C. C. Sabathia is a very lonely man. And an anomaly. He’s a black man in an increasingly white game – and a pitcher.
Last season, the 26-year-old Sabathia – maybe the best pitcher you haven’t heard of – was the only African American on the Cleveland Indians’ roster. Yesterday, after a typical uneven Spring Training start, he spoke out on baseball’s other dilemma – the dearth of black players. “It’s not just in here, it’s everywhere,” Sabathia said Wednesday. “It’s not just a problem — it’s a crisis.”
Sabathia, a 6-foot-7-inch 290-pound hard-throwing lefty, isn’t the first major-league player to lament the lack of black players at baseball’s upper echelon, but he’s a new voice in the discussion. One with some growing credibility. With 81 career wins in six seasons, Sabathia, who grew up in northern California, has more more wins than any other pitcher under 27. Last season he led the American League in complete games with six and was third in ERA (3.22). In His 12-11 record can largely be attributed to the Indians’ woeful bullpen. With reinforcements this season – Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz – Sabathia just might slip from the shadows and emerge as one of baseball’s gamers.
Good for him for speaking out. Others are whispering and wondering if guys like Sabathia – who harkens back to Bib Gibson and Vida Blue – are close to extinction. “I go back home to Vallejo, and the kids say, ‘What’s baseball?’” He said.”It’s not just an issue for my hometown, it’s an issue for the whole country. I think Major League Baseball should do something about it. I don’t know exactly what they could be doing, but I know it’s not enough.”
A 2005 report by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport noted that fewer than 1 in 10 major-league players is African-American. There are teams with no black players. And others, like Cleveland, with only one. (About 6 in 10 MLB players are white; 3 in 10 are Latino.
Baseball continuously touts its urban efforts, from its RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program to the new Urban Academy in Los Angeles. All are noble in spirits but only time will judge their true effect. In the meantime, as the game celebrates Jackie Robinson and others of his era – a gala is being held in Memphis last this month – the game, more and more each season, is growing to look like those first few seasons after the color barrier was broken when black players were a new and intriguing curiosity. Only this time, they are a fading breed.