The most family-friendly sporting event of the year begins in Williamsport next month - that is, as long as your family is white, middle class and from places like Boynton Beach, Davenport or Tom’s River.
Chances are you won’t find any teams from the inner city at the Little League World Series. In fact, the odds of seeing more than a couple African-American kids on any roster are slim-to-none, which is why when Connecticut baseball coach Jim Penders calls baseball a “white-collar” sport in this country, he might as well being saying it’s a white-faced game.
Many believe the reason less African-Americans are playing baseball is strictly a financial issue. In fact, last year Penders told the New Haven Register that he recruits the best players who can afford to come to school, as opposed to just the best players. But that points to an across-the-board problem, one that affects Americans of all backgrounds and isn’t just happening in sports.
It still doesn’t explain why baseball continues to thrive even in poor white communities while it has become an afterthought in almost every urban area. The sport is becoming as segregated as hockey, golf or tennis in most parts of this country, which basically means an entire generation is missing out on our national pastime.
Like most of Major League Baseball’s problems, it has only itself to blame. The two most well-known black ball players right now are Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds, the same as it was 15 years ago. But Griffey is at the tail end of his career, currently hitting somewhere around .200 and Bonds has essentially been banished from the game. Bud Selig and company have done an awful job at marketing any of the current African-American stars, all but passing up Jimmy Rollins, C.C. Sabathia, Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard in favor of guys like Joe Mauer and Tim Lincecum.
It’s not that Mauer and Lincecum don’t deserve to be stars, but when you have a serious lack of interest from the black community on your hands, why wouldn’t you make the effort to reach out using your most valuable assets? Fielder and Howard in particular have the ability to resonate with young fans the way Griffey and Bonds did in the nineties. Fielder took home the Home Run Derby on Monday night, an event that is still quite popular in the little league crowd. And on Thursday, Howard became the quickest ever to reach 200 homeruns, getting there in just 658 games.
It’s not just chicks who dig the long ball; it’s everyone, especially kids.
And Fielder and Howard’s homeruns can reach the inner cities. They’re young enough to be fan favorites for another decade and baseball needs to take advantage of that. Maybe then Williamsport in August will stop looking like some private school reunion and baseball can actually go back to being America’s game.