It's a miserable day for baseball.
From a purple sky, cold bullets of rain spray the Brush High School team, leaving momentary stains on their brown uniforms. Two chatting umpires pay the weather no mind. On the public-school circuit, baseball will be played in driving sleet if need be — games cost too much and the season is too short for rescheduling.
Just five minutes before the opening pitch, the Collinwood Railroaders empty from a school bus. They left school hours ago, but faulty directions have taken them on an epic odyssey to nearby Lyndhurst.
The two teams will play an elimination game to kick off district playoffs. But unless your son, brother, or best friend is out there, this isn't a contest of consequence. Which explains why only 12 people clutter the tiny grandstand. Collinwood, for example, finished near the middle of Cleveland's dismal Senate league. This is the Participation Award of playoff games.
Uniforms are rather unnecessary today. With only two exceptions between them, Collinwood will be playing in all-black skin; Brush will play in white.
As the game begins, it's clear Collinwood's outmatched. They flail at bad pitches and swing through good ones. But their fatal undoing is a stunning inability to handle the easy pop-up.
The epidemic hits in the third inning, when lazy fly balls begin to bounce in ever more unique ways off Railroader gloves. A Brush dad who spent the first few innings screaming, "Not in the air!" soon reverses his plea. "Hit it up!" he begins yelling.
By the fifth inning, the mercy rule is invoked. Collinwood, a 10-0 loser, is dispatched on a hopefully less circuitous ride back to the city. But considering this is high-school ball, their absence of basic skills is startling. Many an elementary-aged team has already mastered the fly ball and the cutoff throw. Who taught these kids?
The sad answer: nobody.
Such is the state of black baseball.
Consider it fallout from the epidemic of black dads abandoning their families. Today, about 50 percent of black kids are raised in female single-parent homes, versus 16 percent of white kids. That trend wreaks unique havoc on baseball. As Indians ace C.C. Sabathia puts it: "It's a sport you play with your daddy."
While basketball can be learned on a concrete slab with a bunch of friends and football is easily picked up by natural athletes, baseball is like a secret language. Its tricks and quirks are passed down from generation to generation, through years of patient tutelage. The game is best started at a young age, and the mentors are usually fathers.
Laments Collinwood Coach Richard Eggers: "I think, 'This is something your dad should've taught you. I should just be coaching you. But I have to be your father and teach you these fundamentals, because your father isn't around or isn't interested in the sport.'"
Collinwood isn't the only team struggling. Brush dominated today, but is often trampled by other suburban teams. That's because Coach Todd Deutsch is drawing his talent from just one-third of the school's population.
Though Lyndhurst is predominantly white, Brush is two-thirds black. And while the school's football and basketball squads are about 90 percent black, Deutsch has but one black kid on his roster. "We aren't even seeing African Americans at tryouts," he says.
The situation has become so dire that in the last five years, the Northeast Ohio Conference has been halved, going from 700 to 350 players. It's a problem that threatens any public-school league with a large African American population — a drought with potentially drastic reach.
Says Deutsch: "High-school baseball in Cleveland might be gone in a decade."
While those dozen spectators thought they were just watching a terrible baseball game, they were in fact watching a cultural phenomenon. Don't worry if you missed it, though. The same thing is on full display at every big-league stadium.
Drafted from a high school in Vallejo, California, Sabathia had to adjust to being the only black person on his minor-league teams. It was good practice for his 2001 call-up to the big club. "Just look around," he says, sitting in the Progressive Field clubhouse. "I played here for three years and didn't have an African American teammate."
In relative terms, the Indians now employ a black caucus. Sabathia is joined by outfielders Ben Francisco and Grady Sizemore, whose father is African American. "I shouldn't be used to it, but I am," says 26-year-old Francisco, who's been one of only a few blacks on every organized team he's played for. "It's normal to me."
For some teams, the absence is even more pronounced. The Atlanta Braves have returned to pre-Jackie Robinson numbers — they have zero black players on their current roster. African Americans now compose just 8 percent of the league, less than half their stake 10 years ago.
Says Francisco: "We don't want to become extinct."
The reasons for the decline are both obvious and nuanced. This is not a game that electrifies the Grand Theft Auto generation. You try marketing this:
Grab rosin bag. Step on mound. Tug crotch. Check runner. Spit. Step off mound. Tug jersey. Step on mound. Check runner on first. Spit. Maybe throw pitch. Repeat.
In terms of speed, it's the Academy Awards in cleats. Every season, the average game length inches closer to three hours.
Add in a Third World economic structure, which usually leaves poor midwestern teams out of the playoff picture before opening day, and kids are left to witness a lethargic game where the home team is perennially slotted in the role of patsy.
"A lot of them look at it as a boring sport," says Collinwood catcher Anthony Jamison Jr. of his schoolmates. "I'm like, 'Have you ever played it?' Usually, they haven't. There's a big difference between watching and playing baseball. I mean, I think it's boring to watch too."
And there's the rub. To those who grew up playing baseball, the lazy pace is what gives the sport its strategy, its suspense, its nostalgic summer-day beauty. More so than football and basketball fans, baseball's devotees have trouble confining their passion to words. "I love football," says Varick Fuller of All Sports Academy, a nonprofit that offers academic tutoring to Cleveland high-schoolers and helps connect them with colleges. "I absolutely adore baseball."
Dig a little deeper, and the conversation usually returns to the same place. "I identify it with my father," says Fuller. "He passed when I was young. All of my uncles played with me. Baseball was a family thing."
As black men surrender fatherhood, instinctive fans like Fuller have become throwbacks. And Major League Baseball, for generations accustomed to peddling in a sport that Americans just did, hasn't been nimble in adjusting.
While football and basketball players have come to outpace Hollywood in snagging product-marketing deals, baseball is trapped in the '60s. Few major leaguers can transcend the local endorsement deal. The most prominent national ad by a black player has Philadelphia's charismatic slugger Ryan Howard shilling sandwiches for Subway alongside Jared Fogle, America's favorite former fat guy.
"Baseball marketing in general is just weak," says Francisco. "They don't get any of our stars out there. A guy like C.C. is not used at all. Meanwhile, in basketball, even second-tier superstars like Paul Pierce are all over the TV, selling shoes or the NBA."
"It's not just me," adds Sabathia, 2007's American League Cy Young Award winner. "Take Prince Fielder. He hit 50 home runs last year. And I bet if you went into any inner city and asked a little kid, 'Who plays first base for the Milwaukee Brewers?' they wouldn't know. I don't see any commercials with Jimmy Rollins, National League MVP. You don't see any commercials with Torii Hunter. As far as marketing goes and putting young African American stars out there, it's nonexistent in baseball."
It's not that black athletes don't sell. Nike, sports marketing's kingmaker, has deftly exploited the NBA's swelling black population, managing to infuse that league with a facade of hip-hop bravado, despite prohibitive ticket prices that exclude all but white businessmen. But you can't wear cleats on the street. And why try billing Ryan Howard as the next Hank Aaron, when posters of LeBron and Kobe already hang from bedroom walls?
Without fathers, black kids are left to obey the marketing. "If I took 10 black boys and asked them who they want to be like," says Fuller, "eight would want to be LeBron. Two would want to be LaDainian Tomlinson or Kellen Winslow. I hate to say it, but I cannot see one saying C.C. Sabathia."
In the middle of a city where weedy fields abound, this is a green oasis. Neatly trimmed grass, soft dirt, roomy dugouts, a real batting cage. The charm of these four fields in Collinwood's Humphrey Park is in the loving details, such as the city's only grass infield, so bunts move like they're supposed to. Stumbling upon this greenery, you might wonder how you arrived in Westlake.
It's not a product of city planning. Two years ago, these fields were notes from a common song in Cleveland: rocky, choppy, and poorly maintained. So Fuller, Anthony Jamison Sr. — the father of the Collinwood catcher — and a group of pilgrims poured their own cash and labor into renovating them. The intention was clear.
"I don't want to say bribe," says Fuller, "but to kind of persuade kids to play the sport. We wanted to give them something for the kids to value, so hopefully they'll think, 'We got a nice park. Maybe we should use it. Maybe we should try that game called baseball.'"
But a trip to Humphrey during prime sporting time on a warm afternoon reveals one problem: The kids aren't taking the bait. St. Joseph High and an Akron team play on the game field, with one black player between them. Coach Eggers happens to be playing catch with his little brother on a practice field. Otherwise, the remaining fields are empty.
Meanwhile, Humphrey Park's no-frills basketball courts, with metal backboards and missing nets, are packed with boys playing pickup games. That sport takes no enticing.
A common myth is that baseball, with its increasingly expensive bats and gloves, is no longer a game for poor kids. But south of the U.S. border are countries that make Collinwood look like South Beach — and hundreds of rags-to-riches stories that make the black athlete's upbringing seem downright privileged. New York Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez, as lore has it, learned the game in the Dominican Republic, using tree branches as bats and fruit as balls.
