The Nub

Baseball Is Back, But Not as Black as It Should Be

(Posted: 2/26/13)

Here’s another reason besides the return of baseball to cheer February: it’s the month of David Price, discount Matt Kemp,  Michael Bourn, B.J. and Justin Upton, Carl Crawford, Jason Heyward, etc. – the national pastime’s collective gift to the annual Black History observance.  African-American players are becoming historically significant as their numbers make them rarer and rarer.  The percentage of blacks in the sport projects to be the lowest this season than it was a decade after Jackie Robinson reached the Dodgers in 1947.

When rosters are in place at the end of spring training, roughly eight percent of major league players figure to be African-Americans.  That compares to 17 percent in 1959, 27 percent in 1975 and 19 percent in 1995.  The visible reasons for the continuing numerical slump are the widespread dropping of baseball as an urban high school sport and the paucity of playing space in the cities.  The basic reason, however, is well known but seldom seen close-up: poverty.  Kids from poor families – and the African-American poverty rate is among the highest in our society – have many more obstacles to playing ball in an organized way than do their better-off fellow players.

The frequency of poor black children dropping out of school reinforces the unlikelihood of urban African-Americans playing baseball in a sustained way.  Then there is the incarceration factor: even if a young black somehow gets to display ball-playing skill, he has to avoid run-ins with the law.  The stats indicate that, in what has become a strict law-enforcement society, avoiding trouble with the police is not easy for African-Americans.  Roughly a third of young black dropouts – some of whom could be playing pro ball – find themselves in prison instead.  All of this underlines why there are more than three times as many (cheaper-to-recruit) foreign players, mostly Latinos, than American blacks.

The inequality that Team USA has allowed to rally for so long is a big part of the problem.  But Baseball has done little to try to reverse the trend.  It does give some support to Harlem RBI, an NYC-based program that gives young blacks and other inner-city boys and girls a chance to play the game, and receive schooling help as they do.  It’s been around for 20 years, but the idea has not taken off.  It may be unfair to say that Bud Selig and his people could do more, but that’s what the record book shows.

The political scorecard in the Congressional league shows African-American numbers to be about the same – eight percent – as in the MLB.  Pending a special election in Chicago in April to fill the seat vacated by Jesse Jackson, Jr., there are 41 black players on the House team, only one in the Senate.

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Why Fans, if not MLB Teams, Should Like the WBC:  Former All-Star closer Brad Lidge (quoted by SF Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins) on what playing the World Baseball Classic is like“It feels like a bunch of playoff games.  You’re rearing back and throwing with everything you have…”

Work Wanted:  Among unsigned players who will be auditioning for contracts in the WBC are two familiar members of the Venezuelan team, both pitchers:  Carlos Zambrano, late of the Marlins, and Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez, untendered by the Brewers.   The three-week tournament begins this Saturday.

Houston, We (May) Have a Problem:  On SNY last Saturday, Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling were talking about the likelihood the Astros would lose 105 games this season: They’ll be in the AL West, they noted, having to play intra-division games with the touted Angels, Athletics and Rangers.  The frequency of those possibly one-sided games, said Hernandez, “means there’s a good chance that a wild card spot will come from that division.”

The Bright Side:  Yankees GM Brian Cashman on Curtis Granderson’s fractured right forearm that will sideline him for 10 weeks:  “If Curtis is going to miss two months, you’d rather have one of the two not count.”                                           

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(The Nub is a team effort skippered by Dick Starkey.  Comments to dickstar@aol.com are welcome, and only they can be addressed by the skipper.  Previous Nubs may be found by scrolling below.)

Who Cares About Illegal Drugs or Drones?

(Posted: 2/23/13)

The other night, advice an MLB-TV panel moderated by Bob Costas discussed Baseball’s ongoing illegal-drugs epidemic.  The panelists, including former players, journalists and professional observers, agreed that stiffer penalties were needed to keep the sport clean. The session ended with what amounted to a collective warning that baseball would begin losing fans if it didn’t address the problem more decisively.

A quaint idea, the losing-support threat.  Our sense is that baseball fans aren’t bothered by seeing drugged-up players in games they watch.  Growing attendance figures attest to their indifference, as do the sport’s upward spiraling TV deals.  Whether dirty or clean, a player has to perform the crowd-pleasing feats of hitting a 90-plus mph fastball, running down an elusive fly, playing a heads-up game generally.  That’s all most fans ask.

We were reminded of another panel held at the New York Historical Society a few years ago.  It included, among others, Marvin Miller and Jim Bouton.  Miller said Baseball had no right to try to impose drug tests on players who are grown-ups and know the risks of doping.  It was Bouton who made what we thought was the telling point:  “If I knew a teammate was using illegal stuff that raised his game,” he said, “I would raise hell.  He could be taking my job away unfairly.”

Chances are Baseball’s anti-illegal drugs effort will only become effective when the players – led by their union – pick up on Bouton’s point and police the behavior of their teammates.  No more looking away when there’s reason to believe a Manny Rodriguez or Melky Cabrera is saying the drug “rules don’t apply to me.”  We all should heed the same advice when our national political team ignores not only rules but laws when playing a lethally offensive game abroad.

