Gary Sheffield was recently lamenting the dearth of inner city kids who are playing baseball. Recognizing the fact that baseball and American football are much more popular to underprivileged kids, Sheffield and Dontrelle Willis both conducted a baseball clinic for kids from an economically deprived area. Sheffield reminded them of one important fact. “Remember”, he said, “the colour of money is the same regardless of which sport you play”.
The times, they are a changing. International players now comprise 28% of major league rosters. The percentage of African American players is down from 29% 25 years ago to a current level of 8%.
Baseball is both growing in popularity across the world while dying a slow death in the inner cities of the States. In the 2007 All Star game, of the 66 participants, 20 were born outside of the U.S., including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Canada, and Japan. Latin America has been a feeding ground for MLB for quite awhile, but now we’re seeing an influx from Asia and South America. The Dodgers and Padres recently played an exhibition game in Beijing, and MLB officials believe that over 150,000 people currently play baseball in China. The most recent World Baseball Classic was won by Japan. The time is soon coming where the United States will be surpassed as the country that produces the best baseball players.
I’m reminded of the outrage in the U.S. in 1988 when we did not win the Gold Medal in basketball. Americans always believed that we were the dominant country in this sport, and it was our birthright to bring home the gold every four years. We couldn’t quite comprehend the outcome when the team finished a dismal third, and came home with a bronze medal that resulted in some brutal criticism. The U.S. Olympic Committee then decided to send the NBA “Dream Team” to the 92 Barcelona Olympics so that we could restore our rightful place at the top of the basketball world. This did occur, but ironically, the move backfired. The Dream Team was so popular that it started a basketball revolution around the globe. Now, 20 years later, although the Americans still have the best individual players, we have been surpassed by other countries and can no longer win either the Olympic Gold or any other prominent international tournaments.
As a kid growing up in New York City in the 1960’s, stickball was the most popular game played in the summer. Because there were so few playing fields, the game was played in the streets, in between parked cars, with tennis balls and broomsticks. Hitting the ball with a broomstick was a fantastic way to improve your batting eye. Now, 40 years later, when I venture to the neighbourhood of my youth, not only is stickball no longer played, the youngsters do not even know what it is.
I have to admit that baseball is no longer America’s pastime. It’s not even the second most popular sport in the country. In many suburban high schools, baseball is not even the most popular spring sport. Many kids would much rather play lacrosse, which has seen an incredible expansion in the last 25 years.
Europe now produces quite a few professional basketball players. Latin America, Asia, and South America are the most prominent breeding grounds for baseball. In America, with so many diversions, it will be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 years. If so few kids are interested in baseball, the result will be a more pronounced demographic shift. The 2027 All Star Game will undoubtedly have more foreign born players than American players.
What will then happen to our National Pastime?