April 2010

The state of African-American players in baseball

MIAMI — I had the honor of being at Sun Life Stadium for Jackie Robinson Day on Thursday, when the Marlins hosted the Reds, and prior to that night’s game, I was roaming around the Reds’ clubhouse looking for African-Americans to talk to about Jackie Robinson and the current state of black players in baseball. 

So, there was Cincinnati outfielder Chris Dickerson, sitting in front of his locker and reading a magazine in silence. I quietly went up to him, introduced myself and asked if he would have a couple of minutes to talk at some point that afternoon, so he sprung up, ran to the trash can to spit out his gum and came right back ready for questions. 
I wanted to talk to you about Jackie Robinson Day, I said. 


With that, Dickerson’s shoulders dropped, a grin surfaced on his face, and he quipped, Of course you do. 

Why do you say that? I asked. 
Because it’s Jackie Robinson Day, and I’m one of three African-Americans in here, so I’m going to be answering a question, or two, about it, he responded.
It’s true. The Reds have just Dickerson (pictured left; The Associated Press), Brandon Phillips and Arthur Rhodes as African-American players, in addition to manager Dusty Baker and first-base coach Billy Hatcher. On the Marlins’ end, there is only one: Cameron Maybin.
“They [Major League Baseball] have to do things to appeal to African-Americans,” Maybin, who wears No. 24 as a reverse to Robinson’s 42, said. “It’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to do it. RBI [the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program] is great, but I’m sure you can always do more. You can always do more. That’s just my personal opinion.”
RBI was established in 1989 and continues to grow in its mission to implant baseball in inner cities that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the equipment and fields to play it. 
Maybin and Dickerson both agreed that the majority of African-Americans living in low-income communities gravitate to basketball and football mostly because, well, it’s easier to. You can put a hoop almost anywhere, so you pick up a basketball and you just start playing. With football, you buy a ball, get some friends and an open field, and there you go. Baseball? You need gloves, cleats, a specially designed field, bats and at least 18 players. 
“In inner cities, the way out of those environments is through football and basketball,” Dickerson said. “It’s cheaper, and there’s not necessarily sprawling [baseball] fields in those types of environments. So, this sport isn’t necessarily as accessible as it should be, and that is why you’ve seen the decrease over the years.”
A recent USA Today story referenced the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport in writing that in 2009, MLB had its first increase of African-American players on Opening Day rosters in 15 years, at 10.2 percent. This year, though, according to the newspaper’s own research, it’s down to 9.5 percent, and 17 teams had two or fewer African-American players on their Opening Day rosters.
Dickerson and Maybin — and I, for that matter — agree that RBI is a great program, and it’s a great first step in helping African-American involvement increase once again. But they don’t believe it’s an end-all, be-all. 
Dickerson, seemingly a very intellectual guy, made another great point in that regard.
“Marketing has to do with that,” he said. “You can’t necessarily market a cleat or a turf shoe that kids are going to go out and buy. You have basketball shoes, you have NFL shoes. You can wear the Michael Vicks, you can wear the LaDainian Tomlinson shoe to school or whatever. Nobody wears baseball turfs to class. And that’s how you market them. You’re drawing these young influences to an alternate sport, to basketball — the LeBron Jameses, the Carmelo Anthonys.”
Dickerson said when he was growing up in California, Ken Griffey Jr. was the guy he idolized. He bought the Swingman shoes, and he tried to emulate that sweet lefty stroke. 
That brings me to Jason Heyward. The Braves’ super prospect has often been compared to Griffey because of his quick rise to the big leagues, the unbelievable tools he has at such a young age and the hype that has surrounded him.
So, can he be the next Griffey in terms of guiding more prominent African-American players to the game?
“He very well could,” Dickerson said. “And it’s exciting. It is, having players like that, having young, African-American phenom players like Jason Heyward. It’s a sign of what could be, potential — marketing and for the game of baseball. Hopefully he can be that beacon of light for these communities in the United States to bring that focus back to young kids, saying, ‘I want to play baseball like Jason Heyward,’ or whoever.”
— Alden Gonzalez

(pictured, from left, courtesy of AP: Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano during “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to Thursday’s game at Yankee Stadium)

Trying to predict a truly unpredictable game …

What would Opening Night be without predictions of what will happen half a year from now? Baseball is one of those elements of life that follows no script and is loaded with unpredictability. Come October, this will serve as proof …

