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Major League Baseball wants more city kids to 'play ball'

Major League Baseball dignitaries come to Baltimore to try to reignite passion for the sport among youths

There were few African-Americans in the major leagues when Frank Robinson arrived in 1956. It was only nine years after Jackie Robinson had shattered baseball's color barrier.

"I didn't have a role model," the 79-year-old former Oriole said Wednesday at a baseball clinic at Carroll Park. "I respected Jackie Robinson and some of the other guys that were playing. But my mother was my role model."

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Nearly six decades after the Hall of Famer made his debut, Robinson, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and other baseball dignitaries came to Baltimore to try to stir interest in the sport among inner-city youths.

They said that rekindling passion for baseball among African-American kids in Baltimore and other cities rests partly on ensuring they can see — and relate to — successful role models.

"It's important," said Robinson, who appeared with Manfred and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at one of the first of scores of Play Ball youth clinics being hosted around the country by Major League Baseball and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

On a sunny afternoon, a few hundred kids practiced batting, pitching, fielding and running bases.

Baseball struggles in Baltimore, as in other cities, to compete for youths' attention with basketball, football, soccer and other sports.

Analysts say part of the problem is the expense of fielding teams, particularly travel squads.

"Baseball is gaining," said Don Salamone, a program assistant with the city Department of Recreation and Parks. But he agrees that "kids need more role models. Most of our leagues are African-American kids."

Only a little over 8 percent of active major-league players on Opening Day this year were African-American, according to Major League Baseball. That's less than half of the percentage 30 years ago. Lloyd McClendon of the Seattle Mariners is the only black manager.

Manfred said the sport needs to redouble its efforts to attract and retain minorities.

The 30 positions for team managers are "a small number of high-turnover jobs," he said. "I don't think it's all that unusual to have kind of an ebb and flow."

But he added: "We are trying to do some things a little differently, a little more aggressively than we have in the past because we want to continue to make progress on this issue."

Two weeks ago, Major League Baseball said it was retaining Korn Ferry, an executive recruitment and talent management company, to help minorities get hired in baseball operations jobs.

The firm will "identify and coach and work with minority candidates who are getting interviews to make sure they are successful in the interview process," Manfred said.

Analysts say inner-city public school children start with a disadvantage in the sport: a lack of early training. That was evident in Baltimore in the early days of the President's Cup, a competition that began in 2011 featuring public and private high schools.

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"With the exception of a few, most of the public schools were getting kids that had very little experience. That difference was stark," said Ben Hyman, who helped organize the President's Cup when he was a staff assistant to City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

"Baseball is a sport where the best players are playing from a young age — 6, 7, 8. And they're playing a lot of games with a lot of instruction all the way through high school and beyond," Hyman said. "Baseball is so skills-specific that it's really hard to be a player with no experience, despite whatever athleticism that player might have."

There was no data available on how many kids play organized baseball in the city relative to other sports. Salamone said nearly 4,000 youths participate in Little League, and a smaller number play in the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, or RBI, an MLB youth outreach effort.

"We've lost some Little League programs, but we've added new ones," Salamone said.

Baseball has far more competition for youths' attention than it once did.

"When I grew up in the '60s, we played baseball morning, noon and night," said former Trenton, N.J., Mayor Doug Palmer, an MLB consultant on the Play Ball initiative. "There wasn't the soccer, the lacrosse. More and more sports evolved," Palmer said.

Palmer, a longtime Little League coach, said it's important for baseball to hook kids early.

"It's about reigniting the joy and fun of baseball to young kids," he said. "Once they want to play, like anything else, they'll find the resources."

Palmer said the sport should appeal to the best athletes — potentially future major-leaguers — because baseball careers are typically longer than those in other pro sports. But football boasts more marketable, attention-grabbing African-American stars.

"I became a Dallas Cowboys fan in New Jersey because in the '60s, I would see the Cowboys and how many African-American players they had," Palmer said.

The Orioles were represented at the clinic by former players Chris Hoiles and Tippy Martinez, and by the Oriole Bird mascot. Manfred gave a pep talk to the kids, who wore T-shirts reading "Play Ball."

"We hope that when you leave here today, you'll remember the kind of fun that you had," Manfred told the crowd.

Robinson, who played for the Orioles from 1966 through 1971, became Major League Baseball's first African-American manager in 1975 with the Cleveland Indians. He did not give a speech, but he said in an interview that MLB players must be emissaries for their sport.

"The players used to live in the community, they used to go back to the community when the season was over and you'd see them talking on the corner to the kids," he said.

He said today's players "have to get into the community a little more so the kids can see them and talk to them and ask them questions" and that youths need to get "involved coming to more games and seeing their role models on TV."

Manfred said he is confident baseball is making inroads.

"Our first round of the draft this year was 25 percent African-American compared to only 8 or 9 percent of our major-league rosters," he said. "So we feel like we're making progress, but we have more work to do."

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