By BEN WALKER, AP Baseball Writer
PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—Look around this World Series and it’s easy to spot all the newcomers—Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and David Price, eager to get a huge hit or throw a perfect pitch.
To Billy Reed, they’ve already made a big difference.
Reed coached Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield and many more future big leaguers as boys across the bay in Tampa. He sees this fresh crop of stars changing the face of the game.
“I think having so many African-American ballplayers in the World Series, it has impact on local kids and I’m hoping impact countrywide,” Reed said Wednesday, hours before the opener between Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.
“It has to be a plus,” he said. “You know, I think the black athlete really got away from baseball. I think we lost a whole generation there.”
Six months after a diversity study showed black players made up only 8.2 percent of major leaguers—it was double that total about a decade ago— there’s a new look this October.
“It’s one of the most pleasant aspects for me,” commissioner Bud Selig said behind home plate at Tropicana Field.
Selig echoed Reed’s observation about the lost generation, saying “I’ll bet Hank Aaron and I have had 100 conversations” about the subject. As the Phillies took batting practice before Game 1, Selig had to like what he saw.
Howard and Rollins were the last two NL MVPs. Crawford, Upton and Cliff Floyd delivered clutch hits for the Rays, Price became a playoff star and Edwin Jackson pitched in.
Prominent players, now with a chance to influence youngsters off the field, too.
“You would hope so, but it’s really going to be about who is watching the games,” Howard said. “We’re here playing, so you hope that it will reach communities where (African-American) kids are watching and they will begin to dream to one day be in our spot.”
It’s certainly a reversal of recent trends in baseball.
In 2005, the Houston Astros were the first team since 1953 without a black player on its World Series roster. In 2007, on the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, star Torii Hunter wondered whether baseball had done the Hall of Famer a disservice.
“That’s what it seems like to me—that all the work he’s done is almost for nothing,” Hunter said then. “Because look where we are. We should be progressing. We’re regressing.”
Gone, it seemed, were the days of the “We are Family” Pirates. Pittsburgh won the 1979 championship with the likes of Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and Bill Madlock, some of the 10 black players on its Series roster.
Even in 1995, Atlanta and Cleveland each had five black players when they played for the title. Last year, there was not a single star black player when Boston played Colorado in the World Series.
Worried that it was losing too many young black athletes to basketball and other interests, Major League Baseball tried to boost its profile with the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif.
Baseball took it as a positive sign that three of the last four No. 1 picks in the amateur draft—Price, Justin Upton and Tim Beckham, by Tampa Bay in June — were black players.
“We started something. Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow,” Floyd said. “At the same time, the guys that are in the league, or play baseball professionally, we have to do something about it.”
“If it bothers you, you do something about it,” he said. “We want to get out there. This is huge in terms of letting them see how great this game is.”
Now in his 70s and retired, Reed is sold on the sport. He spent 40 years coaching in high school and Little League with Gooden, Sheffield, Carl Everett, Derek Bell and future stars.
Reed roots for the Rays and planned to plop down in front of the television set to watch the World Series with his 10-year-old grandson.
“Maybe we can get some of the other kids to come over from their porches,” he said. “I think they’ll like it.”
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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