Best offense: Phillies 

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Best defense: Red Sox
Best starting rotation: Yankees
Best bullpen: Rangers
Best bench: Rockies
NL Rookie of the Year: Jason Heyward 
AL Rookie of the Year: Michael Brantley
NL Cy Young: Roy Halladay
AL Cy Young: Josh Beckett
NL MVP: Hanley Ramirez
AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez
World Series champion: Phillies (over Yankees)
… Now, it’s time to find out just how wrong I truly am. Happy 2010 season, everyone.
Alden Gonzalez

(Pictured: A vintage Ken Griffey Jr. moon shot. Why? He was my favorite player growing up, this may be the last year we are graced with his presence, and his eight Opening Day home runs is tied with Frank Robinson for the most in baseball history. Enough said.)

6 Divisions in 6 Days: AL West

With this being the final week of Spring Training (crazy, right?), I figured it’d be justified to take a look at all 30 clubs and examine where they stand, what they need and where it looks like they’ll finish heading into the 2010 season. So, leading up to Opening Night between the Red Sox and Yankees, I’ll touch on one of the six divisions each day Monday-Saturday. Today, Day 6, we look at the American League West …

AngelsJust like in the National League West, the AL West is pretty much a toss-up. And just like in their NL counterpart, it’s the backpedaling of the L.A. team that has it that way. Still, though, the Angels — like the Dodgers — will remain competitive. Sure, they lost John LackeyChone Figgins and a gimpy Vladimir Guerrero. But nobody produces runs better than the Angels, and very few are better in-game managers than Mike Scioscia. The starting rotation — with Jered WeaverJoe SaundersErvin SantanaJoel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir — isn’t as great as last year’s, but still solid (though a bit questionable). The back end of the bullpen — with Fernando Rodney and Brian Fuentes — is very good. And the offense — with Torii HunterBobby AbreuHideki Matsui and company — will still score a bunch. So, the Angels are still very relevant.


 RangersI like the Rangers, and I think they pose a big threat this year. A couple of things will have to go their way, though. A few guys will have to step up in that starting rotation, and youngster Julio Borbon will have to step up as the leadoff hitter. All signs point to Borbon being more than capable of handling that role, but who will stick out among a starting staff that includes Scott Feldman, a fragile Rich Harden and starter-turned reliever C.J. Wilson? With the offense and bullpen the Rangers have, though, they can get by with just an average starting staff. Relievers Neftali FelizDarren OliverDarren O’Day and Frank Francisco. The offense is flat-out deadly, with Michael Young, Guerrero, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and others. Can this be the year the Rangers finally return to the playoffs (they haven’t been there since 1999). Why not? 

MarinersLike pretty much the entire baseball world, I love the moves the Mariners made this offseason (perhaps despite Milton Bradley). Is it enough to get them over the top and into the playoffs in possibly Ken Griffey Jr.’s final season? I’m one of few who think not. The reason: They won’t hit enough for power, and the starting rotation is not deep enough. Seattle is perfectly tailored for spacious Safeco Field. They’re one of the best defensive clubs in baseball — perhaps the best — and there’s a lot of high-on-base guys in that lineup. But what does the middle of the order consist of? Bradley, Jose Lopez and an over-the-hill Griffey? And who’s after rotation studs Felix Hernandez and Cliff LeeRyan Rowland-Smith and Ian Snell? Great job by general manager Jack Zduriencik this offseason. But, like the Giants, they’re a big bat away from a postseason berth, in my mind. 

Athletics: You may be looking at the worst team, personnel-wise, in baseball right here. Closer and reigning AL Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey is great, I like Kurt Suzuki behind the plate, and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff was a nice acquisition. That’s pretty much it, though. Ben Sheets, who signed a $10 million contract and put up an 11.20 ERA in Grapefruit League play, was lights out from 2004-08 but is now overpaid. Too many questionable, unproven — possibly incapable — guys in the bullpen, the rotation and sprinkled all over that lineup. Sorry, A’s fans, not yet, and not even close. But perhaps Eric Chavez — now the designated hitter — can finally bounce back.
AL West champion: Rangers 

— Alden Gonzalez

6 Divisions in 6 Days: NL West

With this being the final week of Spring Training (crazy, right?), I figured it’d be justified to take a look at all 30 clubs and examine where they stand, what they need and where it looks like they’ll finish heading into the 2010 season. So, leading up to Opening Night between the Red Sox and Yankees, I’ll touch on one of the six divisions each day Monday-Saturday. Today, Day 5, we look at the National League West …

