PHOENIX — It was 30 years ago this month when Ken Griffey Jr. made his major-league debut, and almost instantaneously, became the pure, innocent, joyful face of baseball.
There was that unbridled passion for the game, that infectious smile, the backwards cap, showing the world it was cool to be a Major League Baseball player.
Here we are, three decades since Griffey’s broke onto the scene with the Seattle Mariners, with the game now perhaps having more young stars than ever before, but something is missing.
There's a serious dearth of African-American baseball players.
While commemorating Jackie Robinson's 100th birthday this year, MLB has an African-American population of only 7.7% this season. There are 68 African-American players among the total of 882 players on opening-day rosters, injured lists and restricted lists, according to research by USA TODAY Sports.
There are a staggering 11 teams that don’t have more than a single African-American player on their 25-man roster, including three teams that don’t one. There are three African-American players on active rosters in the entire National League West.
There were twice as many African-American players in baseball when Griffey broke into the major leagues. There were 15 African-American players alone on the 1989 All-Star team – which didn’t include Griffey – including six who were later inducted into the Hall of Fame, along with All-Star MVP Bo Jackson, the famed two-sport athlete. There were just seven African-Americans in last year’s All-Star Game.
“I don’t think it’s the intent of baseball not to have black ballplayers,’’ Griffey told USA TODAY Sports, “but we have to find a way to get these kids back. We lost them to football. We lost them to basketball. We lost them to golf. People don’t see how cool and exciting this game is.
“The NFL and NBA has done a better job than we have in showing the fun side of the sport, having people talk about it whether it’s on social media, commercials or the news.
“Really, it’s not a black problem or a white problem, but it’s a baseball problem.’’
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Its image is the problem the league is desperately trying to change, convincing the American public that baseball isn’t boring. MLB, behind marking guru Barbara McHugh, launched the “Let the Kids Play’’ ad campaign during last year’s postseason with Griffey scolding baseball’s archaic unwritten rules. It unleashed its 2.0 version this year with a panel of 11 stars, who turned a boring press conference into a delightful, trash-talking escapade.
Maybe it will turbo-charge the Q rating of baseball’s biggest stars who are as anonymous walking along the city streets these days as the peanut vendors, a far cry from the days of Griffey and Jackson, the Heisman Trophy winner who played for the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Raiders. You couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing them featured in commercials.
Mookie Betts, the American League Most Valuable Player who led the Boston Red Sox to the 2018 World Series championship, doesn’t have a single commercial.
“Can you believe that,’’ Red Sox starter David Price said. “How can someone as likable as Mookie Betts is, as good a person as he is, and as marketable as he is, doesn’t have a commercial?"
Who knows, maybe Betts, who won the Pro Bowling Association’s Celebrity Invitational in February, rolling a perfect game in the qualifying rounds, will be in national commercials featuring his bowling skills rather than his baseball prowess?
“I really, really hope that happens,’’ Price said, “just to show that it took bowling to promote one of our biggest baseball stars.’’
Mookie Betts was the 2018 AL MVP and has won three consecutive Gold Glove awards. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)
MLB can’t force shoe companies, sandwich shops, or thirst-quenchers to market their stars. They would love to see more of their athletes featured in national endorsements outside Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. Perhaps, it would have all changed if Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray elected to stay with the Oakland A’s instead of giving up baseball and his $4.6 million signing bonus for the NFL draft.
“I checked into my hotel two months ago in Atlanta, the guy sees my business card,’’ says Athletics assistant GM Billy Owens, perhaps the leading candidate to become baseball’s next African-American GM, “and the guy is asking me about Kyler Murray. I’m sitting at a game the other day, and a 10-year-old kid says, 'Have you met Kyler Murray?'
“We have one of the best young stars in the game in Matt Chapman, but Kyler Murray is our most famous guy.’’
Who knows how much of an impact Murray could have made for baseball’s image to have the world to see the best collegiate player choose baseball over the NFL, just as Jackson did?
How much of a difference would it make if MLB had more than one African-American manager in Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, with baseball entering the third consecutive season without an African-American general manager?
And what if the NCAA increased the amount of scholarships for baseball teams from the mere 11.7 they get now? For comparison's sake, FBS football teams get 85 full rides to give out.
Major League Baseball can certainly monitor, and make sure that clubs are interviewing African-Americans for their GM and managerial job openings, but can’t tell owners who to hire. The league can lobby the NCAA to increase baseball scholarships, but are powerless to enact a change. They can recommend, and do their best to persuade, but can’t tell national advertisers who to be their national spokesmen.
Baseball, in the meantime, is doing what it can to help assure there are no more excuses for the lack of African-American players and executives, by making sure the pipeline keeps flowing.
Commissioner Rob Manfred and Renee Tirado, vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, visited Howard University, one of the country's top HBCU schools (Historically black colleges and universities) in February to help recruit African-American executive candidates. Manfred was the first active sports commissioner, Tirado said, to visit an HBCU.
“We do have a legacy, a lot of history in the game, and great stories that still resonate,’’ Tirado said. “We have to do a better job sharing those stories and the relationships that we have. The world has changed, the landscape has changed, and we’ve revamped up things quite a bit.
“It’s just like when we went to Howard, we want to show the community how committed we are, and that baseball wants you in our front office. I’m very, very optimistic.’’
The pipeline of African-American players to the major leagues hardly is overflowing, but baseball is encouraged that 28 of the 68 players are 26 years old or younger. Baseball had 44 African-American players drafted in the first round over the last seven years, including at least one player from the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program selected among the top five picks in the last three drafts.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re seeing a lot of change at the grass-roots level’’ said Tony Reagins, Los Angeles Angels executive vice president of baseball, who when appointed the club's general manager in 2007, was just the league's fourth-ever African-American GM. “We’re getting there. We’re moving in the right direction. We’re becoming more culturally relevant.
“I think what we’re seeing now is more a celebration of the game, an energy, the uniqueness of the game. You don’t see the celebration of a bat-flip in any other sport.’’
This is where McHugh, senior vice president of marketing and advertising, are trying to make the most dramatic change to the sport’s conservative image. Griffey remembers the days of being chastised for wearing his baseball cap on backwards. These days, the “Let the Kids Play’’ campaign is telling everyone that baseball now not only accepts, but even embraces, bat flips high into the sky, dancing to first base on a home run, or jumping off the mound after a strikeout.
“We want to show the world the energetic and diverse intensity and passion to the game,’’ McHugh said. “That emotion resonates with culture and music and art and passion.
“We want to encourage players to express themselves on and off the field. We definitely think that when kids see the players’ emotions and joy they have in the game, it will help attract young people to play and consume the sport.’’
Undoubtedly, it would have been a huge boon to baseball’s marketing if Murray had chosen to play for the Athletics instead of opting for the NFL draft. McHugh even joined the Athletics’ front office in January to meet with Murray in hopes of persuading him to play baseball, only for him to announce a month later he was going to the NFL.
“We talked a lot about the culture impact he could have as aspiring young athletes follow in his footsteps,’’ McHugh said. “He could have been the voice and face of baseball participation, particularly in the African-American community. It would have been nice to have him in a major-league uniform, but baseball will always be part of the conversation with him.’’
There will be more Kyler Murrays that come along, two-sport stars who ultimately choose baseball, or three-sport stars like Dave Winfield who became a Hall of Fame baseball player, or even players like Jackson and Deion Sanders that played baseball and football simultaneously.
Baseball still isn’t offering any shortcuts to avoid those 14-hour bus rides and Red Roof Inn stays in the minor leagues. Those first-round signing bonuses don’t guarantee a day in the big leagues. Yet, if nothing else, Griffey says, perhaps a reminder that baseball can only be fun, but even encouraged to express your joy, could lead to a return of the best athletes, no matter what their skin color, once playing the game of baseball.
“You look at 40 years ago when Magic Johnson played, seeing him have such a good time, and laughing, and was such a great ambassador to the NBA. “We need guys like that to be ambassadors to the game of baseball. We need to have some of these personalities come out for people to be excited about.
“It’s like nobody wanted to play golf until Tiger [Woods] made it cool. Nobody wanted to be a defensive back until you saw Prime [Deion Sanders]. Nobody wanted to run back kicks until you saw Billy 'White Shoes’' Johnson.
“Well, we can’t do the Billy 'White Shoes' Johnson dance every time you rob someone of a homer, or bat-flip every time you hit a homer, but we can do definitely things to get the younger people involved.
“At this point, we have no choice.’’
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