As Black representation in pro-baseball dwindles, the MLB tries something new
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Baseball was once known for breaking racial barriers in the U.S., but now Black representation in the major leagues is at its lowest in decades. This year, the MLB did something to try and change that. All-Star Week kicked off this past weekend in Seattle, putting a new generation of diverse talent in the national spotlight.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: This historic, first-ever Swingman Classic.
SUMMERS: The first annual HBCU Swingman Classic, an opportunity for players from historically Black colleges and universities to play in front of scouts and executives on a national stage and on national TV. The decline in Black representation has been sharp.
KEN GRIFFEY JR: When I played, it was like 17, 18%. So, you know, there was only, I think, one year where I was the only Black ballplayer on my team.
SUMMERS: That's Ken Griffey Jr., the swingman himself, a legendary Hall of Famer and former Seattle Mariner. Back in 1991, when Ken Griffey Jr. was playing, Black American players made up 18% of MLB rosters. Now that is down to 6.2%. That means in terms of numbers...
GRIFFEY: You know, nowadays, it's only one, two, three. And so, you know, to see this, hopefully one or two guys can go on and do it.
SUMMERS: It's been 76 years since Jackie Robinson integrated the National League, but Black American representation in the sport has been declining in recent decades for a number of reasons that are economic, structural and cultural. And last year's World Series was a sobering moment for the sport. It was the first series without a single American-born Black player. The Swingman Classic is pro baseball's latest attempt to try to change the way pro baseball looks by bringing 50 players from 17 historically Black colleges and universities to All-Star Week. One of those players is Mike Dorcean.
MIKE DORCEAN: Stepping on that field is going to be a surreal experience, and I just want to take it all in and enjoy the moment.
SUMMERS: The 22-year-old was a catcher at Coppin State University in Baltimore for the last four years. We first met him a couple of weeks before the game, while he was working at a baseball training gym in Queens, N.Y., not far from where he's lived his whole life.
M DORCEAN: Same swing. Just think about hitting it on the floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAT HITTING BASEBALL)
M DORCEAN: Better.
SUMMERS: Dorcean trains younger players who, like him, want a shot at making a career out of baseball.
M DORCEAN: 'Cause if they see I can do it, it gives them more of a belief that they can do it as well.
SUMMERS: When we talk, Dorcean keeps referring to his Queens baseball community as a family.
M DORCEAN: Everybody is very proud of me and excited for me. And for me, I never imagined playing on a big-league field with Hall of Famers in the dugout, so I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.
SUMMERS: He traces his lifelong love of baseball to his father, who introduced Dorcean to the game long before he can remember. He says both of his parents grew up in working-class families. Dorcean's dad is from Haiti, and his mom's from Puerto Rico. His father couldn't pursue pro baseball himself, but it's been his dream for his son.
M DORCEAN: So my dad is my idol. Seeing him make so many sacrifices to give me the opportunities that I've had, all I want to do is give back to him by making it as far as I can.
SUMMERS: For most of his life, Dorcean says he didn't really see anyone who looked like him playing his position in pro baseball.
M DORCEAN: I don't think you see any Black catchers in the league right now, at least main Black catchers on the team. And this is going to get - not only at the catching position, but every position on the field - a bunch of HBCU minority kids going out there on the biggest stage performing, showing everybody what they have, showing that they're prospects.
SUMMERS: There was not a single HBCU alumnus on any Major League Baseball roster on this year's opening day. There rarely is. But when we caught back up with Mike Dorcean in Seattle at a workout, nearly every face in the crowd was Black. And HBCUs were well represented, not only among the players, but also the coaches.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Marvin Freeman, 10 years, Florida A&M killer, Jackson State University.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hall of Famer, friend, Andre Dawson, the Hawk.
SUMMERS: The Hawk. Hall of Famer and National League MVP, Andre Dawson, has seen the numbers of Black players in the sport dwindle right before his eyes, which is why events like this one mean so much to him.
ANDRE DAWSON: This is groundbreaking, especially for these young men, I like to call them. It provides them, you know, with an opportunity to get a look for a change.
SUMMERS: Why do you think it's so important at an event like this, to kick off MLB All-Star Week, to focus on HBCU students specifically?
DAWSON: Because I think the game itself was lost to a degree, and that's a task in itself to get them back, their involvement, their participation in the game.
SUMMERS: When you start asking why there are fewer U.S.-born Black players in the league, you get a variety of answers. Dawson points to the draw of popular sports like football and basketball and a loss of cultural cachet. Others point to the economics.
HOWARD BRYANT: Today, American baseball is very expensive. It's a travel sport. The equipment is expensive. The travel is expensive. It's become more professionalized than ever.
SUMMERS: That's longtime sports journalist and NPR contributor Howard Bryant. He says the rising costs of elite youth baseball mean that young players whose families can afford it get more visibility, which is usually white players in suburban areas.
