LaVonté Stewart has loved baseball for as long as he can remember. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Stewart played baseball throughout his youth. He has fond memories of not actually being that good at the sport initially, and of his mom buying the wrong glove. Despite the fact that baseball wasn’t necessarily “cool” in his neighborhood, Stewart kept at it, even playing for his high school team. It was through baseball Stewart forged some of his closest friendships.
In 2009, he decided to start coaching. His goal was to take his knowledge from decades of baseball and life experience, and help youth from his neighborhood. He even brought along one of his childhood teammates as a coach. Through baseball, Stewart’s mission with his Lost Boyz organization is “to provide sports-based youth development to help boys and girls in Chicago’s under-resourced neighborhoods develop confidence, resilience and life skills.” Though Lost Boyz is there to help in ways most don’t even consider when it comes to sports, developing a love for baseball in those the sport has overlooked is at its core.
“Chicago has a beautiful Black baseball scene. The world that I’m immersed in is just beautiful. Whenever I bump into a Black baseball team or league that’s struggling I try to help them,” Stewart says. “You see all this beautiful Blackness. The way everybody is together around the sport. The fun being had by the families. The skill of the kids. People that are scared to come to our hoods don’t see this. Black baseball is there, but it needs more support.”
MLB’s lack of diversity is staggering
Along with other coaches in his organization, Stewart tries to go out and recruit because, despite their best efforts, he feels that they aren’t known in the community. MLB hasn’t done much in the way of creating new interest in the sport, as its culture is often seen as stifling and conservative. The average age of baseball fans is 57. Among adults who have a favorable view of a team in MLB, 60% were white; and just 16% were Black, according to a 2020 poll conducted by Morning Consult. Seeing oneself reflected in the game isn’t the only reason people engage with baseball, but it creates an important, lasting link to the sport. It is vital to the future health of the sport that kids of color and girls develop an interest in the game — and sustain that interest.
“When you look out on the field and you see a team and you don’t see anybody that looks like you, it’s kind of tough to decide that’s what you want to do just on a basic comfort level. When you don’t see players that look like you that are playing the sport it’s really tough for you to throw yourself out there and get involved and want to learn,” says Los Angeles Angels center fielder Jo Adell.
However, for the first time in 35 years, two Black American players, Seattle Mariners outfielder Kyle Lewis (AL) and Milwaukee Brewers reliever Devin Williams (NL), swept the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year awards in 2020. Their wins offered a glimmer of hope in a league that has seen Black participation decline for decades.
“This is huge for our sport because kids are turning on the TV. African American kids all across the world, all across the country are seeing two rookies of this year in this sport are African American,” Adell says. “Who knows how many kids of color have grabbed a bat and glove and said this is what I’m doing next spring?”
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its 2020 MLB Racial and Gender Report Card this summer. TIDES analyzes diverse hiring efforts in the league's central office and for important positions on each of its 30 teams and shares its findings annually.
According to this year’s report, when it comes to player diversity, though people of color make up 39.8% of the league, Black or African American players represent just 7.5% of all players. In 1995, Black or African American participation was at the highest level recorded by TIDES in its 31-year history of MLB race and gender reports at 19%. Between 2012 and 2020, 17.6% of players drafted in the first round have been Black, but some of those players still have to make it from prospect to the majors. Per Baseball America, 73% of total first round picks made it to the majors between 1981 and 2010. On opening day 2020, the Seattle Mariners led the league with nine Black or African American players, representing 30% of the team's roster. The occurrence was so noteworthy fans immediately dubbed them “the Blackest team in baseball.”
Why has baseball declined in the Black community?
Baseball is a community sport and the decline of Black participation over the last decade is a reflection of that.
“I think the message that gets lost in the conversation, which then becomes an argument about race, is about the monetization of youth baseball which has now become a multibillion-dollar industry,” Stewart explains.
“When it comes to Black people we are blocked out of most of the economic activity that surrounds the game whether it be in it or the supporting businesses and things that benefit from it. Where is our ownership in that? The conversation people aren’t having, that often frustrates me, is that we aren’t talking about hyperlocal stuff when we’re discussing youth baseball. Let’s talk about the onus of responsibility to the community.”
Ivette Trevino, a Chicago parent with three sons involved in various levels of youth baseball, also believes the lack of community investment in the sport has contributed to the decline in Black participation in baseball.
“What I’ve seen and experienced is the lack of development, updates, upgrades and repairs to fields. I see deteriorating fields and bleachers which leads to them being converted into soccer fields. I don’t see an investment from the Chicago Park District or philanthropists who want to engage and make a difference in our communities.”
What Stewart and Trevino are referring to is not only a need for communities themselves to support and invest in Black youth baseball, but for MLB’s professional ball clubs to extend their reach in their local communities. Trevino says that in order to help usher a new generation into the game “we need diverse teams, diverse role models. We live in a diverse country. We also need those major league players to reach out to youth and mentor our youth and make an impact in their lives.”
Youth programs out of reach for younger kids
In order to help address the decline in Black American participation at the major league level, MLB, along with USA Baseball, established the Dream Series. The objective is not only preparing young players for a future in baseball, but increasing diversity across the sport. Though the program is an important step, it targets high school baseball players and does not do much in the way of attracting younger children. Many youth become disenchanted with the game well before reaching high school age. The growing costs of simply getting a player the best training and coaching has also narrowed the pipeline to the majors.
