Did the 2013 Draft Prove the Health of African-American Interest in Baseball?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 17, 2013

No. 11 overall pick Dominic Smith is part of what looks like a growing trend.
No. 11 overall pick Dominic Smith is part of what looks like a growing trend.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Even if the numbers really aren't as damning as they're made out to be, the decline of African-American players in Major League Baseball is something that the league is very much stressing over.

If it wasn't, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig would not have bothered to set up a special committee designed to study what's going on with African-Americans and baseball. He did just that in April.

A noble gesture, to be sure. There may not be as many black players in baseball as there used to be, but nobody should make the mistake of thinking that MLB's interest in bringing them back isn't genuine.

However, it's fair to start wondering whether baseball has already accomplished its mission in reigniting interest in baseball among young African-Americans. Based on what's been happening in the draft, the interest is there and it looks like it could only be getting stronger.

Last week, MLB reported that six black players were taken in the first round of the 2013 first-year player draft. Here are their names and where they ended up:

  • 1B Dominic Smith, No. 11 to the New York Mets
  • SS J.P. Crawford, No. 16 to the Philadelphia Phillies
  • SS Tim Anderson, No. 17 to the Chicago White Sox
  • CF Phillip Ervin, No. 27 to the Cincinnati Reds
  • SS Travis Demeritte, No. 30 to the Texas Rangers
  • CF Aaron Judge, No. 32 to the New York Yankees

In all, African-American players accounted for 14 of the 73 selections made on the first day, essentially making up about 20 percent of the best players taken in the whole draft.

These numbers look pretty good all on their own, but they look even better with some context.

Last year was also a good year for African-Americans in the draft. Byron Buxton went No. 2 overall to the Minnesota Twins, and he was just one of seven black prospects to be taken in the first round.

MLB was pleased to report that the draft hadn't seen that many black players go in the first round since 1992. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports hit the nail on the head when he wrote that MLB had "experienced a notable sign of encouragement."

At the time, MLB could only be so encouraged. One draft does not equal a trend. It was possible that the influx of black players at the top of the draft could prove to be a fluke, one quickly forgotten if this year's draft didn't also feature a heavy volume of black players.

Obviously, that wasn't the case.

What looked like a possible trend in 2012 now almost looks like a clear trend after the 2013 draft. We'll see how many of the players drafted actually make it to the big leagues, but for now it looks like African-American interest in baseball is making a comeback.

If so, it's hardly an accident. MLB may want to know more about why African-Americans aren't as plentiful in baseball as they used to be, but the league has already gone to lengths to bring them back.

The RBI program—Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities—has been around since 1989 and has infiltrated over 200 cities across the globe. MLB also has the Urban Youth Academies, a project that started in Puerto Rico in 2002. A facility in Compton opened in 2006, offering free year-round baseball instruction and life lessons for anyone interested. Another facility opened in Houston in 2011, and more are coming.

These programs are now starting to enjoy some notable success. According to the RBI program's website, five RBI alumni were drafted in 2011. In 2012, 14 alumni were drafted. Another 14 were drafted in 2013, including Smith and Crawford. 

Smith and Crawford also have ties to the Compton UYA chapter, which has already sent Anthony Gose, Trayvon Robinson and Aaron Hicks to the big leagues. In addition to Smith and Crawford, the Compton facility also saw three alumni get drafted before the end of the second round.

Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, had this to say via MLB.com:

We were hoping that this is the type of thing that would happen after we were open a while and had a chance to influence kids. We thought that the academies might be bearing fruit by the sixth or seventh year. When you start with fourth- and fifth-graders, you know that your influence will start paying off by the time they're in high school. And when you start with the kids that are a little bit older, you know that you can help them into college and maybe even into the Draft.

It's a terrific sign that RBI has enjoyed as much success as it has in the last two drafts, and it's an even better sign that the Compton Urban Youth Academy is beginning to bear fruit precisely when it expected to be doing so.

If the Compton facility had little or nothing to show for its efforts to this point, it would be apparent that once again winning African-American youths over was going to take more than just providing them with the means to play baseball.

Lest you think it's not that simple, you must remember that it's not easy to get into and maintain an interest in baseball. It's not like basketball or football.

Get a hoop and a ball, and you can play basketball by yourself. Find a friend, and you can play one-on-one. Find three friends, you can play two-on-two. And so on.

You can do the same with football. You don't need 11 players for each team to play a game of two-hand touch. You don't even have to play on grass if there are no such options available.

Baseball is different. It's hard to play without at least a pitcher, four infielders and a couple outfielders, and everyone needs a glove. To boot, not every wide-open field contains a baseball diamond, and not all baseball diamonds are kept in playing shape.

You can't wag a finger at African-American kids who take up other sports, and what Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated found out when he took a trip to Oakland is that defections are going to take place even if the interest in baseball is there and genuine.

"I used to love baseball. Played all the time when I was a kid," said a 16-year-old Taylor spoke to at Mosswood Park, a local basketball haven. "Now I'm out here. This is where everybody is. Can't play [baseball] by yourself."

It's also hard for African-American kids in the inner cities to play baseball at a high level even if they are in love with the game. Tim Keown of ESPN pointed that out in April in response to the formation of Selig's special committee:

The committee members need to see the industry of youth baseball for what it has become: A business enterprise designed to exclude those without the means and mobility to participate. Over the past 15 to 20 years, the proliferation of pay-for-play teams in youth baseball -- and the parallel proliferation of parents willing to pay for them and coaches willing to cash their checks -- has had more of an impact on African-American participation than anything another sport has to offer.

It's become standard in youth baseball for parents of supposedly 'elite' kids to eschew the riffraff of Little League and cast their lot with travel teams that play as many as 130 games a year. Both preposterous and routine, it's based on the questionable theory that the more you pay and the farther you travel, the better you will become. Longtime big leaguer LaTroy Hawkins said it directly: Baseball in the United States has become a sport for the rich.

Point being that it now takes an excess of disposable income to put one's kid on a path to the major leagues. If parents want their kids to be among the best youth baseball has to offer, they need to pay. That's a lot to ask of inner-city parents.

However, what MLB knows from its experiences with RBI and, more specifically, the Compton Urban Youth Academy is that merely providing the opportunity and the encouragement to play can go a long way. There may be socioeconomic walls in between African-Americans in baseball, but any other walls that exist can be easily cleared with the right efforts.

Major League Baseball has already made the right kinds of efforts to get through to African-American kids. These efforts showed in the 2012 draft, and they showed again in the 2013 draft. 

The signs are encouraging now, and below them is the writing on the wall: The more MLB pushes for African-Americans to take up bats and gloves, the more likely it is that the league's goal of once again having a league chock-full of great black players is going to become reality.

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