United States.
Fresno State, the Cinderella-ist national champion in the history of the NCAA began their title defense at Beiden Field in front of a sellout crowd of nearly 4,000 by beating Washington, 5-4. A University of California freshman named Danny Oh gave Evans Diamond attendees goosebumps when his first-ever college AB turned into a game-winning, pinch-hit home run to lead the Bears to an 8-6 victory over the U.C. Riverside Highlanders. Fleeing Ann Arbor — 23 degrees, snow — Michigan began a ten-game stretch in the Sunshine State by beating South Florida, 6-5.
As exciting as it all was, none of it compared to the show at perhaps the unlikeliest venue for college baseball games in the United States: Compton, California. It's a desperately poor, mostly minority city next door to Los Angeles, more famous for rap feuds, drive-bys and grinding poverty. Four schools — Bethune-Cookman, Southern University, the University of San Diego, and San Diego State — nevertheless spent the weekend there at the invitation of the Urban Youth Academy. Both of the HBCUs — that's Historically Black College and Universities, of which Bethune-Cookman and Southern are two — brought their baseball teams and their famous marching bands. Both bands tore the place down while kids in uniform from the Compton High marching band stared in awe. Bethune-Cookman traveled well, as they say in college sports, as did both of the schools from nearby San Diego. A gorgeous day in the L.A. sun at an immaculate new facility, watching your kid play on Opening Day — there's a lot of grins in that, and the fact that the MLB network televised the games on Saturday didn't hurt either.
The games had a deeply serious, underlying purpose, though: African-American players are disappearing from baseball, and Darrell Miller wants to do something about it. The former California Angels utilityman is now the director of the three-year-old Urban Youth Academy, a Major-League-Baseball-sponsored program in Compton which is trying to teach inner-city 13-18-year-olds the game.
Some stats first.
In 1975, 27 percent of major league players were African-American. Last year, the figure was around eight percent, and it's no longer unusual for a Major League team to have no African-Americans on it's roster. In college baseball, the figure is six percent. That's a deceptive number, though: It includes the rosters of the HBCUs, most of which find themselves mired in the 200s in NCAA Division I baseball rankings. A more telling number is the one you'll find in the Pac-10, the most successful baseball conference in the NCAA. (Twenty-five out of the 59 NCAA championships have been won by seven different Pac-10 schools.) There are fifteen African-American players scattered around the Pac-10, about three percent of total players.
To put those numbers in perspective, the most recent NCAA stats on race and ethnicity in college sports shows that a high-end Division I school is about as likely to have an African-American tennis player as it is to have an African-American baseball player.
Miller thinks he knows why.
"When I went to college, I played at Cal Poly Pomona... we played against the Arizona States and the University of Arizonas and the SCs and the UCLAs," he says. "Arizona State, had seven, eight, nine African-Americans on that team, Kenny Landreaux [later a star for the Dodgers], various other guys from Compton on that team, but they also had 25 athletic scholarships. You're talking 30 years ago. Things have really changed. If you're going to get a young guy excited about collegiate baseball, it's usually through a full-ride scholarship."
Those full rides are plentiful in college football and basketball, but not so much in baseball.
"Most of our kids are focused a lot more on football because there's 80 scholarship opportunities. Baseball has 11.7, so most of those are partial scholarships that are given out. If you're economically disadvantaged, you do the math. That doesn't work for you at a major university. Or basketball scholarships. There are 15 scholarships and 12 guys on a team. Everyone on that team has a full ride, plus a couple of red shirts."
The discussion isn't just, ahem, academic. Miller points out that 70 percent of American-born Major League Baseball players now come from the colleges. If there are no African-American players in the colleges, there won't be any in Major League Baseball, either.
The lack of college players comes at the end of a long line of inner city obstacles to the development of baseball players, Miller says. Many of the kids don't have dads to teach them the game. Big city Little Leagues are vanishing. Equipment is expensive. High school programs are falling apart. There are virtually no well-tended fields for kids to play on informally. And the places that get the attention of college coaches with precious scholarships to offer — the "traveling team" leagues, showcases and academies — are out of the reach financially of many inner-city families.
And, as Miller points out ruefully, the inner-city kids who manage to get past all that often have been so thoroughly let down by inner-city schools that they're simply not prepared to go to college. Only half of them in the Compton area, for example, even finish high school.
Cameron Hart is the kind of guy Miller hopes we're going to see more of. He's one of the six thousand kids that have come through the academy in the three years it's been open.
An all-city quarterback at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, Hart was also Crenshaw's most valuable baseball player, hitting .488 while leading his team to a conference championship. He chose baseball. Why?
"Anybody can play football. It takes a 75-percent cerebral person and 25-percent athletic person to play baseball. You can't find that in everyone. I knew if I put my mind to it and put my athleticism to it, I could be a much better baseball player in the long run than a football player." If Hart is right, he's certainly playing to his strong suit. He's a superb athlete but a better student: the University of California offered him a full academic scholarship, and Hart jumped at it after looking at some of the best baseball programs in the area, Fullerton State, Fresno State and Stanford among them.
Hart's success in some ways, though, shows how hard it is: He's the only player on the outstanding 2008 Crenshaw baseball team to make the jump to Division I college baseball.
"I don't think a lot of guys besides Cameron were ready to go to college," Miller says. "They didn't have their college credentials in order, number one. Number two, they weren't as advanced as Cameron. He spent a lot of time at the academy... I think the skill level needs to be developed at a high level to play in college, because the skill level in college is off the charts these days. I also think that some kids aren't getting recruited out of the city of LA, mostly the inner city, for various reasons."
One of those "various reasons" is college coaches. There is exactly one African-American head coach at a high-end NCAA baseball programs — former Padres outfielder and Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. "Is that what it takes to get a college coaching job?" Miller asks. "Do you have to be in the Hall of Fame?"
Finally, there's LeBron.
As Hart puts it, "Ten, 20 years ago, the American dream for little black boys wasn't only basketball. It was baseball, football, a little bit of basketball. Nine times out of 10, ask a kid now what he wants to be when he grows up, he says I want to be LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, something like that." Whle Hart dodged the desire to be the Next LeBron, or like Mike, he points out that the lack of African-American players feeds on itself: "There aren't enough blacks to see playing baseball. Half of the people in the pros who have pigment in their skin are from the Dominican or South America somewhere. They're not African-American... It's something that a lot of people's eyes are open to, but not enough people are doing something about it."
Excepting Miller, of course, who says he sees the academy having a real impact in just three years.
"High school ball is on the recovery, especially since we've been here. It's definitely down since... You can look on my wall, the '63 [Los Angeles] city champions, where eight or nine guys played in AAA, Major Leagues, they had some superstars on that team: Bob Watson, Bobby Tolan, Willie Crawford. We're talking about some serious players. So is baseball where it was 40 years ago? Absolutely not. But we see it coming back. We see a good, solid freshman class at all the big high schools like Crenshaw, Compton and Dominguez High and Hamilton and some of the other big-time schools here in LA. It's on the rebound."