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Baseball’s power players put real money behind Black participation

From the field to the community, $10 million is no joke

For a certain type of fan, baseball is one thing: the Major Leagues. But for even more people, the top flight of the sport is more of a vehicle and aspirational body that exists for the purposes of the sport overall. Meaning, anything that happens at the Major League level is a goal worth attaining, even if playing on the actual field is nowhere close to being within reach.

On Monday, Major League Baseball, the Major League Baseball Players Association and The Players Alliance announced that they’re getting together to commit $10 million to “help fund innovative programs designed by The Players Alliance to improve representation of Black Americans in all levels of baseball.”

One of the players involved is Cameron Maybin. A member of the Chicago Cubs, he has been around the bigs for 13 years and was the No. 10 overall draft pick by the Detroit Tigers in 2005. He knows full well, even as the onetime 2004 Baseball America Youth Player of the Year, that even for the best of us, the struggle isn’t easy.

“I think about my father working two jobs and still having to go out and ask people for sponsorships so I could make it to a tournament,” Maybin, 33, said on Monday. “I think about how proud my father was, and as a man, to put your pride aside, and have to go out and ask some wealthy friends, ‘Hey, can you sponsor my child? Because we don’t have the funds to get you this expensive tournament.’ ”

Sometimes, it is as simple as money. And trust me, Black pros know what it takes to get to the top. It isn’t always just training and mastering skills. Showing up, and being prepped, is often the pitfall that effectively stalls or, in many cases, ends careers. So when you ask him what a $10 million pledge can do, it’s an obvious answer.

“What that means to me is just another level of exposure for kids that I know are extremely talented, that don’t have the means to funds, to be seen or play the game that they want to play, because it’s an incredibly expensive game,” said Maybin, who won a World Series ring with the 2017 Houston Astros. “Traveling is expensive. So what happens is, ‘Man, I can’t play what I love, so, guess what, I’ll play something else.’ …

“It just makes it more accessible for these kids to be able to get to these tournaments when you provide them with transportation, when you provide them with lodging, when you provide them with possibly lunch and whatever. A meal during the dinnertime, it goes a long way and it also helps keep interest.”

As for the initiative, the operative phrase here isn’t “innovative programs” or “improve representation” – phrases, quite frankly, we’ve heard plenty times before in plenty of spaces. The most instructive phrase here is “all levels” of the sport, which include far more jobs, gatekeeping positions and creative masterminding than the average fan cares to think about, long before anyone ever yells, “Play ball.”

It’s clear to see the connectivity to Black folks here. If our best athletes don’t seem to be able to crack the playing field on MLB rosters with any sort of representative percentage reflective of who plays, then why would that happen anywhere else down the line? It’s a complicated question that comes with understanding the larger ecosystem of the baseball business, which includes far more than just your favorite 30 clubs.

Say what you like about the youth game and the pay-to-play system, this is America. That will always be there. It doesn’t have to exist alone, however, so the basic notion of “let’s give a bunch of former players the blessing to go build baseball in their communities as they see fit” is an absolutely fantastic way to go about building the game from the grassroots level, in the most obvious way.

While the academies across the country have provided an excellent blueprint for success in terms of major league clubs liaising with communities, there is more than one way to score runs, if you will. There are baseball lives to be lived, even for those who never set foot on the field to play. More Black folks in those spaces automatically season the pot in a different way when it comes to who eventually makes it to the bigs in any regard.

One of those worlds is scouting.

In Hollywood, scouting is often popularized as the brave white man who goes deep into the scary world to pull out the next great hope that only his keen, well-trained eye can identify. At its most ridiculous, an example is 1994’s The Scout, starring Albert Brooks and Brendan Fraser. On IMDb, it’s described as “the story of a baseball scout who discovers a talented but troubled baseball player.” Seems tame enough. On Wiki, however, the plot is summed up more plainly with “after the New York Yankees’ latest prospect suffers a humiliating bout of stage fright in his debut for the team, scout Al Percolo, who discovered the young man, is punished by being sent to the Mexican countryside to look for his next find.”

