TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The 78-year-old man who’s spent much of his life coaching baseball and grooming big league prospects listened intently, slowly shaking his head as the smile on his face gave way to a sad expression.
The number of black players in the majors declined last season, and Billy Reed fears things could get a lot worse before they get better.
“Man,” he said softly, digesting some of the latest numbers. “We’re slipping again.”
In the African-American community, a growing number of kids have lost interest in the game and that has trickled-up to the major leagues.
At the pinnacle of a highly successful career, Reed mentored eventual major leaguers Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Carl Everett, Floyd Youmans and Vance Lovelace.
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Reed impacted the lives of numerous others, including Derek Bell, during four decades of involvement in youth baseball, 24 seasons as head coach at Tampa Hillsborough High School and the Belmont Heights Little League program he founded in the 1960s to build a pipeline for players who might wind up under him at then all-black Middleton High.
A year after showing an increase in the number of black players in the majors for the first time since 1995, a study in April by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports reported the figure dropped from 10.2 percent to 9 percent — based on information on 2009 work force data provided by MLB.
And of the 269 players on rosters at the College World Series, just eight are African-Americans.
Reed and former major league pitcher Derek Aucoin have some ideas about what can be done to rekindle interest in baseball at a time when most of the best young black athletes are focusing on trying to become instant millionaires in professional football or basketball.
“They see guys like LeBron James. ‘Man, he went from high school to pro.’ They look at him and think, ‘I can do the same thing.’ Except they don’t have the same talent,” Reed said.
“We think short-term too much, what can I get now. I tell youngsters all the time: ‘Some guys are on the bench in baseball making $1 million. NBA teams draft two players, only one guaranteed big money. When are they going to draft you?’ In baseball, they’ve got 50 rounds. If you can walk straight, you can get drafted.”
Lack of parental support and tight family finances are often cited as part of the problem, too. Equipment and league registration fees can be costly, and some kids are discouraged from playing by parents who either lack the time or means to transport them across town — or in some cases to the suburbs — for practice and games.
That wasn’t the case between 1975 and 1981, when Belmont Heights appeared — and lost — in the Little League World Series championship game three times.
“We had a waiting list for players,” Reed said. “Most of our kids lived in the same area, could walk to the park. Registration was $2 because we knew our parents couldn’t pay the big fees. We depended on sponsors for bats and uniforms. Parents have to do all that themselves now. In this economy, it’s not happening.”
And it seems the African-American families that are able to afford to shell out hundreds of dollars for their kids to participate in expensive leagues are spending on something other than baseball, such as AAU basketball.
Aucoin, who pitched for the Expos in 1996, is acutely aware of the problem of diversity in youth baseball.
There haven’t been many black kids in his programs.
For 10 years, he has run The Baseball Center, a facility in New York City where some major leaguers have worked out in batting cages, and operated leagues and teams for boys and girls from 4 to 15 years old.
Aucoin started on a field in East Harlem and estimates 10,000 kids have come through his programs and facility.
There have been times when he’s seen a kid and a mom on the subway with a glove and invited them to join his program, at no cost. He’s also conducted youth events with Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation and the Players Trust, the charitable arm of the MLB players’ union.
“The problem, I believe, is Major League Baseball has to get involved at a younger level,” he said. “Baseball requires much higher mentoring than the two other sports (football/basketball) that compete for elite athletes.”
Aucoin, a hard-throwing right-hander born outside Montreal, was the only French-Canadian player drafted by the Expos who eventually played in the majors for them.
MLB has initiatives such as the RBI program and baseball academies. But to attract more black kids and keep them interested, they said, it takes a full-time commitment — more than just providing equipment and fields.
Getting current major league stars such as CC Sabathia, Curtis Granderson, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins to participate is key, too.
“I’ve talked to some of these guys, they’ll do it,” Aucoin said. “I was one of those kids. At 10 years old, I was a direct product of shaking hands with Andre Dawson.”
Reed recalled skipping school as a youngster to go watch the Cincinnati Reds in spring training. He said players have the realize that as big leaguers they can make a difference by simply being accessible to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to meet them.
“You can’t make one appearance in five years and feel like I made my appearance. I think what they should do is bring groups of kids to games, sponsor them and let them see you play. After the game, talk to them. Tell them: ‘One day you could be like me out here playing.’”
Aucoin said the common excuses for why it’s so tough in the inner city to attract kids are not impossible to overcome.
He noted it’s important to make the game fun, to keep the kids involved on every pitch so they don’t see the game as boring.
In Aucoin’s leagues for young kids, he has coaches pitch, so hitters don’t have to wait long periods of see one over the plate. And, he has parents stand in the field with their kids, offering support and encouragement.
Reed feels parents should be more aggressive in steering their kids toward baseball.
“You’ve got to encourage them and you’ve got to keep on them. You can’t take no for an answer and just stop. Put him in the program and let him learn. He may be better than anybody out there, but never really had a chance to show his talent,” Reed said.
“Major League Baseball is trying to do something” about diversity,” he added. “But they’re going to need help from the people that they’re helping. They can’t do everything.”