The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program was created to do specifically that, but teams need assistance from volunteers with grant/letter writing in order to even gain access to the funds RBI offers. Coaches and parents may not know that these resources exist, what to do, or are too busy trying to meet more immediate and emergent needs of their kids, so oftentimes these resources go untapped.
“I’ve been that person,” Trevino says. “I took it upon myself to get involved with the league. I’ve volunteered to write grants, help in the concession stand, help with uniform fittings, help on picture day, help fundraise and sell raffle tickets.”
This, she believes, is what opens up the doors for costly travel ball absorbing the best talent because local teams are struggling to even function.
“The training is what really costs. If you want your kid to be elite and you really want them to have a shot, you’re going to have to pay for trainers. You’ll also have to pay for them to play on a travel ball team where they can play with and among the best of the best. It turns into a haves and have-nots conversation,” Stewart added.
Both said that travel ball can cost anywhere from $1,500-$5,500 a year. Parents are also encouraged to invest in individualized training, which includes a player working with a coach outside of team practices and games a few hours per week. That training can cost $25-$50 an hour. At 10 hours per week, that’s an additional $2,000 a month to make sure your child is getting the extra development needed to be able to compete at the highest level.
“Come over here where these kids are playing ball and look at their faces when you step on the field. Everybody is ignoring these kids on the field until it’s time for a photo op,” Stewart advises. “MLB has a responsibility and obligation to the community. They are at the top of the baseball food chain and they’re eating off of everyone below them.”
Both the Chicago Cubs and White Sox offer youth baseball programs, but Stewart hasn’t had success getting his kids involved.
“How do I get these boys seen? Who do I talk to? That’s part of the bigger, bigger problem. There are a lot of kids coming up in Little League but the pipeline to get them up is so little. The White Sox and the Cubs have special teams, but you’re only giving 30-40 kids a year an opportunity at three levels. You have thousands of kids, Black ballplayers, in the Chicagoland area and a one- or two-off clinic ain’t gonna do it.”
Scouting presents different set of hurdles
Black players, parents, and coaches also fear what happens once there is some exposure. Black players are scouted differently and different language is used when referring to their skills (ie “good athlete” or “raw power”). Language that could somehow reflect negatively on them when read by others.
“And for me, one thing that stood out to me is that a lot of the African American players that I knew that were highly touted guys that were coming through it seemed that we were all being described in the same format of just being really good athletes. And we talked and we discussed how it seemed unfair,” Adell told Yahoo Sports. “We all brought something different to the table. Baseball is too tough of a sport to generalize players as just being a really good athlete. Or, good raw tool sets. And having that be the only thing that was mentioned.”
Despite having a decade of playing experience, Black players are considered “high risk.” Alex Speier of the Boston Globe explored the ways racial bias can be found in scouting reports. When bias is so prevalent, one can guess a player’s race based simply by the words used. Speier found that reports often are critical of Black players’ work ethic and they are referred to as “raw” and “athletic” while white players have “high baseball IQ” and are seen as having leadership qualities.
What needs to happen, according to Adell, is more in-depth scouting and language that reflects better descriptions of individual player’s skill sets.
“This is Major League Baseball, we are looking for baseball players, we’re not looking for athletes,” Adell adds.
That same racial bias exists in fan culture as well. Though the league through its social media tries to market itself as fun and engaging by using rap songs, nonwhite players receive backlash from other players and fans alike for things like bat flips, wearing gold jewelry, or even appearing to experience a little joy on the field that might be different than the way they themselves would celebrate. In clinging to its outdated traditions, baseball also hangs on to systemic racism.
Adell argues that celebrations, enthusiasm and personality all have a place in the game.
“We have to understand that we play on national television and we are playing at the highest level that we can every single day. That being what it is, it’s also entertainment. When big things happen in a game, you make a big play, there’s nothing wrong with showing some energy and adding some enthusiasm along with it. It’s why the fans pay the money to come watch games. It’s why people want to tune in. Who doesn’t want to see somebody hit a home run and bat flip and pop a chain?”
Despite the barriers, both Trevino and Stewart believe in the emotional connection of youth baseball. They believe it is an important part of the game and that regardless of ZIP code or income, children of all colors deserve to feel they belong.
“Give me all of them. Give me the kids y’all don’t want. Give me the kids that are struggling academically. Give me the kids whose parents can’t afford it. Give me the kids that you aren’t taking on your nine and I’ll make them a good nine,” Stewart says.
As for Adell, his advice to young Black ballplayers who are trying to find their way is, “At the end of the day, we all face stuff. They’re gonna come and there’s gonna be days when you’re being scouted or looked at and you’re playing in front of a group and they write something up or make comments based on their own opinion of your play, but it is what it is. You have to stay true to the player that you are. You can’t lose sight of who you are and what you wanna be in the game. And once you nail that in, and once you know who you wanna be, and know what type of player you wanna become and make that the only focus you tune it all out.”
This year marked 100 years after Rube Foster realized a dream that started on the South Side of Chicago and MLB celebrated his legacy. This season was also 73 years since Jackie Robinson’s debut, and Black youth on that same side of town continue to look for their place in the sport. But with guys like Jo Adell, maybe they no longer have to look so far.
More from Yahoo Sports: