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LENDING A HAND

Baseball is working to increase Black representation on the field. For some former players, it’s personal

BY JERRY CRASNICK

The 2022 Major League Baseball draft generated a welcome dose of optimism after years of bad news about the declining presence of Black players on big-league rosters.  When outfielder Druw Jones, pitcher Kumar Rocker, shortstop Termarr Johnson and outfielder Elijah Green went off the board in succession in the second through fifth spots, it marked the first time since the draft’s inception in 1965 that four Black players had been selected among the first five picks.

 

After a slightly longer wait, third baseman Cam Collier experienced his nirvana moment. Collier, 6-2 and 210 pounds, has a potent bat, a mature approach and lots of room to grow at 17 years of age. The Cincinnati Reds were thrilled to find him available with the 18th pick, moments after the Philadelphia Phillies selected Nevada high school outfielder Justin Crawford, the son of four-time All-Star Carl Crawford, at No. 17.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that Collier’s career path was preordained. His father, Lou, spent eight years in the majors as a utility player with the Pirates, Brewers, Expos, Red Sox and Phillies before his retirement 15 years ago. Young Cam dabbled in soccer, basketball and flag football, but always gravitated back to the summer game, with periodic nudges from dad.

“To be honest with you, I didn't really let him play any other sports until he fell in love with baseball,’’ Lou Collier said.

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In late July, Lou Collier joined Ken Griffey Sr., Marquis Grissom, Eric Davis and about two dozen other former players-turned-instructors at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., for the Hank Aaron Invitational, an annual collaboration between MLB, the MLBPA and USA Baseball designed to help players from diverse backgrounds further their baseball aspirations. The coaches arrived early each morning and spent long days drilling players on the fundamentals while baking in the 95-degree heat at the old Dodgertown complex.

Lou Collier’s fervor for baseball is undeniable. Long before celebrating Cam’s big draft moment, he was channeling his time, energy and personal resources into teaching and encouraging young ballplayers.

 

“I've been working with inner city kids, Black kids, since I retired in 2007,’’ Collier said. “There are plenty of Black kids playing the game -- just limited opportunities. Since about 12 years ago, I’ve seen the interest and the talent level grow. Now it's just about creating opportunities for these kids and keeping good people around them, because all they need is structure and resources.’’

Some recent historic celebrations help frame the stakes. Two weeks ago, 75 years after Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color barrier, his widow, children and other dignitaries attended the opening of the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York City. In late July, Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler were inducted into Cooperstown, bringing the number of Black major leaguers and former Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame to over 50.

Still, the data reveals how much work needs to be done. In May, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida released a report showing that American-born Blacks accounted for only 7.2 percent of all MLB players on Opening Day rosters in 2022. That marks a low point since the 18 percent Black representation when the group began compiling demographic data in 1991.

 

Among the obstacles routinely cited as impediments to Black participation: A “pay to play’’ system that requires big financial investments to take part; the availability of more college scholarships in basketball and football; and the promise of more immediate success in other sports. That tug of war played out on the big stage when Kyler Murray passed on an offer to play for the Oakland Athletics as a 2018 first-round draft pick and signed to play quarterback for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Three weeks ago, Murray agreed to a five-year, $230.5 million contract, with $160 million guaranteed.

 

Like Lou Collier, Marquis Grissom knows the issues from the vantage point of a father, player, teacher and coach. Grissom, who grew up in Georgia as the youngest of 16 children, made two All-Star teams, won four Gold Gloves and amassed 2,251 hits in a 17-year career with the Montreal Expos and five other clubs. In 2006, he founded the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association to provide a competitive platform to ballplayers in underserved communities. His son, Marquis Jr., a pitcher at Georgia Tech, was selected by the Washington Nationals in the 13th round of the July draft.

“I started my organization based on (the costs),’’ Grissom said. “We know the kids can't afford $2,000 in tournament (fees), a $300 glove or a $200 bat. And it’s not only that. You have to get the proper coaching, plus the equipment, plus a safe environment to practice. I think in the inner city, a lot of parks are closed because of other issues.’’

