TODAY I ASK THE QUESTION - WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GAME I LOVED?
The best athletes used to play this game!
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Fans look down from their seats onto the baseball field, see dark-colored skin and might assume they are African-American players.
But increasingly, the players instead hail from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or Venezuela.
"People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they're African American," Los Angeles Angels center fielder Torii Hunter says. "They're not us. They're impostors.
"Even people I know come up and say, 'Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?' I say, 'Come on, he's Dominican. He's not black.' "
Baseball's African-American population is 8%, compared with 28% for foreign players on last year's opening-day rosters.
"As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us," Hunter says. "It's like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It's like, 'Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?'
"I'm telling you, it's sad."
MLB officials certainly recognize the trend. Their RBI program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) is nationwide. They have baseball academies in Compton, Calif., and Houston, with sites approved for Miami and New Orleans.
Yet while their intentions have been honorable, it's become apparent to USA TODAY's committee that other actions could be more effective.
Chicago Cubs special assistant Gary Hughes, who signed Pro Football Hall of Famer John Elway for the New York Yankees and high school basketball All-American Delino DeShields for the Montreal Expos, says it's heartbreaking watching America's athletes shun baseball. It's rare, Hughes says, when he sees more than one African American playing in a college game.
"A lot of people don't understand," Hunter says, "that the percentage of white players in the game is down, too."
The committee suggests altering how the baseball academies operate and scaling back in foreign markets to increase investment at home.
"We have absolutely eradicated a huge part of our game by not investing in a system that attracts an American populace," Boras says.
MLB, or perhaps minor league franchises, he says, should help finance NCAA programs and provide more scholarships. There are only 11 scholarships for Division I baseball teams.
"The colleges have corrupted baseball," says Boras, whose son plays at Southern California, "because they have taken away the scholarships. They've taken away America's pastime from the grass-root level of homes."
Says Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker, "Killed it."
Baseball's amateur draft also creates a problem, Boras says, for the unwillingness to pay the same draft bonuses received by NFL and NBA players.
Scouting system faulted
There also might be flaws in the scouting system. Milwaukee Brewers pitcher LaTroy Hawkins, who grew up in Gary, Ind., and Hunter, from Pine Bluff, Ark., say few scouts bothered to watch them in high school. Too much crime, they say, too much poverty.
"It's not just the white scouts," Hunter says. "Most black scouts aren't going there either. I thought most guys would want to go into those areas to find the next Jackie Robinson or Hank Aaron."
Says J Harrison, the Reds special assistant and former amateur scout: "I wish this game would take more chances on black athletes. We need to go watch a football game like we have in the past and take a chance on a guy."
The urban academies were designed to help attract inner-city athletes, but the major problem is transportation.
It's common for high schools to arrange transportation for their kids to attend practices and games, but how do kids get to the academies if no one is home to drive them?
"I've seen it operate in (Compton)," Boras says. "It does not work. These inner-city kids are out because they can't afford to travel there."
Says Hunter: "I looked at all of the (charity) work I've been doing, and 60% to 70% of the African-American homes are single-parent homes. And they're all mothers. It's hard for a mother to take their kids to practice every day, pay the $1,200 a month to travel and $1,200 for a tournament team."
One solution, the committee suggests, is to bring equipment, better fields and qualified instructors — such as retired major leaguers — to the neighborhoods rather than construct complexes in locations difficult to reach.
Baseball spends $8 million to $12 million a team, Boras says, scouting and developing players in Latin America countries. Yet that same amount might be better spent in the USA, the committee says, developing American kids.
Boras notes there has been a paucity of South Korean impact players — four have had careers longer than five years — relative to the money spent scouting there.
"The bottom line is that your money is better spent here," Boras says. "If you add up the money spent in the Asian markets in the last decade and took that and set up a true inner-cities system — using former players and an administrative body sponsored by baseball — we would reach more people.
"We will lose this game if the best athletes are not playing baseball."