His reprimand is going to an unfamiliar place to find talent. You get the idea.

So, if you think that MLB scouts are doing much more than plucking off the very top talent and going from there, you’re wrong. So, what happens to everyone else in between? That’s where Black scouts come in.

One such man was Charles Peterson, known as “Pete” to his friends at home, and “CP” to people around the baseball world. He died Sept. 13 after a battle with COVID-19, a sudden and devastating blow to much of the Black baseball community.

A standout football and baseball player in South Carolina, Peterson eventually moved to scouting. You want to know a baseball life? His memorial service was held Monday at Segra Park in Columbia, South Carolina. His casket rested at home plate while friends and family told stories of his presence in the community, between musical selections that included everything from gospel hymns to Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day.”

The stories of who he was are tremendous. Like the time Peterson, as a high school football player, made a friend of a little boy – playing catch with him every week – who was his biggest fan on the field in high school, but had his career cut short by muscular dystrophy. Or the time before he moved his family to a new neighborhood, he stood at the stop sign near his subdivision’s exit to make sure the bus driver, who would take his children to school, was a safe conductor.

But CP’s story isn’t just about one supergood human changing the world through sports. Overall, the value of our voices around the game is immeasurable. Scouting affects advancement. Advancement affects leadership. And leadership affects ownership, and thus, ultimately survival. In St. Louis alone, arguably America’s most baseball-crazed metropolis, the plight of Black kids playing the game is real and not a secret.

One person who would know is Jared Odom, manager of pro scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals. The team had taken a chance on Odom, a former college football player who never lost his love for baseball. St. Louis converted him from a public relations person to a salesperson and eventually invested in him as a talent evaluator. An 80-grade decision, to use the parlance of the business. When he was in MLB scout school, he met CP, who was an instructor in the program. The two became fast friends.

When it came time for the Cardinals to hire a scout in the Midwest, Odom recommended Peterson, and the rest is history. Peterson ended up as the signing scout for the Cardinals’ 2020 first-round pick Jordan Walker.

Just talking about Peterson on Monday after the service was difficult, because he is still mourning the loss of a friend. But Odom knows full well that the marathon continues, and for even those at the top, the ceilings still exist.

“I have a son right now who’s 11, who’s a nice talent, and I know a lot of dads say that,” Odom pointed out. “And I’m trying to even navigate his little career right now because I know he’s got a lot. … He has a bunch of barriers, even with his dad sitting across the hall from the general manager and the president of baseball operations [of the Cardinals].”

Think about that. And then think about how that psyche affects the game at all levels when it comes to our participation. “Uphill battle” is a massive understatement. Our involvement at the interior levels of the game is as paramount as our visibility on the field. Peterson’s death offers just one reminder of how communities can help not just their own, but others by strengthening the baseball world through participation.

Chris Little, who is from St. Louis, had a 10-year career in the minors and coached high school baseball for a decade in his hometown. His son Christian is now one of the best players in the country, and their involvement with the draft circuit is a team effort.

“To no longer have Pete’s influence and his high position in the game of baseball, is a major loss for all players and specifically the Black baseball community,” Little, 38, said on Monday. “You have to understand, Pete was the type that would take that young Black player and his family and explain to them what it was going to take to get to the major leagues.”

You’d be stunned how simple that sounds, but how difficult it is, apparently, for those in a position to do so, to actually execute that level of professional nurturing and instruction. And although CP was still just one scout in one system, producing a handful of players, there could and should be many more who can honor that legacy.

Which is why Monday’s announcement was so important. Black people can build in this game when given the resources to do so, and fostered with the trust to do more than just turn out MVP candidates. More Black folks in baseball means a better baseball country overall, not just a better lineup in any given ballpark.

“Baseball has to be a strength-in-numbers mindset. You understand what I’m saying? And I respect Bruce Maxwell so much for his sacrifice,” Maybin said, referring to the former Oakland Athletics catcher who kneeled during the national anthem before a game in 2018 and hasn’t made it back to the big leagues since. “What I wanted to create was a platform where we come together and we stand up together. Because, if we do it together, they can’t get rid of everybody.”

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.