The way Chris Young always told it, he decided in high school to focus on the sport he played best. It was as simple as that. Looking back now, though, the Boston Red Sox outfielder says another factor pulled him toward baseball while all his friends were busy with football and basketball.
"Griffey," Young says. "He was who I looked up to. He was the guy I tried to emulate, even as a right-handed hitter. I had his cleats. I had his tennis shoes. To me, he was just super cool -- and he was a baseball player."
In the 1990s, the desire to be like Ken Griffey Jr. -- a transcendent athlete with a youthful enthusiasm that came through in his backward-cap style and gigawatt smile -- was powerful enough to compel a black teenager from southwest Houston to attend a high school known for its powerhouse baseball program rather than go to the school nearest his neighborhood. That was the choice Young made when he enrolled at Bellaire High in 1997, and it served as a springboard to a professional baseball career that has lasted for 16 years, the past 12 in the big leagues.
These days, when Young gazes around the Red Sox clubhouse, he is sure there are impressionable African-American children in Boston who will be similarly influenced by watching and mimicking right fielder Mookie Betts, the runner-up as American League MVP last season and one of Major League Baseball's fresh faces.
But even with Saturday marking the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson becoming the first black player in the majors, Young's optimism feels more like wishful thinking.
Last year, African-Americans constituted only 6.7 percent of MLB's player pool, down from 7.2 percent in 2015 and tied with 2013 and 2014 for the lowest percentage since 1957, based on data compiled by the Society for American Baseball Research. It represented the continuation of a 35-year demographic shift in which the Latino player population has soared, reaching a peak of 28.5 percent in 2009, while the number of African-American players has plummeted from a high of 18.7 percent in 1981, according to SABR.
Causes of the decline are widespread and include several socioeconomic factors, from the high cost of equipment to the availability of adequate fields in inner cities and fewer opportunities for full scholarships to college than football and basketball can offer. But if the mere presence of a few prominent -- and eminently marketable -- black players can help inspire more kids to begin playing, then Boston, of all cities, could be the epicenter of a revival.
The Red Sox have a complicated history with race. They were the last major league team to integrate, holding out until Pumpsie Green was called up in 1959, 12 years after Robinson's debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But times have changed. Over the past two seasons, the Sox have often fielded an entirely African-American outfield with Betts, Young and Jackie Bradley Jr., who wore "Soul Patrol" T-shirts around the clubhouse last year. Add in left-hander David Price, a former Cy Young Award winner with the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Sox have four players with the charisma and talent to help repopularize the game among black youth.
"I think it was important to me way before I was, quote-unquote, established [in the majors]," Bradley says. "I think it's very important just because of the declining number of African-American baseball players. It isn't a quick fix, but I think there's a lot of African-American kids that really enjoy the game. It's just a matter of sticking with it."
If only it were so simple.
PRICE GREW UP in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a predominantly white suburb of Nashville. The son of a white mother and a black father, he was a multisport athlete in high school, draining 3-pointers in the winter and blowing fastballs by helpless hitters in the spring.
"On all the Little League teams I played on, my team was the team with all the African-American kids on it," Price says. "Both of our coaches were African-American. They were the only African-American coaches in our Little League. To us, that was normal. Baseball was normal. It wasn't looked at as 'not basketball' or 'not football.' It was just a sport we were able to play. We enjoyed it. We loved it. We didn't look at it in that [racial] sense.
"If you have that love and you have that passion for it, you don't care who's on your team or who's not on your team or if there's nobody that looks like you on your team. You're playing the game because you love it. That's what I did when I was a kid."
Price is acutely aware of the obstacles that prevent many kids from playing baseball. Bats and gloves are expensive. There might not be a field on which to play. And even if there is, you need friends to catch the ball after you hit it.
