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Few Blacks Choosing to Play College Baseball

Only 13 are in the World Series as numbers drop overall. Popularity of basketball and lack of scholarships are cited.

June 27, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

OMAHA — Brian Barton grew up in South-Central Los Angeles knowing he was a minority simply by looking at the color of his skin.

It wasn't until he began playing college baseball, though, that he realized what it really meant to be in the minority.

"Most of the teams that I played for in Little League, all the way through travel ball, were primarily made up of blacks," said Barton, now a junior at Miami. "Most of the players on my high school team were blacks, with maybe a few Latinos.

"I was at Loyola Marymount my first year and there were two African Americans on the team. I knew that not a lot of blacks played college baseball, but coming from primarily an all-black team to being the only black was a big, big-time shock."

Barton has been successful at Miami. As the starting center fielder, he was a leading performer for a Hurricane team that advanced to the College World Series here before being eliminated by South Carolina on Monday. This season, he batted .371 with six home runs, 46 runs batted in and 17 stolen bases.

Rangy at 6 feet 3 and 205 pounds, Barton may one day realize a dream of playing in the big leagues. But finding other blacks in the college game is becoming increasingly rare.

The decline in the number of black American players in the pros has become an issue that has drawn attention from Major League Baseball. Blacks made up 27% of the league's players in 1964. But according to a report released by the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, the number dropped to 19% in 1995 and to 10.8% in 2003.

Baseball is trying to address that situation. Last week, MLB teamed with the Angels and Dodgers to break ground on a baseball academy at Compton College, an idea borne out of its Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program.

The announcement drew national attention to the issue, which is even more an issue in college baseball. According to the NCAA Student-Athlete Ethnicity Report, of the 9,807 baseball players in Division I last season, only 6.1% were black and 79% were white.

It was apparent here and elsewhere. Only 13 black players were among the eight teams in the College World Series. Nine black players were on the rosters of the 10 Division I schools in Southern California.

"The most that was on any opposing team we faced was one, and I had three," said Tony Gwynn, who recently finished his second season as coach at San Diego State. "It's troubling."

There probably are many reasons, but the most important may be that basketball has supplanted baseball as the sport of choice for kids growing up in urban neighborhoods, particularly in Los Angeles, where Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry once roamed high school baseball fields.

John Young, a former major league scouting director who founded the RBI program, said there was a different mind-set among black youths.

"Kids are playing tee-ball and playing Little League at Rancho Cienega Park, but when those kids get to 12 years of age, they're not playing," Young said. "Basketball is really making an impact on them and there's a Pied Piper in the community where all the kids gravitate to because they have the energy to steer them along.

"In basketball, there is a financial reward for doing that. There isn't someone like that for baseball."

Statistics point out the influence of basketball and football. For example, blacks made up 57.9% of all basketball players in Division I and 45.1% in football.

Barton played at Westchester High, a school better known for its nationally recognized basketball program than baseball. He said he got plenty of support from his family and friends, but classmates would be surprised that he was on the baseball team.

"Because of my height, a lot of people would look at me and wonder why I didn't play basketball," he said. "I always tell them that [baseball] was something I wanted to do since I was little."

Ozzie Smith is surprised that college baseball isn't more appealing to young black athletes. Barton was one of the few starting players on the teams in the College World Series, and there were no college superstars such as Barry Bonds, Albert Belle or Barry Larkin, all of whom led their teams to Omaha before going on to success in the major leagues.

"College programs today are such that the kids are being taught the game very well," said the Hall of Fame shortstop, who attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "It's very much like a low minor league system.

"Part of the problem is, young kids today are looking for the quick fix. Unless you are one of the players that can make an impact right away, it is a long process."

Gwynn said that college programs had to find the best players available because they needed to produce results on the scoreboard.

What is unfortunate, he says, is that the polished players are mostly a product of high school and travel teams in the suburbs and many black families either do not have or cannot afford access to quality programs.

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