Baseball keeps losing African American talent because the game isn’t fun
And top athletes want the higher profile that the NFL and NBA give them
Major League Baseball used to offer its athletes the most prestige, money and fame among our nation’s pro team sports.
But that hasn’t been true for decades.
Consequently, Major League Baseball continues to lose in the competition for talent to other major pro team sports. For example, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the highest-paid player in the NFL; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, taken No. 1 overall in last month’s NFL draft; and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Pat Mahomes, the exemplar of today’s fast-break NFL football, were all baseball prospects too.
Indeed, Murray was also a first pick by the Oakland Athletics in the MLB draft, and Mahomes’ dad played professional baseball.
In another era, neither player would have had the option of playing quarterback in the NFL. Murray and Wilson are under 6 feet tall. All three run as well as pass. Neither is a classic dropback passer. And all three are black. It used to be three strikes and you’re an NFL defensive back, running back or wide receiver.
The suits in MLB know what they and the fans are missing without more black American players. They function as the sports caste system for some of the nation’s pro team sports. The suits have taken steps to boost interest in the game in black American communities: They are helping to provide places to play, coaches and equipment. And there has been a slight uptick in black players in the majors, including Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, the reigning American League MVP.
But it’s not enough.
Some teenagers can sign million-dollar bonuses in baseball, while basketball and football players perform ostensibly without salary in big-time college football and basketball.
But elite college baseball doesn’t have remotely as many black athletes as big-time college football and basketball do. Moreover, neither college baseball nor baseball’s minor leagues offers its players the pageantry and publicity of big-time college basketball or football, such as Duke vs. North Carolina in men’s basketball or Ohio State vs. Michigan in football.
Baseball is not as dangerous as pro football, but it is not as much fun to play as NBA basketball or NFL football either. Tim Anderson, the 25-year-old Chicago White Sox infielder, gets into a brouhaha when he flips his bat after a home run. Anderson, a former high school basketball player in Alabama, wants to be remembered. He wants to have fun playing a sport he’s called boring. He wants to put on a show.
A lot of baseball’s self-appointed purists castigated Anderson for flipping his bat. Of course, in the 1950s, the self-appointed purists castigated Willie Mays for his low-slung basket catch, which made even his most routine catches in center field sublime. But the basket catch, which helped him garner 12 Gold Gloves for his fielding, became one of his most iconic moves. With 660 home runs and 338 stolen bases, Mays was a delicious melding of power, speed and joy. He always put on a show.
Furthermore, with exception for the modern closer, star baseball players might not play in the clutch moments the way NBA stars do (Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater sent Toronto to the Eastern Conference in the 2019 playoffs) and NFL players can, especially if they are quarterbacks. Since entering the league in 2012, Russell Wilson has led his Seahawks to 17 fourth-quarter comebacks.
Because of the batting order and starting pitching rotation, fans might not see their favorite players in late-inning, clutch situations. And, during games, fans don’t see their favorite players show off their favorite moves as often in baseball as they do in the NBA and can in the NFL.
Even the greatest athlete fails to hit major league pitching most of the time. Mays, a 1979 Hall of Famer, failed to get hits in about 70 percent of his official at-bats for the New York and San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets.
The focus on analytics in pro sports has led to more scoring in the NBA and NFL but fewer stolen bases and triples, two of the game’s most exciting plays, in pro baseball. Mays led the National League in stolen bases four times and in triples three times. Anderson has been among the American League leaders in steals. If he can keep up the current pace he’s maintained into last Friday’s games, he’ll end the year with more than 30 home runs and about 50 stolen bases while hitting above .300 — Willie Mays-like numbers.
At bottom, if you want to exploit your talent in an American pro team sport, if you want to be what Jay-Z called a business, man, aspiring to be a pro football or pro basketball player is a more sure thing than trying to play big league baseball. If one wants to follow the narrow path to pro sports riches, it makes sense for young athletes to choose one sport (and one position in that sport) and then play and train for it all year.
Earlier this month, Mays turned 88. He reached the majors in 1951. He exemplified his sport in a bygone age. If he came along now, with Auburn and the University of Alabama opened to him in his native state, he might have aspired to be a pro football quarterback or NBA guard. He played both positions in high school, leading his team in scoring in hoops.
On the other hand, if Bo Jackson and Deion “Prime Time” Sanders had come along in Mays’ time, might they have been solely baseball players? Might they, like Hall of Famers Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, have played Negro Leagues baseball?
We’ll never know. But it is something to talk about and ponder.
In sports, doors open. New athletes herald a new era and rush in. The world changes and the world stays the same. Today, a flipped baseball bat tumbles in the air.
And baseball fans get ready to basket-catch Anderson’s latest show.