Fade To Black

LA Dodgers Outfielder, and anger management class alumnus, Milton Bradley has been called everything from “perennially enflamed” to “certifiably insane.” But his voice was as calm as the Dead Sea when he addressed reporters last week. Bradley sounded almost weary as he lobbed accusations of racial insensitivity at teammate Jeff Kent. “The problem is, he doesn’t know how to deal with African-American people,” Bradley said. “I think that’s what’s causing everything. It’s a pattern of things that have been said — things said off the cuff that I don’t interpret as funny. It may be funny to him, but it’s not funny to Milton Bradley.”

Kent, who wears a wispy 1970′s style mustache that makes him look like someone who splashes on some High Karate before strutting over to the free clinic, did himself no favors by responding, ‘If you think that I’ve got a problem with African-Americans, then go talk to Dusty Baker. Go talk to Dave Winfield, who took me under his wing. Go talk to Joe Carter. All the guys … who taught me how to play this game.” (The “some of my best friends are Black” defense tends to fall flat.)

Fortunately for Kent, this tempest in a Petri dish has since been squashed, but it was Bradley’s other comments that are echoing in Major League Baseball’s executive suites. He said, “Me being an African- American is the most important thing to me — more important than baseball, White people never want to see race — with anything. But there’s race involved in baseball. That’s why there’s less than 9 percent African-American representation in the game.” Then Bradley looked around the Dodgers clubhouse whose air was once breathed by Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe, and muttered, “I’m one of the few African-Americans that starts here.’

The sports media, with a predictability rivaled only by the setting sun, proved Bradley’s point by rushing to condemn his attempt to launch a ‘taboo discussion’ about race. In Ryne Sandberg’s baseball column, the recently minted Hall of Famer ran a letter from a fan that read, “[Bradley] says being black is more important to him than baseball. If it is, then he should leave baseball and get into something ‘more black’ that he feels comfortable with.”

But in their rush to smear the messenger, the media ran roughshod over a critical message. African-American players indeed make up a mere 8.9% in the major leagues. In 1975 that number was 27%. Five teams – the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies – have no African- Americans on their active rosters. There are no African-American catchers and only five starting pitchers. This is a crisis that extends beyond ‘the talent pool,’ and ‘urban marketability.’ It’s a crisis of history.

From the Negro Leagues and Satchel Paige, to Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Curt Flood, and the rapidly aging Barry Bonds, no sport has been more deeply and continuously enmeshed with the African- American experience than baseball. Today’s baseball leadership says that they desperately want to reverse these trends, but until they stop using their heads as personal rectal thermometers, don’t look for this “leadership” to actually lead. .

Commissioner Bud Selig said, “I’ve been puzzled (by the diminishing African-American base) for years, both in terms of talent and those attending games. There are no easy answers. It is a very complex issue.”

It’s actually not that complex. There are two main factors that have led to the decline of the African- American baseball player.

The first is economic. As longtime Major Leaguer Royce Clayton said, “Many black families can’t afford for their children to play the sport, which requires the purchase of gloves, balls, bats and other equipment as well as money to maintain playing fields.’ A low-priced [UTF-8?] set of baseball gear – a bat, a ball, some spiked shoes, glove – costs about $75, while a $20 basketball or football can serve 10 or more players. Then there is city upkeep of fields and leagues. In Washington DC, where I live, the public baseball diamonds are nobody’s idea of a Field of Dreams. More likely, it’s swamped in broken glass and neglect, with kitten-sized rats waddling around the bases, always heading for home.

Baseball’s owners could have stepped in at any point in the last 30 years, as budget cuts slashed our cities, and made modest private investments in youth programs and upkeep. But they didn’t because MLB was growing fat on the influx of “cost effective” players from Latin America

Major League Baseball has spent the last two decades setting up “baseball factories” across the Caribbean where they can sign players as young as 16 for as little as $10,000. Baseball owners love this setup for the same reason they love their factories in Costa Rica where baseballs are stitched for pennies a day: mega- profits. As sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards said, “I’m convinced that the increase in Latin players is not because all of a sudden the leadership and hierarchy of baseball developed a love for Latins. It’s about money … I’m convinced, as Michael Corleone used to say, it’s not personal. It’s just business.”

Baseball has now belatedly attempted to start a similar program in the inner cities, opening a “factory” in South Central, Los Angeles, but this may be a case of too little too late. As Edwards said of such programs, ‘It’s like pumping air into the lungs of a dead man. He needs life; he doesn’t need air.” In other words, building a baseball factory on top of a dilapidated infrastructure is at this point like putting a cherry on top of a melted sundae.

If baseball really wants to see more African-Americans in the sports, they can start by calling a cease-fire on their perpetual efforts to fleece our cities with sweetheart stadium deals. Getting teams to put private money into urban centers instead of taking public money out would reverse the trend that lies at the root of the problem.

Owners can also start where they have the most direct control: the front office. 60 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line, there is only one African-American General Manager in all of baseball, Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox. Until owners stop bleeding our cities dry, and actually hire African Americans for positions of power, all the hand wringing in the world won’t amount to a hill of black-eyed peas.

Dave Zirin’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports- [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].

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