I predict that the hero of tonight’s Mariners’ game will be wearing No. 42.
And so will the goat.
That’s because every player on the field — every player in all 15 games played today in the major leagues, in fact — will be wearing No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson. It is the 62nd anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, perhaps the most significant event in the sport’s history.
The decline of African-American players continues to be an issue in baseball. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, out of the University of Central Florida, reported in its latest study in 2008 that African-Americans constituted 8.2 percent of major-league rosters in 2007 — a 20-year low.
The institute hasn’t come out with its latest report, but the Boston Globe earlier this month did its own survey and found there were 73 African-Americans on Opening Day rosters — about 9 percent of the players. The Mariners have one — Ken Griffey Jr. The Red Sox have none. The Dodgers lead the majors with seven African-Americans.
Here is the Globe’s breakdown:
Seven – Los Angeles Dodgers: C Russell Martin, RHP James McDonald, RHP Cory Wade, 1B James Loney, 2B Orlando Hudson, OF Matt Kemp, OF Juan Pierre.
Five – Los Angeles Angels: OF Torii Hunter, OF Chone Figgins, 2B Howie Kendrick, LHP Darren Oliver, OF Gary Matthews Jr.
Four – Milwaukee: 1B Prince Fielder, 2B Rickie Weeks, 3B Bill Hall, CF Mike Cameron; Pittsburgh: LHP Donnie Veal, RHP Ian Snell, OF Craig Monroe, OF Nyjer Morgan; Arizona: 1B Tony Clark, RP Tom Gordon (DL), OF Justin Upton, OF Chris Young; Washington: OF Lastings Milledge, OF Elijah Dukes, OF Willie Harris, 1B Dmitri Young (DL); Detroit: RHP Edwin Jackson, DH Marcus Thames, CF Curtis Granderson, LHP Dontrelle Willis (DL); Cincinnati: 2B Brandon Phillips, LHP Arthur Rhodes, INF Jerry Hairston Jr., OF Chris Dickerson.
Three – San Francisco: OF Randy Winn, OF Fred Lewis, SS Emmanuel Burris; Houston: RHP LaTroy Hawkins, CF Michael Bourn, LHP Wesley Wright; San Diego: OF Cliff Floyd, OF-INF Scott Hairston, OF Jody Gerut; Chicago Cubs: 1B Derrick Lee, OF Joey Gathright, OF Milton Bradley;
Two – Minnesota: OF Delmon Young, OF Denard Span; Chicago White Sox: OF Jermaine Dye, OF Dewayne Wise; Cleveland: OF Ben Francisco, OF Grady Sizemore; Tampa Bay: OF B.J. Upton, OF Carl Crawford; Baltimore: OF Adam Jones, SS Robert Andino, Philadelphia: 1B Ryan Howard, SS Jimmy Rollins; New York Yankees: SS Derek Jeter, LHP CC Sabathia; New York Mets: OF Marlon Anderson, OF Gary Sheffield.
One – Kansas City: OF Coco Crisp; Florida: OF Cameron Maybin; Atlanta: OF Garret Anderson; Colorado: OF Dexter Fowler; Seattle: OF Ken Griffey Jr.; Toronto: OF Vernon Wells; Oakland: OF Rajai Davis; St. Louis: INF Joe Thurston; Texas: OF Marlon Byrd.
Baseball claims to be working hard to increase the number of African-Americans in the sport. They have opened a baseball academy in Compton, Calif., as part of its Urban Youth Initiative, and plan other academies around the country to cultivate baseball among inner-city kids. The next two will be built in Houston, Texas and Hialeah, Florida. I wrote an in-depth story in 2005 that examined the causes of the decline of African-Americans in the majors, which are multifold and complex. The crux of the issue, however, is that black kids simply aren’t playing baseball. The reasons are both economic and cultural, as the story examines. And it’s not just that African-Americans aren’t playing baseball. Surveys show that viewership and attendance of baseball games by black fans is in a constant decline.
However, it must be noted that while the number of African-Americans is declining, the diversity in baseball is not. MLB just released its annual survey of foreign-born players, and it’s holding steady at 28 percent of players on Opening Day rosters and disabled lists that were born outside the 50 United States. That represents 229 of 818 players (748 active 25-man roster players and 70 disabled or restricted MLB players). Last year also featured 28 percent foreign-born players, and the all-time high of 29.2 percent occurred in 2005.
Guess which team is leading the way this year? That would be the Mariners, with 15 of their 28 players (25-man roster, plus three on the DL) born outside the U.S., representing 53.6 percent of their roster. The Red Sox, Mets and Yankees were next with 12 apiece.
The Mariners 15 foreign-born players came from seven different countries and territories: Seven from Venezuela (Ronny Cedeno, Endy Chavez, Franklin Gutierrez, Felix Hernandez, Cesar Jimenez and Jose Lopez), two from Japan (Ichiro and Kenji Johjima), two from the Dominican Republic (Miguel Batista and Adrian Beltre), one from Canada (Erik Bedard), one from Australia (Ryan Rowland-Smith), one from Cuba (Yuniesky Betancourt), and one from Curacao (Wladimir Balentien).
Baseball has benefitted tremendously from the expansion of the game around the world. Now it needs to find a way to get African-American kids enthused about the sport again.