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  • Randall Benton /

    Jared James, center, an outfielder for Sacramento City College, faces few opposing black players. “It’s a very rare thing, and it’s a funny feeling,” he said.

  • Randall Benton /

    Jared James loves baseball. “I know some of my African American friends think it’s boring and, at times, it can be boring, but I just love to play it, to watch it.”

Fewer African Americans playing college baseball

Published: Monday, May. 19, 2014 - 9:12 pm
Last Modified: Monday, May. 19, 2014 - 9:31 pm

Sacramento City College’s Jared James stepped into the batter’s box to face Cosumnes River College’s Josh Pigg during a recent game, an unusual moment for both sophomores.

It was just the third time in two years that James, an African American, faced a pitcher who also is African American. And one of the other times came against Pigg.

“You can’t help but notice,” James said. “It’s a very rare thing, and it’s a funny feeling.”

Much has been made about the decline of African Americans playing major-league baseball, which annually honors Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. The percentage of African Americans in the major leagues has dwindled from 19 percent in 1986 to 8.2 percent this season, far lower than the 76 percent of NBA players and 66 percent of NFL players who are African American.

The percentage is even lower in college baseball. Only 2.6 percent of NCAA Division I baseball players were African American in a 2011-12 survey by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, down from 6.9 percent in 2002. The same report noted that 57.2 percent of basketball players and 43.2 percent of football players in Division I were African American in 2011-12.

James and Pigg are among nine African Americans who played baseball at Sac City, Cosumnes River, American River, Sierra, Sacramento State and UC Davis this season.

“I really wasn’t aware of how few African Americans were playing until I got here,” said UC Davis second baseman Steven Patterson, one of the Aggies’ two African Americans along with center fielder Kevin Barker. “It’s pretty uncommon, especially in our (Big West) conference. It just motivates Kevin and myself to prove that we can play the game just as well.”

Even on baseball teams at traditional black colleges, African Americans often are in the minority.

Small-college power Winston-Salem in North Carolina, a member of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities with a student population that is 75 percent African American, has a baseball team that is a little more than 25 percent black. Chicago State, which played at Sacramento State earlier this month and has a school undergraduate enrollment that also is 75 percent African American, has five blacks on its 28-man roster.

“I don’t know enough information to truly answer why there are so few,” said Sac State coach Reggie Christiansen, who has no African American players this season. “I know as coaches that we’re looking for the best players we can find, regardless of race.”

The cream of the dwindling crop of top African American high school players, such as Elk Grove High School outfielder Derek Hill, often go straight to professional baseball or accept scholarships to the top college programs.

Christiansen said he offered a full scholarship to former Yuba City High School pitcher Chandler Eden, a top-100 prospect by Baseball America in 2013. College coaches rarely offer full rides because NCAA baseball programs are allotted only 11.7 scholarships each. But Eden opted to play for Oregon State, a national power.

Like fathers, like sons

Patterson, James and Pigg decided to attend community colleges to improve their baseball skills and grades, hoping to enhance their prospects in the MLB draft or for a scholarship to a four-year college.

Patterson, a senior who played at St. Mary’s High School and San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, has developed into an impact player at UC Davis, and he may be drafted in June. If not, he’s on track to get his degree.

Pigg, who also plays the outfield and was drafted in the 28th round by the Cleveland Indians after his senior year at Franklin High School, has signed with Hawaii. James, a center fielder from McClatchy, has committed to Long Beach State. Both could turn pro in June if they are drafted high enough and receive good signing offers.

Unlike most of their African American friends who once played baseball but gravitated to other sports, Patterson, James and Pigg always have had a strong link to baseball. Their fathers played and passed on their love of the game, something often missing with 72 percent of African American households headed by single parents.

“I grew up loving all the sports, but for me baseball was an acquired taste,” said James, whose father, Dion, played 11 seasons in the major leagues. “I know some of my African American friends think it’s boring and, at times, it can be boring, but I just love to play it, to watch it.”

Pigg takes a lot of pride in often being the only African American on the team.

“I stopped playing other sports when I got to high school,” Pigg said. “Coaches begged me to play football, but I just wanted to play baseball. I can’t explain it. I’m drawn to it, even though it’s a humbling game.”