But while the poverty hasn't changed in these countries, baseball's involvement has. Smart teams try to hook players as young as possible. Nearly every major league organization has a baseball academy set up in the Dominican where kids can freely use equipment and fields, and get professional instruction.
Eighty-eight current major leaguers come from that island, whose population is roughly equal to metro Chicago. More are coming: The minor leagues are now 40 percent Hispanic. The sport is now seen as a feasible way to escape poverty.
"Every kid wants an opportunity to be successful," says Fuller. "In Santo Domingo, they still see baseball as a way out. We don't see baseball as our way out anymore."
That truth is in the numbers. Not a single current black major leaguer hails from Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. Chicago has produced just two.
Part of it's simply cultural. Dominican athletes aren't lured away by football or basketball.
And part of the reason is economics. College football and basketball programs are cash cows for competitive schools. A Division 1A school can offer 85 full football scholarships and 13 full basketball scholarships, but only 11.7 for baseball. "If a kid from the inner city is offered a 40 percent scholarship to play baseball at USC and a full ride to play football at UCLA," says Sabathia, "he's gotta go with football."
Additionally, baseball has its layers of minor leagues — not the fast track to a big payday. "The fact that you can now go to one year of college and then be in the NBA makes that a much easier road," says Toronto outfielder Vernon Wells. "In baseball, you have to go through six or seven teams before you make it to the major leagues."
"The kids see LeBron James," says John Carter of the Cleveland Baseball Federation, which runs free leagues for city kids. "He never stepped foot in college, and he's a multimillionaire."
The problem, of course, is that this is a very shallow pot of gold. Only the tiniest fraction of young athletes will ever wear a professional uniform. And a culture's entrenchment in a sport doesn't start with aspirations of wealth. From the Dominican to Orange County, it evolves from something much simpler: a deep appreciation of the game.
Not so long ago, the same was true for black Americans. "Once upon a time in our culture," says Fuller, "baseball was the number one sport."
He's not talking about an era when men in fedoras huddled around radios. The major leagues' black population peaked in 1975 at 27 percent and hovered near that figure for the next decade. For Fuller and Carter — native Clevelanders born in the '60s — childhood coincided with baseball's black boom times.
"I remember Sundays after church, when dinner was over at our house," says Fuller, "all my uncles talked about was the game."
The elders spoke of the legends in mythical tones — names like Larry Doby, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson. As they got older, the kids developed their own heroes. The league was stocked with black talent, and they found themselves worshiping whole teams.
"You had teams like the early-'80s Royals," recalls Carter over beers. "Willie Wilson. Hal McRae. Willie Mays Aikens. Frank White."
"No, I got a better one!" Fuller interrupts, beaming. "The '85 Cardinals: Terry Pendleton, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman!"
In those days, the fields of Cleveland were just as bad as they are today. But the kids funneled their idolatry into their passion for the sport. "You could always get 18 or 20 kids together," says Fuller. "We played pickup games every day."
But by the '80s, the decline was beginning to look like a rout. Football had surpassed baseball as America's true national pastime. And basketball, burdened by 20-point blowouts and matador defense, fell upon a brilliant marketing strategy: selling the sport as a constellation of individual stars, a sweaty version of the Emmys.
Not coincidentally, it was also a time when black men began deserting their families in droves. In 1970, 33 percent of black households were run by a single parent, the vast majority of them female. By 1988, that number had risen to 56 percent.
Dad wasn't around to play catch, and baseball was acquiring its first whiff of uncool. Says Oakland slugger Frank Thomas, who reached the pros in 1989: "When I was coming up, brothers looked at me like I was an alien when I said I wanted to play baseball."Sabathia's upbringing is somewhat emblematic. Carsten Sabathia Sr. had Junior in T-ball at age four. "He taught me to catch, throw, hit," says C.C. His father took him to A's games and screamed for Rickey Henderson, Dave Henderson, Dave Parker.
But at 12, his parents split. Dad essentially disappeared. Fortunately, "I was already a baseball player at that point," says C.C.
Mother Margie and his uncles picked up what Dad had deserted, keeping the kid in gloves, taking him to Little League, catching his developing slider. Sabathia latched on to his own idols — Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds. By the time he graduated high school in '98, baseball was largely a white and Hispanic sport.
But Sabathia harbored freakish athleticism, hidden under a doughy 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame. He was among the most-scouted high-school pitchers and tight ends in California. Come decision time, the Indians made his choice easy. "Well, I was drafted in the first round, and the Indians offered me $1 million," he says. "Baseball was something I needed to do for my family. If it was up to me, I probably would've gone to college and played football."
