SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Ė One of the highlights of the spring is when Willie Mays arrives and sits at his customary table in the Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse, and starts chirping at Mike Murphy.
This year, the moment came with a bit of melancholy.
Thatís because as I looked around the room, I realized that Mays, and his assistant, were the only people of African-American heritage in it.
We know the trends. Youíve heard about them for a long time. The percentage of African-Americans in baseball, which peaked at close to 30 percent in the 1970s, has dwindled down to single digits.
Sure, there have been times when the Giants did not have a single African-American on the roster. But no representation whatsoever in big league spring training? More than 70 players, and not one African-American in the room? That realization stunned me.
I spent a half-hour going through every roster, and sure enough, the Giants are the only major league organization with zero African-Americans in big league camp. Some teams have more representation than others, sure. The Atlanta Braves will feature three African-Americans in their starting outfield, with the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward. But each of the other 29 teams at least has one African-American player in camp.
This isnít a Giants-centric phenomenon by any means, and Iím making no suggestion to that effect. The club has spent high draft picks on African-American players, including Wendell Fairley, Fred Lewis and others. And GM Brian Sabean certainly is open-minded to finding talent in all shapes and forms. This is the club that invested in Tim Lincecum and traded for Hunter Pence, after all.
If you look around the Giants clubhouse, youíll see people of color. The Giants have a vibrant Latino culture, and that extends to their coaching staff with Roberto Kelly (from Panama), Hensley Meulens (Curacao), infield coach Jose Alguacil (Venezuela) and minor league coach Henry Cotto (Puerto Rico).
But no African-American players at all? From the organization that so shined because of Mays and McCovey and Monte Irvin?
I suppose Iím doing little more than making an observation here. There are myriad reasons for the declining numbers of African-Americans in baseball, few of them simple. I canít pretend to tell you which reasons are the most important, or what should be done, or even if something needs to be done.
I mentioned my observation to Sabean and he is stunned as well. He is a firm believer that the decreasing number of college scholarships has a lot to do with African-American receiving fewer opportunities in baseball. If youíre not from an affluent background, how can you afford to take a partial scholarship when you could get a full ride playing football or basketball? The existence of traveling teams, summer leagues, etc. also make it so much harder for kids to be two- or three-sport stars like in the past. And if you stop playing baseball at a young age, you don't continue to get access to better coaching, you don't continue to hone your skills, etc. Baseball might be your best sport but you don't play it long enough to find out.
I don't buy the garbage that baseball is less lustrous than football or that baseball requires more work than basketball. I've always felt there are some underlying stereotypes in those arguments that I can't accept.
The only thing I know is that equality cannot happen without equal opportunity, and if baseball needs to do anything, itís to work to provide opportunities for all young people of all backgrounds to continue playing the game if they are interested in doing so.
Well, here's one more thing I know: Barring a trade or late signing, the Giants will stand on the baseline on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, 66 years after the color barrier was broken, and they wonít have a single African-American player to reflect on it.