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Commentary: On Jackie Robinson Day, it’s worth again addressing the elephant in the room

Today was Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball – commemorating and honoring the day he made his major league debut 71 years ago in 1947.

And while I’m not an expert on race or race relations in sports, there’s no better time to have this conversation.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the percentage of black players from the U.S. and Canada on Opening Day was just 8.4% - and that’s the highest it’s been since 2012. Compare that to the NBA, which hovers around 70 to 75%, and the NFL, which in 2016, was close to 70%. It was a question I brought up with Mariners leadoff hitter Dee Gordon in Spring Training.

“I’m the only black guy in camp. So, you know, that speaks volumes,” Gordon said.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked him.

“Costs too much. Costs too much to play. Every bat costs $500. My cousin just text me the other day needing a bat for her son. Thank god I play in the major leagues. I was able to get it for them. It was $500. He’s 11 years old. Gloves are $400. Everybody’s parents aren’t able to afford that. I feel like it’s kind of my job to help anyway possible,” Gordon said.

“Do you think that’s why basketball’s so popular?” I asked.

“Yeah. You can use a ball that doesn’t have any seams on it to play. Football, they give you your equipment. So, you’re all good there,” Gordon said.

Andrew McCutchen said something similar, blaming the costs of travel ball from an early age for the declining participation of kids from low-income families.

Now, wait a minute, you say. Poor players from Latin America make it all the time. But think about it: They grow up on patches of dirt, swinging makeshift bats at makeshift balls, loving the sport and current baseball superstars, with Major League teams scouring their countries – even setting up scouting departments there - to find and train players.

In terms of baseball, that’s not how our inner city youth are being raised. Who are they looking up to? And where, in urban areas, do they even have a chance to play baseball?

According to Kevin Baker, who worked on a history of New York city baseball, “There’s no sandlots anymore. You want to play organized ball, you’re practically forced to get on a bus and head for the suburbs.” Suburbs, aka, areas where more expensive organized leagues take place.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred even stated, “We see the NCAA and college baseball as kind of the top of this youth participation pyramid, and when you talk to the NCAA, you get the impression that they see baseball as a country club sport – white, rich kids play."

In a sport that has boasted iconic African American athletes throughout many generations – from Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron, to Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Junior – that’s really sad. Plus, if I asked you to name the best black baseball player right now, who would you say? And if you can’t name anyone immediately, why do you think that is?

Now, to the Mariners credit, they’ve launched the ON BASE initiative which promotes youth development and takes part in the league-wide initiative to revive baseball and softball in inner cities, including locally with the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club in Seattle.

But according to C.J. Stewart, who runs a LEAD Academy in Atlanta for inner-city youth, “There needs to be a real discussion. You can’t keep saying black kids don’t want to play baseball. That’s crazy. Just come out and say you don’t know how to develop them.”

So we’re raising the issue tonight. There aren’t any immediate answers. But at the very least, in deference to Jackie Robinson’s legacy, it’s a subject worth the discussion, and a problem worth trying to solve.