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A Fading Field of Dreams

August 16, 2003

It's a pitch laden with possibilities. Major league baseball is spending freely to lure youngsters onto baseball diamonds in faraway places like Australia and Puerto Rico. It also hopes to safeguard its future by building a $3-million baseball academy in Compton.

How baseball's fortunes have faded in baseball-rich Southern California, which produced Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray and other black players who followed Jackie Robinson around the base paths. Now, though, the young black urban athletes watch LeBron James' every dribble but strike out when asked about Delmon Young, the Camarillo High outfielder selected first in baseball's amateur draft.

Baseball is turning into a suburban game, in part because it's easier for cash-strapped cities to plant basketball backboards on squares of blacktop than to carve out and care for baseball diamonds. Angels All-Star Garret Anderson concedes that the sport he mastered at Van Ness Park isn't pulling many city kids away from football, basketball, soccer or video games.

The dimming allure of baseball has been acute and poignant for African Americans. In 1959, the first year in which every major league baseball team was integrated, 17% of big leaguers were black; the percentage slipped to 10% this season, reported the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. The Angels started the season with three black players on their 40-man roster; the Dodgers, just six. While the percentage of black big leaguers has fallen, the number of foreign-born Latino and, more recently, Asian players has grown.

It's not news when a black head coach is hired or fired in pro basketball, because nearly half of the NBA's coaches are African American. Baseball has just four black managers.

Building a baseball academy will immerse hundreds of kids in a sport they would otherwise continue to ignore. There's discussion of similar academies in every big league city. To make it work, baseball should ensure that its stars -- black, brown, white and yellow -- are there to shine as tutors and role models.

Caretakers of the game should use the same active outreach to offer management training for black -- and for that matter, Latino and Asian -- players, and forever bury the tired argument that talented players of color capable of moving into management can't be found. Big league owners need to personally step up to the plate to help erase bad feelings and negative stereotypes still evident 56 years after Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.

That's the kind of sweat and exertion needed to put baseball back on track toward being a truly national pastime.

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