Affirmative action is making ground in youth programs, but black players are still scarce at the major league level.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig looked out at a luncheon crowd of wide-eyed young baseball players Tuesday at Target Field. What he saw was progress.
"It is days like today that make you feel proud to be the commissioner of baseball," Selig said.
Selig traveled to Minneapolis to address about 430 players and coaches in town for the RBI (Revitalizing Baseball in the Inner Cities) World Series. The four-day tournament ends on Sunday with championship games scheduled for 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. at Target Field. Players, ages 13 to 18, hung on every word as Selig spoke from a head table that also included Tony Oliva, Rod Carew, Paul Molitor and Bert Blyleven.
Blyleven made a point of going to every table to meet and talk with the participants. "I was a kid once, too," he said.
The RBI program is one way MLB is trying to address the low numbers of blacks playing the game. RBI began in 1989 with 100 participants. This year, that number is about 200,000 nationwide, and the Dominican Republic and Venezuela each had teams in this World Series. MLB has spent $30 million on the project.
But is it really progress?
On Opening Day, blacks made up 8.8 percent of MLB rosters, a tick up from 8.5 percent in 2011.
Since 2001, that percentage has fluctuated between 8.2 and 10.2 percent. When I first watched Dick Allen clobber baseballs into the seats at Comiskey Park in the early 1970s, blacks made up more than 20 percent of rosters.
During a media session following the luncheon, I asked Selig how he sees progress. The lack of significant change of blacks playing at the major league level over the past 10 years has made me skeptical.
"We have spent a lot of money on academies," Selig said. "We have programs like this. I am satisfied [from watching] the minor leagues, watching the draft. I like what I'm seeing. I do think we are getting there."
RBI alumni include CC Sabathia, Carl Crawford, Coco Crisp, Justin Upton and James Loney. Fifteen players selected in the June draft were part of RBI programs.
MLB also is building Urban Youth Academies across the country that combine baseball/softball development and education. Twins prospect Aaron Hicks trained at the academy in Compton, Calif. -- the first one built. There's also one in Houston, one is about to open in New Orleans, and plans for ones in Miami and Philadelphia are moving forward.
If MLB is serious about addressing the decline of blacks in baseball, it must continue to support these efforts and continue to build academies across the country. And everyone has to be patient.
"I do think you will see this get better in the next three to four years," Selig said. "We are working to make that happen."