Patterson played football as an undersized linebacker at St. Mary’s and enjoyed the enthusiasm on campus for the sport on Friday nights. Still, it couldn’t draw him from baseball.

“Football was a fun environment, and you don’t get that same buzz in baseball,” Patterson said. “But baseball was a better fit for me because of longevity and because it’s more a mental game than a physical game. You don’t have to be the biggest or the fastest to succeed.”

Why baseball doesn’t resonate

James, Patterson and Pigg have similar theories about why African Americans often shun baseball, especially at the college level. Among their insights:

• Basketball and football have done better jobs of marketing their sports with mega-personalities such as Jerry Rice, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. There are few transcendent African American baseball stars, and though Patterson, James and Pigg respected the accomplishments of Barry Bonds, he came with baggage. “Football dominates the video games, and basketball offers the most popular shoes and attire,” James said. “Those sports are perceived to be cool.”

• Without mentors and good fields, youth baseball has nearly disappeared in some inner-city communities while it thrives in the poorer areas of Latin America, where MLB has shifted its emphasis with academy programs.

• The move to year-round competition, skill development, travel teams and showcases has put the sport beyond many families of modest means. “Baseball is starting to be seen as more of a rich man’s sport,” Pigg said.

• Fewer scholarships are available in college baseball than in basketball (13 per team) or football (85). CC Sabathia said that had he not signed with the Cleveland Indians out of Vallejo High School, he would have played football in college because he was offered a full ride and his mother couldn’t afford the costs not covered by a partial baseball scholarship.

• Baseball is seen as staid, old-fashioned and slow-moving. “Football and basketball offer more action, more adrenaline,” Pigg said. “A really good athlete can dominate those sports without needing as much skill.”

College baseball expands horizons

New York Yankees scout Jalal Leach, who played briefly for the Giants as an outfielder, knows first-hand the tug other sports have on African American children.

Leach’s 12-year-old son, Dante, is one of two African Americans on his West Sacramento Little League team, and he has spent much of his life hanging around big-league ballparks and meeting players such as Derek Jeter.

But he’s also an accomplished soccer player.

“He’ll tell you he likes them both, though at the end of the day I hope he plays baseball,” said Leach, who operates a baseball training center in Sacramento with his brother Jarman. “He already knows about football and concussions and hasn’t played it, but who knows what may happen when he gets to high school. He may decide to give it a try.”

Most of all, Leach hopes his son will have the chance to play a sport in college, though the best opportunities for scholarships continue to be in football and basketball.

Leach said he was fortunate to land a full baseball scholarship to Pepperdine, an expensive private school in Malibu. Otherwise, the son of a police officer likely would have been unable to attend.

“Going to college was invaluable to me,” said Leach, who did some elementary school student teaching while at Pepperdine. “I got the chance to grow up and make mistakes. That was the first time I sat on the bench in any sport. More importantly, I got exposed to people from all walks of life, something that wouldn’t have happened if I went straight to pro ball.”

Bucking the trend

Greg Norris is in his sixth season coaching baseball at Sacramento High School, one of the handful of area teams with a majority of African American players.

When Norris started coaching at Sac High, he had to rustle up gloves and cleats and teach his players the fundamentals of throwing, hitting and fielding. Superior athleticism couldn’t always overcome a lack of skills.

“You’ve got to have nine guys that can hit, field and throw,” Norris said. “If you try to hide someone who can’t do those, the other team will find him.”

The Dragons have developed into a respectable program – they missed making the playoffs this season by one game in the standings – and have graduated a handful of players to the college ranks, including pitcher Khalil King, now at Sac City.

More African Americans are joining the Sac High program, thanks to assistants Kirk Crump and Jermaine Jordan, who both have sons on the team. Crump and Jordan also coach Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities teams – the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords – part of a national program sponsored by Major League Baseball.

“It’s low cost for the kids, and they’re playing 20-30 games and doing well against other travel teams,” Norris said. “So now we’re getting kids with some baseball savvy, some hunger to play. That’s helping us out.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

Read more articles by Bill Paterson

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