From his pressbox in Europe, the International Herald-Trib’s William Pfaff laments the American public’s belief in our exceptionalism.  From there, he notes, it’s easy to edge farther off-base toward tolerance of the rules-breaking by Team Obama:

“(The U.S.) now has become the nation in the world which is doing the most to destroy the international law in matters of war, peace, UN authority and unilateral military intervention into the affairs of other countries. This usually is given an ideological justification that is a transparent rationale for American national interest.  Behind this lies the American sentiment of national exception. The country considers itself unique in history by virtue of its constitutional origins, its Bill of Rights , its governing system of balanced executive, legislative, and judicial powers…

“While the drones are creating current controversy, there has yet to be an effective challenge in the Congress, the American judiciary, or the press and public to…this claim to legal invulnerability, or to the politically paranoid conviction that the United States remains under some kind of global threat justifying these extraordinary measures.”

That this immoral paranoia is “not our problem as long as we are kept safe” should no longer be acceptable.  Taking a signal from FDR, who said to the liberals of his day, “Make me do (what you want me to do)”, fans in both left and right field must demand a change in the O-team game if we are to retrieve the values that truly made us exceptional.

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Generous Giants:  More than a third of the Giants’ 2012 championship team are set to play in the World Baseball Classic, which starts next week.  Three of the nine participants will play for Venezuela – Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro, Jose Mijares.  Puerto Rico will have Angel Pagan and Andres Torres on its roster.  Santiago Casilla will compete with the Dominican Republic, Sergio Romo with Mexico.  Pitchers Ryan Vogelsong and Jeremy Affeldt will join the U.S. team.

Personal Column:  Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says R.A. Dickey will have a personal catcher.  Chances are the man asked to corral R.A’s knuckler will be familiar to Mets fans, as well as to him.  Josh Thole is in line of the job, with Mike Nickeas a long-shot possibility.  Both caught Dickey in 2012, and both were traded to the Jays in the seven-player deal that sent catcher Travis D’Arnaud, among others, to the Mets.  Henry Blanco, who caught Dickey back in 2010, is also in the mix.

Berra Being Berra:  The latest Yogi-ism from Joe Garagiola, on his retirement from broadcasting with the D-backs:  “I called Yogi (now 87), who is in assisted living and asked him how he was doing.  “OK,” he said, “but there sure are a lot of old people here.”

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(The Nub is a team effort skippered by Dick Starkey.  Comments to dickstar@aol.com are welcome, and only they can be addressed by the skipper.  Previous Nubs may be found by scrolling below.)

 

Reasons for Baseball Optimism, Hope on Political Ballfield

(Posted: 2/22/13)

As baseball prepares to embark on a brave new balanced-leagues season – 15 teams per, generic advice six five-team divisions – it deserves something seldom seen here: applause for a willingness to embrace change. While we continue to deplore the sport’s refusal to (a) make expanded use of video replays to correct bad calls and (b) dispense with patriotic punctuations in praise of country, generic and military personnel, drugstore etc., (c) act more boldly in leveling the financial playing field, we acknowledge there’s a lot to like – i.e, more fairness in the player-drafting formula, tighter monitoring of illegal drug use, and even the World Baseball Classic and addition of a second wild card into the playoff mix.

SI’s Tom Verducci keeps the positive rally going for baseball – but not for the nation – in his latest post: “We are in an extremely rare period in the game’s history because offense is down and attendance is up. There are many reasons why this is happening, including… the frightening pace in which America is becoming an entertainment-based society. We spend roughly three times as much money on entertainment as we do education.”  

The lure of entertainment is familiar: baseball, movies, television, live shows, video games, i-phone surfing, social networking – the distractions are endless. The missed-sign about what’s happening in our schools is logical too-laid-back inattentiveness. In his State of the Union pitch, Skipper Obama delivered a game plan to correct early-education errors as they affect four-year-olds. He wants to make quality schooling available to all of them. Times columnist Gail Collins has gone to bat for the idea, and done it with intensity:

“People, think about this for a minute. We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are. Would it be different if all the children born over the last 40 years had been given access to top-quality early education — programs that not only kept them safe while their parents worked, but gave them the language and reasoning skills that wealthy families pass on as a matter of course?

“We’ll never know.”

As seldom happens, Collins’ teammate in right field, David Brooks, swung behind the program with equal vigor: “Early childhood education is about…getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It’s about instilling achievement values where they are absent. President Obama has taken on a big challenge in a realistic and ambitious way. If Republicans really believe in opportunity and local control, they will get on board.”

So far, Team GOP is taking a pass on the Obama game plan. The chances of the righthanders deciding to play ball are not good, but this particular political season is just beginning.

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Attention Bud Selig: So much for baseball’s request that teams not try to dissuade players from taking part in the World (WBC) Classic: Andy Pettitte on the Yankees: “It was a big deal for me…I never had a chance to play for my country…(But) they (Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi) didn’t want me to play.” Felix Hernandez on the Mariners: “They asked me not to play” (after he said he would). Johan Santana on the Mets: “I would love to play, but they don’t want me to.”

Big-If-Brian: Choose an oft-injured player whose regular presence in his team’s lineup this season would be a most-likely playoff-insuring difference-maker. Our choice: Baltimore’s Brian Roberts. Now 35, Roberts has been sidelined for much of the past three seasons. But in the five years up to 2009 he averaged .294 as a hitter and 36 steals as a base-runner. If – capital I – former All-Star Roberts stays healthy at second base, the Orioles of Buck Showalter could surprise again by returning to the post-season.

Not a Commercial (although it may sound like one): Zack Greinke, on what has helped him overcome social anxiety disorder: “Talking about it (with a psychologist) didn’t help me at all…It was just the (anti-depressant) medicine (Zoloft). It really was.” (quoted by Bill Plunkett, Orange County (CA) Register)

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(The Nub is a team effort skippered by Dick Starkey. Commentsto dickstar@aol.com are welcome, and only they can be addressedby the skipper. Previous Nubs may be found by scrolling below.)