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Dodgers: They’ve gone backwards a bit, which is what makes this one of the most evenly matched divisions in baseball. But the Dodgers are still a big threat. Yeah, Manny Rarmirez‘s best days are behind him. And, sure, having Vicente Padilla start on Opening Day doesn’t say much about your rotation. But the Dodgers’ lineup is solid, with a still-very-productive Ramirez and up-and-coming studs in Matt Kemp, James Loney, Russell Martin and Andre Ethier. The rotation has some nice young arms in Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. And the back end of that bullpen is very good with George Sherrill and Jonathan Broxton. Other clubs in this division are starting to catch up, but you still have to look out for the Dodgers. 

Rockies: Last year, Jim Tracy was a miracle worker with the way he turned them into a playoff team after taking over for Clint Hurdle. In his first full season as manager in Colorado, he’ll direct a very formidable bunch once again. First off, that bench is the best in baseball — and it’s not even close. As reserves, the Rockies have established everyday players like Miguel Olivo, Melvin Mora and Jason Giambi, and other solid pieces in Ryan Spilborghs and Seth Smith. Think benches don’t matter much in baseball? They’re crucial throughout the aches and pains of a 162-game season, and this one will be huge in boosting the Rockies. As for the starting lineup, there’s nice pieces in Dexter Fowler, Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki, but they won’t hit much for power. The rotation is good, but not great. And I still have doubts about whether Huston Street (who will start the season on the disabled list) can be relied upon as closer for a full season. Still, the Rockies will be in the hunt all year. 

Giants: The Giants step into the 2010 season with the same problem — offense. Let’s get the obvious positives out of the way first. With Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Barry Zito, their rotation is one of the best in baseball. And Brian Wilson is a solid closer. (The rest of the bullpen doesn’t really matter, since starters will be going seven or eight innings for most of the season, anyway.) But will they hit? I don’t think so. They went into the offseason knowing they needed more punch in the lineup, but all the Giants ended up with was Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa. That’s not enough. They’ll need Aaron Rowand, Pablo Sandoval and Freddy Sanchez to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and that’s never a good sign. As was the case last year, pitching will keep them in it. But they’ll need a Trade Deadline move for a big bat if they want to get over the hump. 

Padres: They’ll finish last in the division, but the Padres, I believe, are on the upswing. I don’t foresee Adrian Gonzalez — very affordable this season, and with a very affordable club option for 2011 — being traded during the regular season, and Kyle Blanks is a nice counterpart in the middle of the lineup. They also have some nice, young position players in Tony Gwynn Jr. and Everth Cabrera. Heath Bell is a top-tier closer. And the rotation isn’t too bad, with Jon Garland, Chris Young, Matt Latos, Kevin Correia and Clayton Richard. They’re a rebuilding team, and they don’t have nearly enough to compete this year — or even next year. But I think they’re on their way up (with or without A-Gonz). 

Diamondbacks: If Brandon Webb is healthy and right, the D-backs — losers of 92 games last season — could end up being the most-improved team in baseball. With Dan Haren and new acquisition Edwin Jackson, they can have a very nice top three in that rotation. But how and when Webb returns from shoulder surgery will be critical, of course. The bullpen isn’t great, but I like their offense. I love Justin Upton. Combine him with Mark Reynolds, newcomer Adam LaRoche, a healthy Conor Jackson and a Stephen Drew who should be better, they’ll be much more improved scoring runs. But even with the Webb of 2008, I felt this team would fall just shy of the postseason. Without him in top form, they’ll struggle to finish at .500.
NL West champion: Dodgers

— Alden Gonzalez

6 Divisions in 6 Days: NL Central

With this being the final week of Spring Training (crazy, right?), I figured it’d be justified to take a look at all 30 clubs and examine where they stand, what they need and where it looks like they’ll finish heading into the 2010 season. So, leading up to Opening Night between the Red Sox and Yankees, I’ll touch on one of the six divisions each day Monday-Saturday. Today, Day 4, we look at the National League Central …

Cardinals: They will enter the season without a big lefty bat off the bench. That starting rotation is shaky 3-5. I’m having trouble identifying a true setup man in that bullpen. And I don’t know how much I trust Ryan Franklin to do it all over again as the closer. But baseball can be a simple game sometimes, so I’m not going to complicate the Cardinals’ situation. They have arguably the best 1-2 combination at the top of the rotation with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and arguably the best 3-4 combination in the middle of the lineup in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Questions answered. The Cardinals are the best team in the division. It’s not just because of that, though. They have a great manager in Tony La Russa, and they have some nice pieces around those four studs. All those other problems, they can be addressed through in-season trades, as general manager John Mozeliak has proven he’s capable of pulling off (see: Holliday). La Russa admitted Thursday his club is a little thin heading into the season — especially with some of their Spring Training injuries — but they’ve been “thin” before and won. This year should be no different. 

