Inner-city game getting a big boost

It is one of baseball's fondest and most nostalgic images: Willie Mays, then a cherubic star with the New York Giants, jumping into a makeshift stickball game with local kids on 155th Street and St. Nichols Place in Manhattan.

Baseball used to be an urban ritual. Cement and fire hydrants were just as integral to the sport as dusty Texas sandlots. But Mays himself, 40 years later, can't help but notice the change.

"I don't think they can play in the street nowadays," Mays said. "They're switching. More kids play basketball and football."

And grow up to do the same. Major league rosters once brimmed over with stars from inner-city neighborhoods, from Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson (Oakland) to Bobby Tolan and Ozzie Smith (Los Angeles). The last vestiges of this, the presence of L.A. natives Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry, have faded into retirement, their baseball neighborhood near Crenshaw High having collapsed like so many others across the nation.

A few inner-city big leaguers remain -- Manny Ramirez (New York) the most notable -- but they become more rare with each passing year. Notes one high-level major league scout: "When I first started scouting in Northern California in '84 or '85, you could walk into Golden Gate Park and see some pretty good baseball almost year-round. Now, our guy who has that area says there's less baseball being played in inner-city San Francisco than he's ever seen."

This is not a new story, frankly, with executives and magazines having made it since football's emergence in the 1960s and basketball's Erving-Magic-Bird-Jordan explosion a generation later. It became banal in part because it was so true. Whether through the rising cost of baseball equipment, the dearth of playable field space, poor instruction or the distractions of gangs to Gameboys, baseball has lost significant market share among each new generation of urban youngsters.

Recognizing and/or abetting this -- it's a chicken-or-the-egg thing -- Major League Baseball clubs have turned away from the inner cities and put their resources into fostering the game in Latin America. More than 40 team-run academies operate throughout the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, forming a player pipeline that generates dozens of prospects for the cost of one first-round draft pick. The result is that the prevalence of Latin-Americans in the major leagues has more than doubled since 1990, from 13 percent of players to 28. During that time the African-American population has slipped to 10 percent, its lowest since baseball fully integrated. (Figures courtesy of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.)

The picture is as pretty as many urban landscapes. But just as it appears as if the game might die out for good in America's inner cities, Major League Baseball is making a bold move to stem the shift -- with a move straight out of its Latin American playbook.

Sometime around Opening Day, construction will begin on the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy, a 20-25 acre facility in Los Angeles that will provide free, year-round baseball and academic instruction for boys and girls ages 10-15, operating after school and all day Saturday. Expected to begin operations in 2005 on the campus of Compton Community College, the academy will feature two regulation-sized fields -- one with lights, a grandstand and clubhouses -- plus one youth-sized field and one girls softball field.

"This is a brick-and-mortar presence to give an underserved group of kids a chance to experience baseball," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations. "We have been faced with criticism about the decline in African-Americans and inner-city kids playing baseball. This is ownership addressing that."

MLB has earmarked $3 million out of its central fund to build the academy and $1 million a year to operate it. Baseball plans for its Los Angeles academy to serve as a model that could spawn others in cities across the United States over the next 10 years. "This is just the first one," Solomon said. "It's the prototype."

"The concept is wonderful," Braves scout Chuck McMichael said. "I'd like to see one in each corner of the country and a couple in between. Talk about the good of the game and spreading the good word. The academy will let kids know that they can be a baseball player again. They can make a living playing baseball. There are more kids in the inner city than probably all the Latin American countries combined."

This isn't the first attempt MLB has made to revitalize the game in urban sections of the United States. For more than a decade, the Commissioner's Office has run the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, a network of youth leagues for kids ages 13-18 that has spread to 190 cities across the United States and Puerto Rico. Begun in 1989 by former major leaguer John Young, RBI has helped more than 120,000 boys and girls -- many of whom would not otherwise have the opportunity to play -- participate in youth baseball and softball leagues. MLB provides a grant of between $5,000-$10,000 to help a city start its league or leagues. Other assistance often comes from individual clubs and players, who have funded the refurbishment of dozens of urban fields over the past 10 years.

The Urban Youth Academy is MLB's attempt to do more than provide money -- it plans to provide space, encouragement, instruction -- a center for baseball learning. "We feel we need an actual brick-and-mortar presence in a city with an urban population," Solomon said. "If we're going to make a true difference, we have to have a physical presence."

African-American leaders of highest rank have pushed to address the decline of urban baseball with MLB. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow Coalition helped develop the RBI program in Washington, D.C., told me several years ago that this was a priority of his. "The opportunity for kids to play is of tremendous importance," Jackson said. "Look at Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson. Clearly it is a game of great challenges and character-building. You need the opportunity."

The opportunity has been withering for more than three decades. During that time urban athletes have focused on football and, to an increasingly greater degree, basketball as their sport of choice. There are several reasons for this.

Basketball's appeal derives partly from its ease to get a game going. The sport requires just a hoop and a ball, while baseball needs costly mitts and bats, not to mention more than a few pickup buddies. Blacktops are everywhere in inner cities, of course; more open baseball fields are being squeezed out in space crunches, and those that remain tend to be in disrepair. Said one city's RBI commissioner, "Fields are not kept up the way they should be. You can slide into second base and cut your knee open on a big shard of glass from a beer bottle." He wasn't kidding.

Second, baseball is not seen as an avenue to education. NCAA Division I football (42 percent) and basketball (57 percent) are heavily populated by African-Americans, according to the NCAA, and most of those athletes receive full scholarships. Early '90s cutbacks left baseball programs far fewer scholarships to offer, just 11.7 for the entire roster, so they can't entice financially challenged student-athletes nearly as easily. College baseball teams are just seven percent African-American.

Baseball also is not a glamorous sport, whether in high school, college or the minor leagues. "It's the same old story," said Giants scout Doug Mapson. "Which would you rather do, play a packed house at UCLA or USC or play in Salem, Oregon? The hype of basketball is so big now."

Should baseball make some inroads, getting scouts to build up confidence in inner-city baseball might take time. Coaching can still be sketchy because of underfunded high school programs, and kids don't learn the game well enough to become pros. The dangers of the inner city also can deter some scouts, consciously or not. Marlins executive Dan Jennings remembers a drive-by shooting one block from a batting practice in Birmingham, Ala. in 1993. In Oakland one afternoon, a game McMichael was watching was interrupted by a drug bust, with police helicopters converging on the scene, shots fired, and scouts ducking for their lives.

It is not an attractive picture, sometimes, but MLB is starting to back up its laments about inner-cities' baseball decline with actually doing something about it. The RBI program was one step, the Urban Youth Academy another. Imagine an MLB academy in every major league city, beckoning kids who a generation before never would have considered baseball. These are the things that change the identity of a sport.

"If the academy plan goes through, you're bringing water to the horses," Jennings said. "Hopefully, kids will have the desire to learn, polish and develop themselves in our sport. There's no guarantee the best kids are going to play. But you have to take the risk to get it to pay off."

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His first book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.