September 2010

MLB is doing its part for the inner-city youth

The declining number of African-Americans in the Major Leagues has been a hot topic in recent years. But you can’t say Major League Baseball isn’t doing its part to try and right it. 

On Wednesday, the league announced plans to construct the fourth Urban Youth Academy in Philadelphia, one that will give inner-city kids in the area a chance to play year-round baseball and softball for free while receiving valuable instruction. 


MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon has made it his mission to try and provide baseball to kids growing up in environments where playing the game would be difficult, and he’s done so by steering the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and starting four MLB-run Academies. 
First, there was one in Compton, Calif. Then, one was announced for South Florida. Earlier this year, Houston’s Academy opened its doors, too. And now, the concept has reached the City of Brotherly Love. 
“Why Philadelphia?” Solomon asked rhetorically while announcing the venture along with guests like Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. “Because of the passion of the Phillies, of [team president] Dave Montgomery, of the city. Commissioner [Bud] Selig wanted to reclaim urban America. These Academies are not just to create Major League players, although 50 kids have already signed out of Compton. … The number I’m proud of are 150 kids in college on baseball or softball scholarships. And the really big number is the 2,500 kids who have been through that Academy, that welcomes those kids in the hours after school and before Mom comes home.” 
In 1975, 30 percent of players on Major League rosters were of African-American descent. But that percentage has been in the single-digits on Opening Day for six of the last seven years. On Opening Day 2010, 9.1 percent of Major League rosters included African-Americans. 
As for the First-Year Player Draft, no more than four players of African-American descent have been taken in the first round each of the last five years. 
Many theories try to come up with an explanation for this. Based on several players I’ve talked to, the most prevalent is the fact they choose football and basketball instead of baseball because (1) most of their heroes affiliate with those sports, (2) they’re cheaper and easier to play and (3) they provide a quicker route to the pros — since they don’t have to go through the Minor Leagues. 
So, what can be done? 
“You just have to constantly pound [baseball] in the inner cities,” newly minted Hall of Famer Andre Dawson told me earlier this season. “Constantly stay in the ears of community leaders, high schools, junior high schools and just keep it in their face. You can only do so much. The facilities have to be available. It takes sponsors and people really stepping forward and giving it their best effort to try to make this thing work in the community. That’s what has to be done. But if you sit back and talk about it and think it’s going to happen, it’s not going to happen.” 
MLB hasn’t been doing a lot of sitting. 
They got involved with the RBI program — a concept former Major League player and scout John Young developed to keep inner-city kids off the streets, turn their attention to baseball and softball, and use that as a carrot to get them in the classroom — in 1991. Today, nearly 300 RBI leagues are offered throughout the country and in the Caribbean, and nearly 175,000 kids take part. 
Then, back in 2006, MLB took that concept a step further with the beginning of these Urban Youth Academies. 
As Dawson said, “You can only do so much.” But MLB’s efforts in recent years could go a long way in getting more African-Americans playing the game at the highest level again.
The Philadelphia UYA is another step in that direction. 
— Alden Gonzalez (Mike Redano contributed) 

Cuban influence in the Majors is on the rise again

MIAMI — I wrote last week about how Aroldis Chapman‘s success could go a long way in impacting Cuba’s presence in the Major Leagues. 
Successful Chapman or not, though, it seems Cuban players are coming to the U.S. more frequently already. As Jorge Ebro, an expert on Cuban ballplayers and a reporter for El Nuevo Herald in Miami, told me in Spanish: “What Chapman has done is to follow the wave of other Cubans that came before him. I think what we’re witnessing is an exodus, especially over the last few years.”
According to information obtained from the Society For American Baseball Research, there are currently 15 Cuban-born ballplayers active in the Major Leagues, which is the highest number since 2001 (when there were 16). And though the number of Cuban defectors are difficult to track, just over 20 — raking in more than $60 million salary — defected in 2009, which is rather close to the number that defected throughout the entire span from 2005-08. 
“I think Cubans are demonstrating that we can play this brand of baseball,” White Sox shortstop and fellow Cuban defector Alexei Ramirez said in Spanish. “They just have to give us a chance, and who knows what we’re capable of doing.”  
Chapman (pictured, bottom-right), in my mind, can take that exodus to a whole new level. Why? Because young kids are influenced by their heroes, and if Chapman succeeds the way many project him to, he can be one of the premier arms in the big leagues and by far the most popular Cuban — one kids back home will want to emulate as big leaguers, even though the risks and sacrifices of defecting are significant. 


Jose Contreras and Danys Baez told me a major reason why they defected was because they looked up to Livan and Orlando Hernandez. Chapman can do it for the next generation — and perhaps to a larger extent. 
But, Chapman or not, things are changing in Cuba. Its new leader, Raul Castro, apparently doesn’t put as great an emphasis on sports as his brother, Fidel, thus making it easier for ballplayers to defect; and Barack Obama has had interest in easing the 50-year U.S.-Cuba embargo. 
Here’s what Baez had to say on the subject in Spanish … 
I think things have changed for the better in the sense of flexibility between the sport and politics between Cuban and the U.S. In recent years, it has changed a lot. Now, people can go to Cuba [pretty much] when they want, you can send as much money as you want to your family, and in Cuba, that has allowed for people to have access to lots of information from there that didn’t exist before. I remember I never watched a Major League game until I got to this country. In ’99, there was no access to any of that. … Now, there’s lots of technology, like the people in Cuba who have the Internet and watch what they want. That helps a lot. And in these last few years, the mentality of the Cuban ballplayer has changed a lot. They have more access, they talk more, and that allows for them to see more opportunities and open their eyes. This whole process with more flexibility is going to allow for many more Cubans to come.

The situation in Cuba is unlike that of any other Latin American nation or territory — in good ways and bad. Players aren’t allowed to leave the island unless they take on the risks that come with escape, and Major League scouts are not allowed to watch them unless they’re playing tournaments elsewhere. But, unlike those from Puerto Rico — who must compete with American players because they are subject to the First-Year Player Draft — and prospects from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic — who are plucked out at younger ages and signed to much cheaper deals — Cuban ballplayers who successfully defect are treated like legit free agents (the ones who normally need to accumulate six years of service time in the Majors). 
That leads to big bucks. 
But, of course, it only goes to the select few who leave the island. 
“I think that, little by little, the situation has to change,” Livan said in Spanish, “because there’s nothing wrong with somebody wanting to play baseball in the big leagues.”
Before and shortly after the U.S.-Cuba embargo began (partially) in October 1960, way more Cuban ballplayers made up MLB rosters than any Latin American nation. They reached a high in 1965, when 30 made up the 20 active rosters in Major League Baseball. But immediately thereafter, a 30-year sharp decline occurred, and by 1995, there were just five Cubans in MLB. 
Of course, nothing that happens on the field will influence something as perplex as the tense relationship that exists between the U.S. and Cuba. But it does seem like more Cubans are making their way to the Majors now. 
Here’s a year-by-year look at active Cuban players on Major League rosters as of last week, courtesy of SABR … 
* 2000: 11
* 2001: 16
* 2002: 14
* 2003: 11
* 2004: 12
* 2005: 10
* 2006: 9
* 2007: 8
* 2009: 13
* 2010: 15
And here’s a decade-by-decade glimpse … 
* 1920s: 34
* 1930s: 13
* 1940s: 49
* 1950s: 120
* 1960s: 250
* 1970s: 139
* 1980s: 43
* 1990s: 72
* 2000s: 132
Is it just a current trend or the beginning of chance? We’ll see … 
Alden Gonzalez
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