As major-leaguers gather in Florida and Arizona to stretch their hammies and revive their pitching arms, the game cannot ignore its continuing dilemma regarding American youth. Specifically black inner-city youths, who’ve dropped the game so far down its list of “games we play” there seem to be more African-American kids swinging golf clubs than baseball bats – which once seemed about as far fetched as America electing a black president.
No use rehashing the numbers. Everyone knows the numbers of black players in the majors is dwindling. The likes of NL MVP Jimmy Rollins and AL Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia are a anomalies today, a fact that isn’t likely to change soon.
Yet that has not dissuaded baseball from embarking on a wave of initiatives aimed at what we now call “urban” youth, with an emphasis on simply replanting the seed that once flourished among young blacks. The latest effort is called the Urban Invitational Baseball Tournament, a unique four-team event that will be held this weekend at baseball’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, CA.
Think of it as the World Baseball Classic in the ‘Hood. Participants comprise two traditional college baseball powers, UCLA (Jackie Robinson’s alma mater, which is ranked No. 1 in the Baseball America poll) and USC (winners of 12 national titles) and two teams representing historically black colleges, Bethune-Cookman and Southern. BC graduated its top three batters from last season, who hit 27 of the team’s 40 HRs. Nonetheless, the ‘Cats and Southern are ranked Nos. 2 and 3 respectively in Black College Baseball‘s preseason poll, so if you’re thinking rollover, well, you’re not thinking. BC has reached the NCAAs seven of the last eight years.
The Urban Invite is part of multi-pronged approach to exposing more African-American youth to the game and ensuring that if they want to play, they’re be able to find and field or a team or a coach – something or someone that will allow them to do so. Combined with the ongoing RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, the Urban Academy itself and, to a lesser degree, the annual Civil Right Game that takes place in Memphis on March 29, the events are to be commended for, if not results, their breadth and tenacity.
Jimmie Lee Solomon, the Executive Vice President or Baseball Ops (and game’s patron saint of its diversity efforts) says the goal of the Urban Invitation is to give “exposure to the HBCU baseball programs and an awareness of opportunities that exist there, and the high caliber of play they provide.” Another hope is that event creates “buzz” akin to college football’s Bayou Classic, an annual event featuring black-college football rivals Grambling State and Southern at the Superdome in New Orleans that sells out and has essentially become the black college football Super Bowl. While that may be a bit much to hope for the Urban Invite (at least for now), the event will be highlighted by a first-time ever “battle” between Southern’s famous marching band, “Human Jukebox,” and the marching USC Trojans.
Check out the JukeBox video: Click HERE.
More importantly, check out the Southern Dancing Dolls:
(Heck, Sunday’s “battle” between the dancing Dolls and the USC Song Girls is no doubt worth the five-buck ticket price by itself.)
Oh yeah, this is about baseball. My bad. Anyway, all of these initiatives combined may not alter the trend that is changing the face of baseball’s major leagues – at least not in our lifetime. But perhaps that should not be the goal.
Baseball is planning on expanding its urban academy concept to cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Miami and Atlanta. If through all these efforts, the game became another positive option for the myriad young men today who have too few then it would have accomplished something more critical than if just a handful of brothers reached the majors. If a dozen more black kids earned baseball scholarships to Bethune Cookman, Southern, UCLA or USC then the game would have truly honored the legacy of the man who changed it more than any other.