FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Baseball does not have a talent shortage now or for the foreseeable future. That was demonstrated by the number of 25-and-under players that dominated the game in 2015.
The game has been saved over the last two decades by the bonanza of players from the Dominican Republic. Venezuela also has contributed mightily, along with Puerto Rico and defectors from Cuba.
The hope here is that no matter who winds up being sworn in as president next January, the path toward reconciliation with Cuba will continue. And if those gates to Cuba do open completely, the stream of players from the Caribbean will only increase in numbers.
As an eternal fan of the Grand Old Game, I do find it disturbing to watch ballgames at all levels with so few African-Americans.
There are a dozen sociological theories as to why black Americans have turned away from baseball. There’s nothing I can do about any of those things, and I have no interest in going into a sanctimonious harangue on the subject.
I just miss the large number of tremendous African-American ballplayers on whom I became accustomed as a young fan in the ‘50s, and as a sports writer by the mid-‘60s.
I have contended for 50 years that the greatest baseball team ever assembled was the one the National League brought to Met Stadium for the 1965 All-Star Game.
In May 2014, I had the thrilling moment of spending 90 minutes with Willie Mays, along with Star Tribune photographer Jerry Holt. We were in the suite named for the Say Hey Kid in AT&T Park in San Francisco.
I offered my theory on the ’65 All-Star team to Mr. Mays, and he let that thought linger for a moment and then said: “How do rate that team above any of the All-Star teams we had in the National League for seven or eight years? We had the same players.’’
Good point, Willie.
The difference for me must be having been there in 1965 to take in the NL’s 6-5 victory over the American League. The loudest cheers were for Harmon Killebrew’s home run and Tony Oliva’s double, but the awe was for the National Leaguers.
No DH, of course, so the eight starters at a position included Mays, Henry Aaron, Willie Stargell, Dick Allen (1 through 4), Ernie Banks (6) and Maury Wills (8). The two non-African-Americans in the lineup were catcher Joe Torre and second baseman Pete Rose.
Meantime, the American League had one African-American in its lineup – Detroit’s Willie Horton. That is a powerful snapshot as to why the Nationals beat the Americans relentlessly in the All-Star Game for two decades.
The National Leagues also had Frank Robinson and Billy Williams come off the bench. Bob Gibson pitched two scoreless innings at the end to hold onto the one-run victory. Bob Veale, a lefty from Pittsburgh, also was on the roster.
That was 10 African-Americans among the 25 players, with seven Hall of Famers: Mays, Aaron, Stargell, Banks, Robinson, Williams and Gibson. The first two on the list might be merely the two greatest players of all-time.
So, baseball has gotten by as the loss of wonderful African-American players has been offset to a large degree by larger numbers of wonderful players in Caribbean countries.
Maybe I’m naïve – and the participation surveys probably make that definite – but I have some hope that a better percentage of the best African-American male athletes will go back to giving baseball a chance.
Imagine a game that had Miguels from Cabrera to Sano, Joses from Bautista to Berrios, to go with today’s athletic equivalents of Mays, Aaron, Robinson, Banks and Gibson.
I had a chance to interview center fielder Byron Buxton at TwinsFest and had forgotten all about the fact that he had a football scholarship to Georgia.
When Buxton used the astounding speed and other abilities, along with a well-chronicled dedication, to become the second overall selection in the 2012 draft, the dollars meant he had no choice but to go to baseball.
Yet to Buxton, the first choice always was baseball, he said … the game he loved most from the time he started playing sports.
I’m always excited to hear that from a young African-American who also had the option of football or basketball.
Buxton is going to be the game changer for the 2016 Twins. Sano is going to hit 30 home runs and drive in over 100 from the No. 3 hole (presumably), and that will be just the start. Miguel’s bat is real, folks.
As for Buxton, the best thing that happened was for the kid to get a taste last season and find out what it takes to deal with big-league pitching. He started to get an idea in those last days of the season, and if he’s healthy this time, watch out by June or so.
“I’d guess Byron is going to start off hitting ninth, and after 150 or 200 at-bats, he’ll be at the top,’’ pitcher Glen Perkins said the other day. “And while he’s in that process, he will still be saving games in center field.’’
I interviewed another Twins prospect, and young African-American outfielder, Adam Brett Walker, for a column later this week.
You see Walker’s home runs and strikeouts, and you figure he’s a muscled-up plodder, but he’s actually 6-foot-4 (plus), powerfully built and athletic.
Walker also had options in football (his father’s sport) and basketball (he has a forward’s frame). But he always wanted to play baseball.
And if ever figures out the strike zone, well, the power we are assured is amazing.
Byron Buxton. Adam Brett Walker.
I see young black Americans who love baseball. I see hope.