Yet by the time he arrived in Cleveland, most of the black players were already gone. Their absence is fueling the same in generations to come. "If I'm a kid," asks Sabathia, "how many people do you see playing baseball that look like me?"
These days, the major leagues' black population has fallen to just 8 percent. Fans like Fuller and Carter are left to track rare clusters as if they were archaeologists.
"The Twins had something going there for a second — Torii Hunter, Matt Lawton, Jacque Jones," says Fuller, listing Minnesota's since-dispatched outfielders.
"Look at Tampa Bay's roster from last year," says Carter. "I thought they had some really exciting young players there, before they got dismantled."
For the black baseball fan, optimism tends to be discussed in past tense.
There is a more insidious theory at play here: that the pervasive narcissism and cartoon chest-thumping of young black culture no longer jibes with what's essentially a sacrificial game.
Basketball hawks the individual star. Football offers glamour jobs like quarterback, running back, receiver. For baseball, meanwhile, sacrifice is an actual statistic: The best fail in 70 percent of their at-bats.
"The thing about baseball is that it's such a team sport," Philadelphia's Rollins told Sports Illustrated. "And when you're in the inner city, it's all about being the man, about establishing your strength as an individual. So how can you be the man? You want that ball in your hands with three seconds on the clock to take the shot, or you want the football under your arm. That's how."
Baseball doesn't help itself with its ancient, indecipherable traditions. While beaning a batter is considered part of the game, flipping a bat too dramatically after a homer is sacrilege.
Take former Met Lastings Milledge, a black phenom when he arrived in the majors two years ago. He horrified baseball's puritans by committing the ultimate fan-friendly act: high-fiving people in the stands after smacking his first home run. His fate was sealed when he subsequently put out a rap single.
This winter, Milledge was exiled to Washington for lesser role players. Talk radio praised the Mets for eradicating a "clubhouse cancer."
So the major leagues are hoping to reach kids before they decide the sport is fatally uncool. The Compton Youth Baseball Academy in suburban Los Angeles is one such overture, a duplication of the scouting camps found in the Dominican Republic. It offers spring-training-caliber facilities and major league instruction, free to any kid interested. Compton may be one of America's most notorious ghettos, but it's also proved a fertile gestation ground for many a major leaguer. "The Compton area produced, per capita, as many major leaguers as any city in America," says former Angel Darrell Miller, who runs the complex. "Baseball was what was king in Compton for so many years."
The Academy has programs in umpiring, groundskeeping, and even baseball journalism — other areas where blacks are few. The two-year-old campus attracts more than 2,000 players a year — proof that if the bribe is shiny enough, kids will come back. And, says major league Vice President Jimmie Lee Solomon, there's a simpler lure: "Darrell Miller's program in Compton is successful in Compton because of Darrell Miller. What those kids really want is a male mentor."
It seems that if baseball wants to reintroduce black kids to the sport, it'll have to do more than teach them to turn the double play. It will have to replace a generation of AWOL dads.
"We've been approached, more times than not, to talk to Timmy about his grades or there's a problem with his math teacher or he's on the peripheral of a gang," says Miller of his coaching staff. "We're filling that gap. We're not trained, but we care."
At this moment, you wouldn't realize that C.C. Sabathia is unknown among black youth. As he sidles into a Parma bowling alley, kids swarm him. Those not in position for a quick handshake work frantic little brown fingers to Sabathia's shoulder, settling for a momentary tug of his blue-and-red Jordan jacket. The friends accompanying him — teammates Casey Blake, Jamey Carroll, and Kelly Shoppach — meander, almost unnoticed, away from the fray.
This is C.C.'s Slugger Sleepover, a Saturday-night party for some of Cleveland's unluckiest kids — among them project dwellers, wards of the state, and the homeless. Sabathia will bowl a few frames, make a surprisingly inspirational speech about how he lifted himself from a similar upbringing, and patiently autograph posters for more than an hour. He doesn't leave until after midnight — despite having to pitch that afternoon at 1:05 against the Yankees.
"C.C. is that dude," summarizes 14-year-old Chris from a Cleveland shelter, who bought a $9 camera from CVS for the occasion.
This is Sabathia embracing the "role model" responsibility so many athletes shrug away. His theme of the speech — and of the night — was be me.
But despite the adulation and the high-pitched squeals, it seems unlikely that these kids will follow that advice. Chris can't say what position Sabathia plays. And he's only played baseball two or three times in his life. But, he stipulates reassuringly, "I play kickball though."