SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – One of the highlights of the spring is when Willie Mays arrives and sits at his customary table in the Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse, and starts chirping at Mike Murphy.
This year, the moment came with a bit of melancholy.
That’s because as I looked around the room, I realized that Mays, and his assistant, were the only people of African-American heritage in it.
We know the trends. You’ve heard about them for a long time. The percentage of African-Americans in baseball, which peaked at close to 30 percent in the 1970s, has dwindled down to single digits.
Sure, there have been times when the Giants did not have a single African-American on the roster. But no representation whatsoever in big league spring training? More than 70 players, and not one African-American in the room? That realization stunned me.
I spent a half-hour going through every roster, and sure enough, the Giants are the only major league organization with zero African-Americans in big league camp. Some teams have more representation than others, sure. The Atlanta Braves will feature three African-Americans in their starting outfield, with the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward. But each of the other 29 teams at least has one African-American player in camp.
This isn’t a Giants-centric phenomenon by any means, and I’m making no suggestion to that effect. The club has spent high draft picks on African-American players, including Wendell Fairley, Fred Lewis and others. And GM Brian Sabean certainly is open-minded to finding talent in all shapes and forms. This is the club that invested in Tim Lincecum and traded for Hunter Pence, after all.
If you look around the Giants clubhouse, you’ll see people of color. The Giants have a vibrant Latino culture, and that extends to their coaching staff with Roberto Kelly (from Panama), Hensley Meulens (Curacao), infield coach Jose Alguacil (Venezuela) and minor league coach Henry Cotto (Puerto Rico).
But no African-American players at all? From the organization that so shined because of Mays and McCovey and Monte Irvin?
I suppose I’m doing little more than making an observation here. There are myriad reasons for the declining numbers of African-Americans in baseball, few of them simple. I can’t pretend to tell you which reasons are the most important, or what should be done, or even if something needs to be done.
I mentioned my observation to Sabean and he is stunned as well. He is a firm believer that the decreasing number of college scholarships has a lot to do with African-American receiving fewer opportunities in baseball. If you’re not from an affluent background, how can you afford to take a partial scholarship when you could get a full ride playing football or basketball? The existence of traveling teams, summer leagues, etc. also make it so much harder for kids to be two- or three-sport stars like in the past. And if you stop playing baseball at a young age, you don't continue to get access to better coaching, you don't continue to hone your skills, etc. Baseball might be your best sport but you don't play it long enough to find out.
I don't buy the garbage that baseball is less lustrous than football or that baseball requires more work than basketball. I've always felt there are some underlying stereotypes in those arguments that I can't accept.
The only thing I know is that equality cannot happen without equal opportunity, and if baseball needs to do anything, it’s to work to provide opportunities for all young people of all backgrounds to continue playing the game if they are interested in doing so.
Well, here's one more thing I know: Barring a trade or late signing, the Giants will stand on the baseline on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, 66 years after the color barrier was broken, and they won’t have a single African-American player to reflect on it.
It was a hard-hitting day at Camelback Ranch and two-homer hero Brett Pill wasn’t the only one squaring it up. Brandon Belt doubled for his first hit of the spring, and Roger Kieschnick also put a charge in a double to the wall in center field.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy was glad to see it.
“The kids have been passive with the bats,” he said. “We’d like to see them be a little more aggressive up there, see them letting it go.”
Defensive play of the day was first baseman Ricky Oropesa, making a really nice, twisting stop on a throw that was wide and in the dirt. I’m not sure how Oropesa stayed on the bag, but he did.
No question, Oropesa’s power is his best tool. The 2011 third-rounder out of USC will get a good test at Double-A Richmond this year. I hadn’t heard too much about his defense, but a play like that will open eyes.
Tim Lincecum said he was encouraged by his first start of the spring and Bochy concurred.
“Timmy threw well,” Bochy said. “Pitching out of the stretch, he looked comfortable and had good stuff. He stayed in a consistent delivery with good rhythm. Occasionally he got out of sync last year, he knows it, and he’s worked on tightening it up. I think he should feel good about how he threw and where he wanted to throw the ball.”
Ramon Ramirez has a World Series ring from the 2010 club, but he probably isn’t in the lead to win the final spot in the Giants bullpen. Scott Proctor continues to look sharp while throwing the splitter he learned in Korea. Chad Gaudin is an experienced guy as well, and he threw two innings in his first appearance. He’ll be stretched out and could even make some starts.
Ramirez will have to perform to win a job, and while there’s a long way to go this spring, the three-run home run he served up Tuesday (to minor leaguer Alex Castellanos) was not a good beginning.
Apropos of nothing, but I was reminded today of last year’s first spring visit to Camelback Ranch. Melky Cabrera homered from both sides of the plate, and that’s when everyone started taking notice – this guy was going to be a force for the Giants.
Nobody could’ve predicted how it would end up for him, though.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny came out in strong support of a rule change to prevent collisions at home plate, which is a huge about-face for him. Just a year ago, I interviewed him on this very subject and he said he didn’t think the game should legislate against something that has long been a part of baseball.
He explained his position very well in this piece on MLB.com.
I asked Bochy if it was encouraging to hear about Matheny’s conversion.
“It is,” he said. “There’s a catcher who’s been through it. He certainly has an understanding of what I’m talking about. I’m glad to hear that, and I’m hoping other guys step up. That’s what’s going to be needed to make a change.”
League vice president Joe Torre still needs convincing, but if the voices escalate, I do think the day will come fairly soon when plays at the plate are legislated a little nearer to plays at the other three bases.
And if that happens, if catchers are a little safer as a result, that will be a great legacy for Bochy to leave this game – greater than winning two World Series rings, even.