Keon Broxton was born in 1990, meaning his formative years coincided
with the peak of Ken Griffey Jr.'s spectacular career. Broxton was 7
when Griffey won AL MVP, 10 when Griffey made his 11th consecutive
All-Star team ... and already in his second year of pro ball in the
Arizona Diamondbacks system, at 20, during Griffey's final year in
"He made me develop a love for the game just by watching him play and
watching how much fun he had and seeing how good he was," said
Broxton, the center fielder for the Milwaukee Brewers. "I definitely
think kids idolize guys at an early age and it sticks with them."
Griffey's career also coincided with a period of time when the
percentage of black players in the majors peaked. In 1995, 19 percent
of MLB players were black. This year, among players on Opening-Day
rosters, that percentage was 7.7, the lowest since The Institute for
Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) began tracking the data in 1991.
"What happened years ago, when we had the superstars in the game, the
Bo Jacksons, the Frank Thomases, the Brian Jordans, the Deion Sanders,
we didn't promote them enough," said Steve Williams, a Pirates pro
scouting supervisor and the president of the Buck O'Neil Professional
Baseball Scouts & Coaches Association. "We missed out on the
opportunity to really sell our games in the inner cities and in rural
areas where minority kids play as well. We didn't promote our game. We
allowed football and basketball to beat us up."
Players have several theories as to why that drop has occurred: The
dearth of black superstars such as Griffey for kids to look up to, the
marketability of football and basketball, financial difficulties
surrounding both youth baseball and college scholarships, and simple
logistics. Baseball requires equipment, real estate and a bunch of
people. Kids can shoot hoops alone.
"I think it's resources more than anything," St. Louis Cardinals
center fielder Dexter Fowler said. "The game has been misconstrued as
being slow. The younger kids now want to play basketball, especially
inner city. It's tough to find a field, to find bats."
Fowler had the opportunity to play basketball at Harvard but chose
baseball instead. Earning a scholarship to play baseball is more
challenging than football, which, for Division I programs, offers 85
full rides, or basketball, with 13 scholarships available (being an
Ivy League school, Harvard does not offer athletic scholarships, but
hundreds of other D-I schools do). Division I baseball programs have
11.7 scholarships that can be split among the whole roster.
"I didn't quite understand my family's financial situation," said Josh
Harrison, who received a 70 percent scholarship to the University of
Cincinnati. "I knew we weren't rich, and I knew that my parents made
ends meet for me and both my brothers, but I didn't really understand
it until I got to college and I wasn't able to register for classes
after my freshman year (because of tuition issues). I was like, this
The issue goes beyond scholarship opportunities.
"I hadn't really been following baseball that much up until I got
drafted, really," said Josh Bell, who turned 25 Aug. 14. "I was more of a basketball kid. I feel like that's pretty much it. There are
different sports that, I guess younger African-American, black
American and Canadian-born players want to emulate, like different
superstars in different sports. When I was growing up it was Kobe and
Iverson, and I also had a Barry Bonds jersey. ... I guess there's just
a lack of that superstar dominant player that a lot of kids can look
Bell paused and looked a few lockers to his right.
"It's cool playing with guys like Cutch."
Andrew McCutchen made his Class AAA debut in 2007, Bonds' final season
and Griffey's last full year in Cincinnati. His production since his
debut in 2009 put him among the best black players of the current
generation, a group that also includes David Price, Adam Jones, CC
Sabathia, Brandon Phillips, Chris Archer and Fowler.
"A lot of it is geared toward how it's marketed," Harrison said.
"Basketball and football is always going to be more marketable. ...
There's not that many of us. As a kid, if they're seeing more playing
football and basketball, they're going to gravitate more toward
football and basketball."
The next wave of players could contain more stars for children to
idolize. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Byron Buxton and Billy
Hamilton have all earned starting roles, and Marcus Stroman's
performance in the World Baseball Classic championship game could
extend his influence outside of Toronto. Initiatives like Major League
Baseball's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner cities) program, and the
Mentoring Viable Prospects program in Atlanta, which provides kids who
can't afford to travel to showcases a forum to display their talent,
Recent drafts have shown some progress. Among the first 75 picks in
the 2016 draft, 17 (22.7 percent) were black. Royce Lewis, the first
overall pick in this year's draft, is biracial; second overall pick
Hunter Greene is black, as are fellow first-rounders Jo Adell, Bubba
Thompson and Jeren Kendall. Williams pointed to an increase in
minority players in the low minors and in college.
"That's awesome to see, it's good to see," Fowler said. "Hopefully
they can be role models, as we are, toward the young guys."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.