Cubs: Lou Piniella basically has one more shot to turn those lovable Cubbies into champions. Can he do it? I don’t think so. I know last year’s team was severely hurt, but I just don’t see enough on that club to be able to compete in this division. Main power threats are Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and an Alfonso Soriano who could barely bend over anymore? Rotation aces are Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster? Closer is Carlos Marmol? I just don’t see enough. There’s a lot of question marks among those names. If healthy, though, I do think they’ll stay in contention, mainly for the Wild Card, and I like the fact they essentially swapped Milton Bradley for Marlon Byrd. But Soriano’s contract — he’s got $18 million coming annually through 2014 — is eating away at them, and they’re relying on too many unproven and/or volatile guys for me to be a believer. Maybe year 103 is the lucky one, Cubs fans. 

Brewers: I don’t feel like they have enough to be legitimate factors, but I sure like this team. They’ll be fun to watch, and it isn’t just because of their choreographed celebrations after Prince Fielder home runs (though that of course plays a factor). Fielder and Ryan Braun is one of the best middle-of-the-order combinations in baseball, and one nobody really ever talks about. And I like that rotation. Sure, they overpaid for Randy Wolf (proud owner of a three-year, $29.75 million contract). But you have to overpay in that market to get arms like that. Wolf, along with Yovani Gallardo, Doug Davis, Dave Bush and Manny Parra make this a more-than-formidable bunch. The back end of that bullpen is pretty set with LaTroy Hawkins and Trevor Hoffman. And keep your eyes on new shortstop Alcides Escobar and new center fielder Carlos Gomez. It amazes me how general manager Doug Melvin can keep fielding competitive teams while facing the elements each offseason. Nice (though not great) team. 

Reds: Many are picking the Reds to be the surprise team of baseball, and I can see why. But I don’t think they have enough to get past the Cardinals in this division. Still, that starting rotation is nice with Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey. The bullpen isn’t bad, either, with guys like Arthur RhodesFrancisco Cordero and Nick Masset in the back end. There are questions in that starting lineup, though. Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera will have to turn back the clock, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips need to keep producing, Jay Bruce needs ;to be better, and somebody needs to step up and become a reliable leadoff man. That’s too many things that have to go right. Aroldis Chapman will eventually play a big factor in that starting rotation — or maybe the bullpen? — but he needs more time. 

Astros: In every sense of the word, the Astros are your run-of-the-mill average ballclub. Bullpen? Average. Starting rotation? Average. Offense? Average. Defense? Average. I like the hiring of Brad Mills, who will run a tighter ship while being more well-liked than Cecil Cooper (it’s hard not to be, frankly), and I’ve already seen first-hand the impact new pitching coach Brad Arnsberg has had on the staff. The additions of Brett Myers, Matt Lindstrom, Brandon Lyon and Pedro Feliz were fine, but nothing that’s going to put this team over the top. I love Ed Wade, but I think the Astros are going to have to pick a direction soon. Are they going to push all their chips to the middle of the table and push to be a World Series contender now? Or are they a club that will look to build up its farm system to really contend down the line? Right now, it seems they’re stuck in the middle, and that will reflect on their record. 81-81 finish? Probably a good gauge. 

Pirates: It goes without saying that the Pirates will struggle. They did a nice job last season of ridding themselves of salary and getting some nice pieces in return before the Trade Deadline, as they strive to make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. (Wow, has it really been that long?) They have a lot of work to do before they’re back on top, though. It is going to be fun to watch Andrew McCutchen for a full season, and Garrett Jones could be poised for a big year. But I don’t know about Jeff Clement at first base and Ryan Doumit catching, nobody else in that lineup really sticks out at me, and the rotation and bullpen is very weak. Keep your eyes peeled on two prospects, though: third baseman Pedro Alvarez and catcher Tony Sanchez

— Alden Gonzalez
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