In tonight’s World Baseball Classic final, the United States takes on Japan, concluding a tsunami of sport.
Consider that during the past several weeks, half of switched-on televisions in Japan have featured the tournament, making St. Louis Cardinals’ greenhorn Lars Nootbaar — an American with Japanese heritage through his mother — a worldwide sensation.
Lars Nootbaar, pictured here in 2018, has become an unlikely star of the 2023 World Baseball Classic — for Japan. Jeffrey Hyde/Creative Commons
Through the raucous quarterfinals, Planet Earth has watched Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts lead off for the United States and Tim Anderson — a great player from the heartland whom the average American sports fan could not I.D. on a bet — help drive America’s team to the final.
With iconic performances both at bat and in the field, Tampa Bay outfielder Randy Arozarena has towered over the tournament as Cinderella squad Mexico’s breakout star.
Arozarena’s dark skin and emotive style has also shouted out MLB’s most embarrassing issue in this milieu of national exuberance: Black athletes in America don’t play baseball and haven’t for a very long time. In April, when Major League Baseball comes upon its 19th Jackie Robinson Day, it will do so with participation levels so diminished that the last World Series had zero American-born Black players.
That hasn’t happened in 72 years.
Baseball in the United States has become, as journalist and author Howard Bryant described last year, "a white, suburban game reinforced by foreign labor," adding that, "it's been that way for 40 years."
On Opening Day 2022, 7.2 percent of players on MLB rosters were homegrown American Black guys, according to the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, conducted by the University of Central Florida. That’s down from 18.4 percent in baseball’s all-time Blackest Year, 1984.
The population of the United States, meanwhile, is 13.6 percent Black, with another 3 percent identifying as two or more races, according to current U.S. Census numbers.
How did the Pastime Formerly Known as National go from countrywide pillar to niche-y local “white game”? It’s easy to fault shortened attention spans and the diminishing games of catch between fathers and sons, but Venezuela and South Korea have TikTok and estranged parents, too. Unreachable youth are not the issue.
Our baseball’s self-inflicted problems with Black representation begin at the youth baseball level, where participation is often pay-to-play. Standout kids looking to be noticed by scouts now play on expensive travel teams, fees for which run around $2,500 per season, with an especially competitive club team soaring into the $4,000 range.
When you add in other 2023 baseball expenses, such as equipment, housing and travel costs, it makes a kind of sense that Black pro sports aspirants reach for basketballs and school-subsidized football gear, regardless of those games’ narrow opportunity funnels, where the odds of making the pros — say nothing of earning a scholarship to play in college — are far lower than with baseball.
At the same time baseball is racing away from inclusiveness in its amateur leagues, there’s plenty of blame for those at the game’s pinnacle. America’s decline in ballplayers who look like and sound like me coincided with the rise of a Latin American workforce — imported players viewed by many owners as cheap labor that voiced comparatively few opinions.
Meanwhile, Black front-office hires with powerful titles have lagged behind America’s other top sports. The Houston Astros’s Dana Brown is MLB’s only Black general manager. The contrast between MLB’s repressive and archaic “unwritten rules” of decorum and the World Baseball Classic’s wildly celebratory vibe tells you almost all that’s necessary about who’s in charge of the game. The persistence of travel youth travel team inequities spills the remaining beans.
A form of hope may, however, be on the horizon.
Though their players in MLB remain in numerical decline, the number of Black draft picks has gone up in recent years, in part because of league programs such as RBI, a long-standing initiative “designed to provide youth in underserved communities opportunities to play baseball and softball.” These players union- and U.S.A Baseball-supported programs are free — including travel costs — and include top-tier coaching. In 2021, the majors pledged $100 million and pledged to help raise another $50 million for the development of Black players.
But money doesn’t make greatness, opportunity does. Players from the tiny Dominican Republic make up 18 percent of MLB. rosters— more than twice the percentage of American Blacks — because baseball has invested hundreds of millions of dollars on academies and other hardball-related opportunities in the impoverished nation.
The inaccessible baseball — too expensive to play or watch in person or even to park at — becomes THE baseball again on April 1. Hope everyone who craves it got their fix of melting pot ballparks filled with joy. Welcome back to American baseball, where they think big bases and a pitch clock will fix what ails their game when it equally needs the next Rickey Henderson.
He’s probably getting fitted for pads and prepping for spring football. Hope the right league catches him.