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Even for Black athletes who grow up in safe environments amid greater means, the financial demands can be a strain. Luther “Lee’’ Ellis, a fast and charismatic shortstop from Maryland, has already committed to the University of South Carolina as he enters his senior year of high school. When Ellis was 11, he attracted the attention of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield at a camp in Washington, D.C. Seven years ago, his father started a power washing company to help subsidize the costs of his development.

 

“I didn’t even know what power washing was,’’ Ellis said. “He spent the time, money and effort just for me. Thousands of dollars are spent on hotels, travel, gas and even equipment. You break a wood bat and that’s another $200. My dad is my hero, man. He’s the best person I’ve ever met.’’

 

The Hank Aaron Invitational coaches grew up long before the advent of cell phones, social media and the “let the kids play’’ mentality in baseball. But they share similar stories of parents, coaches and teachers who sacrificed and showed uncommon generosity in helping them overcome the obstacles in their path.

Exhibit A: Willie Banks, who grew up as a talented multi-sport athlete at St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, N.J. Banks chose baseball over football and basketball and emerged from a rough upbringing in a crime-infested neighborhood to be selected third overall -- two picks behind Ken Griffey Jr. -- in the 1989 draft. He went on to pitch for seven teams over nine seasons in the big leagues. Banks currently runs an organization in Texas called B&M Ballers with Pat Mahomes, his former Minnesota Twins teammate and the father of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

“My high school coach, Mr. (Mike) Hogan, paid for a lot of stuff for me,’’ Banks said. “I couldn’t have afforded to pay $3,000 or $4,000 to be on one of these travel teams like they have today. My mother was like, ‘Do you want to eat or do you want to play baseball?’ And I would have had to make a choice. I would rather eat.’’

Nevertheless, Banks was inspired when he turned on the local NBC affiliate in New York in the late 1970s and saw Ken Griffey Sr., George Foster and Joe Morgan playing for the Reds. He felt the same sense of pride watching Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss and Mickey Rivers with the Yankees.

“For me, it was just about seeing other Black athletes in uniform,’’ Banks said. “I gravitated to the guys who looked like me and I was like, ‘Damn, if they can make it, I can make it, too.’ I’m sure a lot of them felt the same way when Jackie broke the barrier.’’

Eric Davis was similarly enthralled watching baseball for hours on end as an aspiring two-sport athlete in Los Angeles. He chose baseball over basketball, signed with the  Cincinnati Reds out of Fremont High School and went on to hit 282 homers and steal 349 bases over 17 seasons in the majors.

Since 2009, Davis has been a special assistant to the general manager in Cincinnati. He would like the debate to focus less on Black athletes gravitating away from baseball and more on the need for scouts and college coaches to be in the stands watching them compete.

“We have to stop saying ‘Black participation,’ because they do participate,’’ Davis said. “There are more kids out there playing than they give us credit for. The problem is that the colleges and the scouts aren’t recruiting them.


“When you have events like this and the Breakthrough Series and the Urban Youth Academies in L.A. and Cincinnati and (other cities), those bring more awareness. Because when people don’t watch, the kids don’t want to play. The more people are around, the more excited they get.’’

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Engagement, inevitably, leads to results. Cam Collier, Reds pitcher Hunter Greene and Braves outfielder Michael Harris, a leading candidate for National League Rookie of the Year, are all Hank Aaron Invitational alumni. Harris and numerous other players in the baseball pipeline are products of the Youth Development Foundation, a joint initiative by MLB and the MLBPA that focuses on improving the caliber, effectiveness and availability of amateur baseball and softball programs across the United States and internationally. 

For every prospect with a dream, there’s a corresponding mentor who shares a piece of wisdom that resonates, or stays late for extra batting practice, or provides encouragement during a difficult time. The former big leaguers in Vero Beach are just one piece in an extensive and necessary support system. 

 

“I go back to something Willie Stargell told me almost 40 years ago,’’ Davis said. “He said, ‘Eric, if you obtain knowledge and don’t share knowledge, you lose knowledge.’’’ 

 

Combine young athletes who love the game with baseball elders on a mission, and it’s a blueprint for success -- and a reason for optimism that times are changing, and a new wave of talent is on the way.