"A guy like Mookie ... he's an amazing player. He has fun. He has a great personality. He's very marketable. All those things together, he can definitely be one of those guys that kids can look up to."Chris Young on Red Sox teammate Mookie Betts
But Price formed his foundation in 2008 to help children of all ethnicities. As part of Project One Four's stated mission to "provide opportunities for the youth in the community to learn life skills in a safe and supportive environment," Price has bought bats, balls and uniforms, funded the construction of fields and donated generously to the baseball program at Vanderbilt, his alma mater.
"I'm not just trying to help young African-Americans. I haven't even thought of it that way," Price says. "I just want to help children and give everybody an opportunity to play the game that we're so blessed to play every day."
Betts and Bradley didn't have to take a VIP tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum last May to know that, as Betts said at the time, "where I'm from and the other guys come from, there's not a lot of opportunity for young black kids. There are stereotypes and that type of thing. Sometimes we don't get the same chances."
Bradley, 27, came to the game even though his father played college basketball at Fayetteville State. Betts, 24, had opportunities to play small-college basketball and came to be called Mookie because his bowling-loving mother admired former NBA guard Mookie Blaylock. Yet he still chose baseball.
Their message to kids who have doubts about whether baseball is for them: Watch us play.
"It's on us to show how much fun we're having, talk to kids, help out," Young says. "Because if kids are good at [baseball], they're more apt to continue to play it. I think it's a confidence thing. And baseball is a really hard sport. It's more than athleticism that it takes to be good at baseball. It's a skill sport that takes a little longer to get good at, and sometimes that can push a kid away.
"The goal is to continue to expand the game and to get more players interested and allow more young kids to feel like they have a place in the game. And that's not just for black kids. That's for kids from all over the world. To be able to create an impact and show that you can play this game, I think that's what the ultimate goal is."
THREE YEARS AGO, before a game in New York, Bradley and Yankees reliever Dellin Betances joined ex-big leaguers Cliff Floyd and Harold Reynolds in Macombs Dam Park near the site of the old Yankee Stadium to talk to 100 kids from MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.
"They're kids, so their questions were pretty broad," Bradley recalls. "It wasn't like, Why aren't there more African-Americans in baseball? It was, What's it like to play with Big Papi? They just wanted to know how everyone is that they see on TV.
"I try to get involved with that stuff as much as I can, especially here now in Boston, as well."
One group that would gladly welcome Bradley: The BASE, a Boston-based program that leverages baseball as a vehicle to keep inner-city kids out of trouble while also providing athletic and educational opportunities.
Robert Lewis Jr., founder and president of The BASE, has worked with the Red Sox to get players as guest speakers. But while infielder Deven Marrero and relievers Noe Ramirez, Heath Hembree, Robbie Ross Jr. and Robby Scott have paid visits to The BASE in recent years, Lewis says the Sox haven't delivered Betts, Bradley, Young or Price.
"I think the Red Sox have the potential to [influence black youth] now more than ever," Lewis says. "When you think of it -- Chris Young, Mookie, Jackie Bradley in the same outfield, my god, I find the older generation, we talk about it more than probably the young folks do. It's inspiring. It's exciting. And I think the Red Sox have an opportunity, not just putting it on paper. I think these guys could be the messengers out in the community talking to folks."
Lewis believes that Bradley, Betts, Price and Young can make a positive impact that transcends baseball. But he also says it's incumbent upon the Red Sox, as much as MLB, to better market their players and make them more accessible to the public, a sentiment with which many African-American players agree. Price says it's as simple as loosening the regulations that prevent players from expressing themselves by wearing whatever color cleats they choose.
"Yeah, the game could definitely be marketed to be a little more appealing at times," Young says. "So, anything we can do in the community, obviously that helps push it. But the No. 1 thing that we have to do is represent ourselves in a certain way. Games are on TV, kids watch the games on TV, and if it's one kid out there who has somebody that he sees some comparisons to, some similarities to that he can look up to, that's great.
"A guy like Mookie can definitely have that effect. He's an amazing player. He has fun. He has a great personality. He's very marketable. All those things together, he can definitely be one of those guys that kids can look up to."
Just as Young did with Griffey 20 years ago. The next generation of African-American baseball players might depend on it.