TEMPE, Arizona — When Jerry Manuel walks into the room at Tempe Diablo Stadium early on a Friday morning, he’s carrying a portable speaker blasting an instrumental version of Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing.” His coaches are trying to guess who is on the saxophone. After multiple failed attempts, he announces that it’s Boney James. A copy of Baseball America is on the table, and MLB Network is playing in the background. Then the meeting starts.
The baseball lifer known as “The Sage” is here to run the show. He’s leading a collection of former major league players, coaches and scouts at the Dream Series, a showcase event run by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball that puts the best African-American players in the country in the same place to learn and play.
It looks like a big league spring training, it feels like a big league spring training, but it doesn’t quack like a big league spring training. With 60 kids invited to the event, specifically pitchers and catchers, they don’t have time to waste. This crew has been selected because of their knowledge, experience and skill. The best black players in America are here to learn from some of the best black coaches in America. Period. It’s important that their message is unified, for a variety of reasons.
“The key thing is, for me, is that there’s no confusion with the kid when he leaves here,” said Manuel, who won a World Series ring and a Manager of the Year Award in the big leagues. “He’s not confused. He might not get the revelation of what you’re talking about, but he’s not confused. He might not get it right now. He might go home, wake up and say, ‘Ah, that’s what he meant.’ Flash [Tom Gordon] said to me the same thing Marvin [Freeman] said to me. But Marvin said it in a different way. That’s the genius of who you guys are. That’s the genius of having different types of pitchers here.
“There’s a difference between throwing and pitching. We can’t get caught up in just velocity. We gotta get caught up in pitching. Counts, etc. I just want to make it clear what the whole program is about. We are trying to get this thing right, and it’s going to take some time, but we are getting better.”
Over the next three days, players who were part of a generation who shaped what the game is all about for me would attempt to do the same for the players whom MLB has identified as those with the best chance to help solve their diversity problem.
While the baseball basics throw around phrases such as “where are all the black players?” and posit quasi-sensible but ultimately pointless theories as to why the number of African-American players at the major league level has dipped by whatever percentage, on the surface the league is taking a multifaceted at best, scatterbrained at worst, attempt to build the game at the grass-roots level, besides grooming talent to advance to the next level.
The truth is that a combination of economics and sociology — along with interest — has changed why the number of African-American players is down in MLB. But baseball is bigger than the major leagues. There are fewer black players in college baseball, never mind high school baseball and on down. Travel ball has turned the average teenage experience on the diamond into a game with higher stakes than most parents can afford to play, and when teams in structurally and institutionally disadvantaged districts do succeed at the little league level, there are some coaches willing to go to the ends of the earth to make sure their kids win, no matter the cost — remember what happened to Jackie Robinson West.
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