The percentage — everyone talks about the percentage.
The percentage always draws attention in April, when the number of African-Americans on Opening Day MLB rosters is revealed. Last season the percentage was 8.5, or 64 out of 750. It does not figure to be dramatically different this season, prompting the usual, "Why is this happening?" handwringing for a day or two. After that, everyone will forget about the percentage until next year.
Well, almost everyone.
Baseball is not happy with the percentage. Baseball wants to do something about the percentage. And the people trying to increase the percentage — those involved with the sport’s On-Field Diversity Task Force, Urban Youth Academies and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program (RBI) — are seeing progress at the grassroots level, tangible progress.
The next significant development will be the expansion of the annual Breakthrough Series, a showcase created by MLB and USA Baseball for top high-school players, many of them African-American. The series previously took place at one location. Now it will take place at four.
Approximately 200 players, the most since the inception of the event in 2008, will perform in front of professional scouts and college recruiters from July 19 to 28 in Cincinnati, Compton, Calif., Bradenton, Fla., and Brooklyn, N.Y.
See, it is not enough to get more kids from under-served communities playing baseball, something that the RBI and Junior RBI programs accomplish. Once those kids are ready to graduate high school, they need to be seen by the right people. And everything about youth baseball today, from travel ball to high-school showcases, costs money.
The Breakthrough Series is cost-free for participants, who are selected by invitation only. When Frank Robinson, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball development notes, "The ones so far have been successful," he is being modest. Forty-three participants were drafted in the last two years, including four first-rounders, and 90 have been drafted in all.
The expansion of the series "is a positive step – one of many, many steps for us," said Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, chairman of baseball’s On-Field Diversity Task Force. "Our committee talked about a lot of different ideas. Some start slowly. Others can put into place more quickly. This is something that was done more quickly."
Commissioner Bud Selig formed the 17-member task force last April, trying to accelerate baseball’s efforts to attract more African-American talent. In 1975, approximately 19 percent of major leaguers were African-American, according to Mark Armour of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Nearly 40 years later, that percentage was down by more than half.
Part of the decline is due to the influx of players from Latin America and Asia. Part of it also is due to fewer African-American kids playing the game. People ask, why is this a problem? The answer is simple: Every professional sport wants to attract the best athletes and improve the quality of competition.
Baseball features some dazzling African-American talents, from 2012 American League Cy Young winner David Price to 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen. But other potential stars gravitate to football and basketball, and that’s where the problems begin.
Dombrowski isn’t making bold declarations about what his committee wants to accomplish, or how quickly it might achieve its goals. He recognizes that creating a greater African-American talent pool for baseball is a vast and complex challenge — and a humbling one, too.
"You can’t just say one thing will fix our problem," Dombrowski said. "If that were the case, everyone would rush out and do that. A really comprehensive plan has to be implemented. That’s what we’re working on – getting a comprehensive plan."
Former major leaguer Darrell Miller, MLB’s vice president of facility and youth development, is something of a baseball evangelist, believing that the sport teaches lessons in life.
Miller, the former director of the sport’s urban youth academy in Compton, is on the front lines of baseball’s quest to improve its percentage of African-American players. But the issue, in his view, is not limited to race.
"If you really analyze it, take a look from the 10,000-foot view, this is about making sure baseball is healthy in America, period," Miller said. "I don’t care if you’re a millionaire. Why should you pay $200 a month to play baseball? I know you can. But why would you do it?"
Equipment is expensive. Travel is expensive. And the "pay-for-play" and "pay-for-exposure" movements, in Miller’s view, "drove a stake through the heart of what we were trying to do" to attract kids from less advantaged backgrounds.
The Breakthrough Series is one way to level the playing field and make the sport less elitist in the U.S. Miller talks of increasing the number of showcases from four to a much greater number. He notes that six urban youth academies are operational (Compton, Houston, New Orleans), set to open in 2014 (Cincinnati, Philadelphia) or announced (Hialeah, Fla.). In Miller’s perfect world, there would be 36.
Efforts like this require bold vision, even dreamers. But why shouldn’t Miller and others think big? As Dombrowski’s task force formulates its plan, some major developments already are taking place, most notably in the rise of the Junior RBI program for boys and girls 5 to 12.
The RBI program for 13- to 18-year-olds is in its 26th year. The Junior RBI program, entering only its sixth year, began when baseball recognized that, "You can’t have kids putting on a glove for the first time at 13," program director David James said.
More than 213,000 participated in RBI leagues throughout the U.S., Caribbean and Latin America in 2013, James said. Of those, about 135,000 were in the Junior RBI program, an increase of 80 percent from 2012.
"We are growing by leaps and bounds," James said.
James attributed part of the growth to the commitment of major-league clubs — all 30 support RBI, and 18 either operate leagues or provide them with a significant amount of resources. Another reason for the uptick, James said, is a surge of interest in the rural South.
"Those kids deal with a lot of the issues that kids in the inner cities are dealing with," James said. "We want them in the program."
The majority of RBI leagues do not charge registration fees, and no player is excluded because he or she cannot afford to play, James said. African-Americans remain the core demographic, but the program is inclusive, not exclusive. James said that even some middle- and upper-class youths are registering, drawn by the idea of playing with kids from different backgrounds.
Truth be told, RBI is not even solely about baseball. James talks about creating, "major-league citizens, major-league people," participants who in five to 10 years may go onto successful business careers and talk about what RBI meant to them.
Of course, some of them will continue playing baseball, too. Carl Crawford, CC Sabathia and Justin Upton are among the notable RBI alumni who made it to the majors.
The bigger the numbers, the wider the base of talent. The wider the base of talent, the greater the chances that the program will produce additional major leaguers.
Yet, there is another aspect of this, an aspect outside of baseball’s control. College scholarships are scarce, adding to the difficulty in luring African-Americans to the sport.
Justin Upton, who was in the RBI program, hit 27 homers last year.
The NCAA allows Division I schools only 11.7 scholarships in baseball, compared to 85 in football and 13 in basketball. Those scholarships are incredibly valuable for those pursing a career in baseball; the majority of American major leaguers come from those schools.
"It’s all about, ‘How many (African-American) kids can we get to college?’" Miller said. "If we get college participation for minorities to the next level, then we are guaranteed long-term success."
An increase in the number of baseball scholarships obviously would help, and the Diversity Task Force includes two college representatives, Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir and Southern coach Roger Cador. But, with or without increased flexibility from the NCAA, baseball is going forward.
Seven African-Americans were selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, the most by total and percentage since 1992. Another six went in the first round last year.
Keith Law’s 2014 list of the top 100 prospects on ESPN.com featured 17 African-Americans. Jonathan Mayo’s list on MLB.com featured 14. Those numbers include the No. 1 prospect on both lists, Twins outfielder Byron Buxton.
The percentage, everyone talks about the percentage of African-Americans in the majors. Baseball deserves to be held a high standard; Selig himself frequently acknowledges the sport’s social responsibility. But the task is immense. Progress is slow. And more always can be done.
"There is a lot that is involved," Dombrowski said. "We’ve been able to identify a number of issues and problems, and we’re tackling them now with our committee. We’re getting close to putting a couple of ideas in play."
The expansion of the Breakthrough Series is one such idea. Dombrowski is not ready to reveal the others, but the momentum is evident.
Baseball recognizes that it cannot simply wish away this problem. The percentage is too frustrating to be ignored.