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)