Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Sheff Cooks Up Controversy

Gary Sheffield is not known for mincing words. His commentary on why African-American representation in baseball continues to decline is no exception. Sheffield is not a moron, though the issue is interesting, his defending argument is rash and indefensible.

Most baseball executives, and Latino players, the target of Sheffield's comments, have astutely declined comment, after evaluating the source and the sensitivity of the issue. Sheffield is a loose cannon, baseball's answer to Terrell Owens. A border line hall of fame player that is better remembered for public stating that he purposely made errors to force a trade from his first team, and has since talked his way out of team after team. MLB and the Tigers probably have no grounds for discplinary action, but the biggest punishment is the continued loss of respect amongst his peers, and the public. Someday interviews like this may keep Sheffield out of the hall of fame.

Looking deeper, underneath his thoughtless argument, is the reality, there are less African-American baseball players than anytime in the past twenty years, while the number of Latinos continues to increase. Young African Americans do not play baseball. Children find baseball boring, and have more distractions to divert them today, whether its other sports, or activities like video games. The paucity of African American role models in baseball does not help. Everyone knows, and wants to be like, Tiger Woods and LeBron James. Advertisers plaster their faces all over the place to reinforce the point. Ten or fifteen years ago, golf was a foreign language to inner-city youth, now there are golf clinics and programs all over the country catering to inner city children. Football popularity has skyrocketed, and basketball remains the hallmark in African-American communities. Meanwhile, baseball has stood in place and been passed by. To dispel Sheffield’s argument, I would venture to review the percentage of African-Americans playing professional golf, football, basketball, and even soccer, compared to twenty years ago. I believe the increases in those numbers offset the decrease in baseball. Throw in the increase in African Americans graduating college and pursuing white-collar careers, and its not that Latinos are stealing spots from African Americans, the reality is that African Americans are choosing to pursue other careers.

Latin America is the complete opposite. You come out of the womb with a shortstop glove. Many of the countries feeding Latinos to the big leagues are third world, stricken with poverty, and in some cases political unrest. Baseball is one of the few meal tickets out, both for young men and their families. Unlike the US, major league teams have setup baseball academies in these countries to cultivate the talent from a young age, and capitalize on signing players at a young age. As popular as basketball and football are, the Latin population participating in those professional leagues is negligible. Young Latinos have the role models that African Americans lack. Being a role model is more than playing at a high level and staying out of trouble, a role model needs to reach out to the community, be accessible, and donate time. Most Latinos return home during the off-season, many play in Winter Leagues, and donate time and money to help the next generation of Latino ballplayers.

Outside of the cultural differences that drive this disparity, I believe two other factors have a major impact, the weather and the draft. Most of the United States can only play baseball for half the year thanks to frigid winters and snow, forcing children to have other interests and play other sports, plus being unable to play all year can prevent kids from fully realizing their talent. Latin America has no such problem, with warm conditions year round. If anything, it prevents young Latinos from playing other sports. How many Latin players are in the NHL? The draft and process to make the majors is another deterrent to US and African American players. Unlike the NBA, NFL, and individual sports, turning pro in baseball and getting drafted far from guarantees making the majors thanks to the highly competitive minor league system. In other words, there is no guarantee of a major league contract and major league money. Latinos are free agents from day one, with the best players garnering tremendous signing bonuses. What about the signing bonuses that first round draft picks get? Well, $1 million, or even the $50k that low-end prospects receive, can rescue an entire family in areas of Latin America, but hardly pays for college in the US. It means more to the Latin players. For them its survival and supporting the family, as well as baseball, while in the US, more times than not its about the game not the money.

Back to Sheffield, in typical fashion, Gary’s statement was not well thought out, and he struggled to express his point in rational manner. In fact, by saying that African Americans are tougher to control than Latinos, he indicted his own race, implying they are difficult and potential trouble makers. Before indicting baseball, Sheffield should evaluate the other sports. Lets see what percentage of the NBA and NFL are African American. Does that mean those leagues exhibit reverse discrimination? No, we all know the best players are playing despite race. Gary Sheffield may not agree though.


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