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Building $3-Million Bridge

Major League Baseball officials pledge to construct academy in Compton as part of an effort to invigorate urban interest in sport.

August 06, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Standing steps away from a Compton Community College field where Jackie Robinson once famously narrowed the distance between bases, Dodger Chairman Bob Daly on Tuesday made a bold move of his own.

After discovering the plight of a Compton youth baseball team that needed $12,000 to travel to Washington state this weekend to compete in the United States Amateur Baseball Assn. World Series, Daly gave the team's coach his card and told him a check was on the way.

"I don't normally hug men," said Gerald Pickens, president and coach of the Compton Baseball Academy Teams. "I hugged him twice."

Minutes later, Commissioner Bud Selig unveiled plans for an unprecedented youth baseball academy that Major League Baseball officials hope will invigorate sagging interest in the game among inner-city youths in Southern California.

The $3-million academy is intended to be a nice first step and not a cure-all.

"It is our intention to bring baseball back to urban America, and this is a major step in that direction," Selig told a gathering of about 200 that included baseball dignitaries, youth baseball players and officials from the Compton college that will host the academy.

The academy, expected to serve several hundred boys and girls ages 11-17 when it opens next summer, is an extension of Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities Program, which has a worldwide membership of 120,000 in 185 cities. Baseball officials hope the Compton program can eventually be emulated in every major-league city.

A decline in black ballplayers is especially glaring in the major leagues, where the number of blacks from 1995-2002 dropped from 19% to 10%, according to a report released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

The Angels have three black players on their 40-man roster; the Dodgers have six. And there is little reason to think those numbers will increase soon. Of the Angels' 50 selections in this year's draft, two were black. Figures were not immediately available for the Dodgers' draft selections.

Selig said baseball has a duty to ensure its membership more closely reflects the demographics of society.

"I have always believed that baseball is an important social institution with enormous social responsibilities," he said. "That was never more evident than in 1947, when Jackie Robinson walked on the field and broke forever the game's racial barrier."

While Southern California continues to churn out top black baseball players -- outfielder Delmon Young of Camarillo High was the first overall selection in the June amateur baseball draft -- coaches and parents say young athletes are gravitating toward more fast-paced, easily accessible sports such as football and basketball.

Rashad Bryant, a sophomore who plays catcher for Los Angeles Verbum Dei High, said many of his friends quit baseball, explaining to him that it "gets boring after a while."

"Baseball is not an instant gratification game. It's a game you have to work at and focus," said Leonard Sapp, whose son, Steven, was drafted by the Dodgers in the 17th round this summer out of West Torrance High.

Economics appears to be the driving force behind the exodus because baseball requires specialized equipment and a vast playing field.

"It's a lot easier just going out and playing basketball than it is to have an organized field and equipment and everything else," Daly said.

Said Pickens: "I've got at least 150 baseball players here from my organization. Funding, they don't get it."

The academy is intended to make baseball more accessible. It will consist of four fields -- two regulation-sized baseball fields, one softball field and a smaller youth field -- on 20 acres, but instruction will not be limited to the mechanics of a curveball. Officials plan to utilize the college's classrooms and computer labs to teach baseball-related fields ranging from umpiring to scouting. Participants will be selected from area youth programs.

Angel left fielder Garret Anderson said he applauded the initiative but wondered how much difference it could make in an era where children more commonly play football, basketball and soccer -- or stay inside and play video games. He grew up playing baseball at Van Ness Park, within the city of Los Angeles. "The parks and the leagues were fine," he said. "But something's changed over the last 10 to 15 years. It's not as rampant as it used to be. Video games are huge, and I'm sure it does rob baseball, but you still see kids playing football."

Anderson said there isn't one factor as the reason for the decline in baseball's popularity among children.

"Each kid is different," he said. "You don't see baseball being marketed on TV the way you see basketball being marketed on TV. And basketball is an easier sport to play. You can play it by yourself and have fun."

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