BRYANT: This is a specific problem with baseball. And the reason isn't because it's a natural evolution away from the sport. There are financial and structural barriers to entry that are guaranteeing the disappearance of the Black player.
SUMMERS: Bryant thinks the problem starts early and continues as players get to college, where there's also a lack of diversity in the sport. Ultimately, this is all reflected in pro baseball.
TONY REAGINS: I don't look at it now as 6 or 7% of Black players at the major league level.
SUMMERS: Tony Reagins was hired by MLB in 2015 to tackle this very issue. He's MLB's chief development officer and the sport's highest-ranking Black executive.
REAGINS: I just don't look at it that way because I work in a space where I'm around young people that are playing the game at a high level - young Black players - and that are really good. And so I know that this is a time where the numbers aren't what we want them to be at the major league level. I just think that there's going to be a pipeline that we're building that's going to be sustained for years to come.
SUMMERS: Part of building up that pipeline and improving those statistics is investing in young talent, like the players who came to Seattle, and sending them the message that there is a place for them in baseball, whether it's on the field or in the front office or on coaching staffs. We pulled Mike Dorcean aside near the end of practice to see how things were going.
M DORCEAN: I mean, I'm looking to my right, and I see a Hall of Famer right now, Ken Griffey Jr. And when I was growing up, you picked up a bat, you tried to copy Ken Griffey's swing. And hopefully this event allows for more of that, more people to get some nice idols, look up to minority athletes that are doing it at such a high level and motivate the youth to pick up the game of baseball again.
SUMMERS: What's going to be the biggest thing going through your mind tomorrow when you step into that ballpark?
M DORCEAN: The biggest thing going to my mind is probably going to be don't strike out on national television (laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Thank you so much for being here for the first-ever HBCU Showcase as we kick off Major League Baseball All-Star Week.
SUMMERS: I am a big baseball fan, and this game just felt different. A Black choir from Seattle sung the Black National Anthem.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Voice and sing till the...
SUMMERS: There was a local drum line with members dressed in bright purple and silver.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SUMMERS: And from the field to the dugout to the crowd, there were more Black people than I've seen at a baseball game in my life. While this event put HBCUs in the spotlight on and off the field, the reality is that these schools have limited resources compared to others in Division 1 baseball.
GRIFFEY: When you go to lower-tier colleges, they're out there because they love the game, because they're not being seen like they should be.
SUMMERS: That's Ken Griffey Jr. again.
GRIFFEY: They're not getting the exposure like everyone else is. So they love the game differently than someone who's just good at it.
SUMMERS: Like the All-Star game itself, the players divided up into two teams, the National team and Dorcean's team, the Americans. The letters HBCU were written across every player's chest.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And now, let's hear it for tonight's National League team from Southern University.
SUMMERS: Catcher Mike Dorcean watched the first part of the game from the dugout, high-fiving and cheering on his teammates. Finally, he ran onto the field in the seventh inning. And he was first up at bat at the top of the eighth.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Catcher No. 12 Mike Dorcean.
SUMMERS: A swing and a crack of the bat - the ball flew high and was caught by a player on the National team. Dorcean jogged off the field. Alabama State's Randy Flores doubled, stole third base and scored at the bottom of the eighth, and Dorcean's team came out on top, 4-to-3.
SUMMERS: After the big win, the American team was presented with a trophy, and players and coaches posed for photos on the field, including Mike Dorcean. But he kept turning over his shoulder and scanning the crowd, looking for one person.
M DORCEAN: This is the man that made my career happen.
SUMMERS: Is this your dad?
M DORCEAN: Yeah.
SUMMERS: Hi, I'm Juana.
Eric Dorcean (ph) said he just had to be there. He flew in from New York that morning to see his son play.
When we've been talking to Mike over the last few weeks, he said such wonderful things about how much you and your family have sacrificed to let him live this dream and play.
ERIC DORCEAN: It wasn't a sacrifice. It's our obligation.
SUMMERS: Eric Dorcean looked on as his son posed for photos with his teammates. Mike Dorcean was beaming. He even signed a few baseballs for young fans through the netting.
M DORCEAN: It's just an absolutely amazing experience - great for community back home in Queens, great for the HBCU community, the minority community, great for everybody. I just hope it sparks something in the right direction and we get more people that look like me and you in here.
SUMMERS: Mike, you've been talking a lot about what you hope this does for the sport. What do you hope comes next for you?
M DORCEAN: That's a question-and-a-half right there. I mean, whatever is laying in the cards for me, I just hope it gets back to baseball if it's not putting me on the big stage. Hopefully the cleats aren't getting hung up in the next few years. But if it does, the first thing I'm going to do, go to the gym and start teaching kids the right way to do things.
SUMMERS: And to show them that there is a place for them in baseball too.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.