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Is lack of black fans a problem for MLB?

It feels as if every few months we're reminded that black people don't like baseball.

We don't play the game, we don't come to the games, we prefer other games, etc. Recently Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson approached the subject in a thoughtful observation, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he would ask teammates to scan the crowd and "count the number of African-American people here at the stadium."

"At first, it starts off as a joke," he told the paper. "And then as the game moves on, you'll get to 10, or maybe 15. Depends on where you are, too."

It is sad that Granderson isn't more of a household name because you would be hard-pressed to find a professional athlete who pours more of himself into the communities where he lives than Granderson.

With that being said, he did receive 6.6 million votes -- the second-most nods in All-Star Game history -- so if blacks are not paying attention to what he's doing on the field, fans of other races are. And they love him for it.

The percentage of blacks who play the game is the lowest it's been since 2007, but I don't automatically interpret that as baseball taking a step back or the fading of Jackie Robinson's legacy. Rather, it's an evolution.

As someone who has been to fields all over this country, I agree with Granderson. African-American attendance is fairly low, but
I still see a lot of diversity in the stands. I still see diversity on the field. According to the numbers presented by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, among the three major pro sports in the U.S., baseball is far and away the most diverse, the most reflective of what our country is now and what it is hopefully becoming: 61.5 percent white, 27 percent Latino, 8.5 percent black, 2.1 percent Asian, 0.4 percent Native American. More than 27 percent of the players are international, representing 14 countries and territories.

There's a lot about MLB that is archaic and just downright stupid, such as reluctance to use technology to enhance accuracy. But when it comes to the players on the field, it is as close to a Benetton ad as we have in our major sports.

That's not saying the game has transcended racism, or that executive hiring and ownership represents the population. But when you consider that there is still so much open hesitation to draft white American players in the NBA or at a "speed" position in the NFL, or that successful black college quarterbacks are still second-guessed at the next level, I think baseball is much further along by comparison.

It is so difficult to talk about race in this country because it doesn't exist in a vacuum. There is a lot of past and current ugliness surrounding the topic, and we can't sensibly avoid it because it is such an integral part of our social-economic infrastructure. For example, there are major cities -- including my hometown of Detroit -- that are still trying to dig out of the rapid and unexpected tax-revenue drop spurred by white flight, which was instigated by the race riots of the 1960s. Over the decades, sacrifices had to be made and publicly funded gathering places such as community centers with swimming pools and parks with tennis courts and baseball diamonds were put on the back burner.

In addition, blacks have historically had nearly twice the unemployment rate as their white counterparts. Today, whites are at 8.1 percent and blacks are at around 16 percent.

Race is a complicated subject, thus there are no simple answers as to why there aren't a lot of blacks in the stands or on the field.

Maybe blacks prefer to watch the games at home because it's cheaper.

Maybe the NBA and NFL are more appealing because of the marketing, or the physicality of the sports versus the physicality of baseball.

Today MLB has an inner-city program with nearly 200,000 participants, so it's not as if it is doing nothing to attract more blacks -- both as players and as fans. It is also possible that blacks just aren't into baseball the way we were in the past, and at some point that possibility has to be accepted as OK, too. And accepting that doesn't mean that baseball has taken a step back.

Before Robinson's integrating baseball in 1947, blacks had no choice but to play in the Negro Leagues because of racism. It's hard to look at an MLB roster today and see the segregated past. Robinson's courage 64 years ago set the stage for players of all backgrounds to sit on the same bench. Yes, at the time it was all black and white, but that's clearly not the case now. Since 1998, the percentage of white players has hovered around 60 percent, with the remaining 40 percent being people of color. I have walked into clubhouses and heard three different languages spoken, not including English. In a country wrestling with integration issues, Jose Bautista, a Dominican, was the leading vote-getter at the All-Star Game of America's pastime. Voted into the American League outfield next to him was Granderson, a black guy who grew up outside Chicago, and Josh Hamilton, a white dude born in North Carolina. Missing was the first Japanese-born every-day position player, Ichiro Suzuki, who did not make the All-Star team for the first time in 11 seasons.

That, to me, is the evolution of Jackie Robinson's legacy … and that is as beautiful as the game itself.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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