I doubt Major League Baseball has a better ambassador for growing the game among Black youth than Mookie Betts, a bright star in the galaxy of current stars.
Before the All-Star Game last night, Mookie dared to do what his peers wouldn’t do, which was shine a spotlight on the lack of Black fans in the stands. He wore a T-shirt that read: We Need More Black People at the Stadium.
Mookie had noticed what baseball insiders have refused to see, and that’s a lack of interest in the game among Black folk.
To say we have abandoned baseball wholesale would be to overstate things, but to point a finger at where the game is growing would be to see emptiness at its tip. The once vibrant game, a sport with history richer than professional football and basketball combined, has lost its urban swagger.
Blacks don’t see people like them on the ballfield, so they find no reason to spend a dime of their dollars going to a ballpark where they feel out of place.
Reviving interest in the game won’t be an overnight effort. You have millennials of color who wouldn’t recognize Barry Bonds from a bond trader. Ask one of them to tell you who Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson was would be to waste a good question.
Millennials of color have no more interest in baseball’s past than they do in its present, a fact that Betts seemed to hint at with the words on his T-shirt.
In conversation with some of them, I hear the word “boring” too often to ignore it. They talk about the confusing rules and the constant stops and starts. I see nobody applauding with much enthusiasm for ways to slow the pace more, which the emphasis on video replays is visiting on the sport.
I have no surefire answers to what Major League Baseball can do to rekindle interest among Black youth in the game.
With so few people like them on the ballfield, I understand why Black youth can’t pour much passion into baseball’s present, and Commissioner Rob Manfred, team owners and team executives ought to know that fact well.
I will admit, however, that they do get it fractionally right when beating the kettle drum for Jackie Robinson, the Black man who broke the color barrier.
One ballplayer alone can’t be who Manfred & Co. pin any revival on. For Robinson is among the many shining lights from the game’s past, and he was never the brightest of them.
Baseball is at a fork in the road, and if it goes down the wrong one, it will never see a stream of Black talent headed into the game. Absent that talent, baseball won’t see Black fans in the ballpark.
I hope Manfred markets Mookie’s T-shirt. He can plaster its message across scoreboards and the internet with Black ballplayers like Mookie, Aaron Judge, Tim Anderson and Tristan McKenzie as faces of the promotional campaign.
Mookie’s T-shirt could serve as its rallying cry, words to launch a Black revival in the game — on the field and in the stands.
But those eight words, their cleverness notwithstanding, will lead nowhere until Major League Baseball commits dollars to rebuild what their malicious neglect destroyed.