Going Soft on Hardball
On a typical weekend morning in the summertime, in a front yard near you, a father and son will each grab a leather glove and toss a ball back and forth for maybe an hour. They will laugh, they will talk, and most of all, they will bond, all because of this simple and innocent game of catch. Then they’ll hop into the car, head to the ballpark, buy some peanuts and popcorn and two colas, sit in the bleachers, and spend the rest of the glorious day watching baseball. This is where it begins, where baseball is passed from one generation to the next, where the love of the game creeps into the blood of the kid and remains until he becomes a father and the cycle repeats itself.
This time-honored ritual is older than Wrigley Field and stronger than the smell of spilt beer at the concession stand. It captures the essence of a sport that in turn captures the imagination of America and strengthens American families. Baseball bonds loved ones and creates simple yet special and priceless moments. Baseball doesn’t get any purer than the sight of Senior and Junior enjoying a special moment at the ballpark on a lazy Sunday afternoon, sharing a red hot with mustard, and taking home an everlasting memory, maybe even a foul ball if they’re lucky. This is how millions of kids become hooked on baseball. This is how they start playing baseball. And this is where baseball loses black America, which has turned its back on the pastime with the swiftness and sureness of Jackie Robinson stealing home.
The baseball fields in many parts of urban America are mostly well worn and trampled, not by wide-eyed Little Leaguers toting their Louisville Sluggers and leather gloves, but by glassy-eyed drunks holding their half-empty bottles. That’s how Willie Randolph, the manager of the New York Mets, recalled some of the ballparks where he grew up in Brooklyn, which aren’t much different than those in other cities. In these urban towns, baseball fields are barely more than glorified public parks badly in need of TLC. With the municipal funding for parks and recreation departments plummeting about as low as a slider, these fields are literally diamonds in the rough, complete with dandelions in the patchy outfield grass and rusted poles holding up decrepit dugouts. There is little money or incentive to repair them, and therefore, little reason for kids to use them. In some urban areas, baseball fields have become urban cow pastures, neglected and unused, just a swatch of dirt and grass that also lacks the one necessity to play the game: bases.
Then there’s the absence of the father, which today is sadly a grim statistic in poor black America, where the majority of families are run by single mothers, bless their overstressed hearts. In order to survive and flourish, baseball needs fathers almost as much as kids need fathers. He’s baseball’s best ambassador, keeper of the flame. He brings baseball into the home, buys the first bat and glove, and introduces the kid to the innocent and wonderful game of catch. He takes pride in his role as a sports father and considers baseball a sworn duty. Throughout suburbia, this is common and widespread. The father is in his kid’s life 24/7. But in other households where the father is present, the ball tossed back and forth by the father is either bright orange, or brown with laces. He’s throwing a basketball or football because his generation also tuned out baseball, you see, and he can only teach what he knows and loves. There is the very real chance that baseball has now lost at least two generations of blacks.
Black America, as a whole, doesn’t care deeply about baseball and never will, no matter how hard baseball tries to seduce the race. A Harris poll in 2005 confirmed this; only 6 percent of blacks polled selected baseball as their favorite sport, compared to 47 percent for football. The decaying baseball fields in the ’hood and the diminishing number of active fathers who are willing to pass the game to their sons are just two reasons why blacks have tuned out baseball. There are others. "This is the result of a perfect storm created by a lot of different things that took place, and that are taking place," admits Jimmie Lee Solomon, the Major League executive in charge of reinventing baseball in the city.
Solomon is right. Kids can’t just show up and start playing baseball. The sport requires equipment, which makes it difficult for young boys to play on a whim and too expensive for the poor. Some kids will have gloves, some won’t. Most catchers can’t afford a mask. Nobody has a uniform or cleats. And if the bat breaks, the game is over. In basketball and football, all they need is the ball. There’s the argument that baseball was expensive several decades ago, when the Negro Leagues were in business, and that never stopped black kids from playing. Well, there were few other athletic options then. Football and basketball hadn’t achieved the popularity they enjoy today, and when those sports took off, so did plenty of black kids after them.
This is an excerpt from Souled Out? by Shaun Powell.