Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Charles Cathen Sabathia...What Happened to the Black Baseball Player

I'm going for the Yankees. Write it down, take a picture, remember it. I don't care what you think of me for saying it, and meaning it.

I was born in 1974, and the first World Series I remember watching with my Dad was the 1978 one wherein the Yankees won. I don't remember much other than Billy Martin, the pinstripes, learning the difference between home and away jerseys and Reggie Jackson. #44 was the only Black player I'd ever seen. I think at the time, I hadn't been to a baseball game, and more importantly, in Dallas at the time, as it is today, football was king. But the Yankees had this elegant, confident, well-spoken man in Reggie Jackson, and he was their biggest star.

The little bits of his small afro would jut out from under his cap just so to the left and right, and he wore shades at night under the lights. He was all-world in my book. I loved #44 because he looked like my Dad and because Dad loved #44 too.

As I grew older, baseball was something that I played with my brother and my cousins. But, we weren't really serious about it. We had a plastic bat and ball combo that couldn't really break windows, and that was the extent of our baseball. My cousin Reggie was an excellent ballplayer, and later my cousin Driscoll played too, but it seemed that other sports held our attention longer, namely football and basketball or even tennis and golf.

But, growing up in Dallas, the hometown team, the Texas Rangers, were abysmal. They were absolutely horrible, and the only thing that made them bearable was the addition of Nolan Ryan at pitcher. I don't remember the Rangers having any Black ballplayers. And the few that I thought were Black were actual Latino players like Ruben Sierra (whom I met at Fogo de Choa on my 28th birthday...big thrill).

I had to look elsewhere to find Black ballplayers that I liked like Ozzie Smith in St. Louis, or Andre Dawson of the Cubs or Dave Winfield of the Yankees/A's and even Tony Gwynn in San Diego. Even still, none of these guys were pitchers until Glenn 'Oil Can' Boyd and Dwight 'Doc' Gooden of the Red Sox and Mets respectively.

And in the 1986 World Series, they met. But to be honest, I haven't seen it since. Of course, Game 6 was the game that defined the series and baseball at that point. But where, oh where are the Black ballplayers?

Can you name any? Seriously? Sure there was Cecil Fielder in Detroit, Mo Vaughn in Boston, and McLemore in Texas, and we've had scores of Black managers like Cito Gaston, Hal McRae and Frank Robinson, but not until the mid to late 90s did we see a mild swelling of the numbers.

Back then, there was a steady stream; Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh and later San Francisco, Tony Gwynn out in San Diego and Ken Griffey, Sr. and then his son Ken Griffey, Jr. in Seattle and then out of nowhere there was Derek Jeter in New York, wearing a single number no less, 2. Jeter was dependable, quiet, a strong leader and a hard worker, and bi-racial, but still at the same time unabashedly and proudly Black. And at one time, Griffey was baseball's biggest star until the 1994 strike, and the homerun chase of 1998.

I guess the real context to my question about where the Black players are is so profound because of the fact that simply integrating the league was so difficult when Jackie Robinson did it in 1947. His presence, his fortitude and his strength and integrity were so strong that today, every single team in Major League Baseball has retired his number. Do you understand what that means? This man, and his actions were so great that no one, anywhere in the history of the game can ever wear his number. That's serious. And that's because there is no other like him.

But part of me thinks that when Jackie's number was retired, there was a quiet deal made wherein no other Black players would succeed in numbers. That was the reason that when the Phillies won last year, it was so thrilling to see that they did so off of the bats of Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, two of the more prominent and visible players on the team. It gives one hope.

But then, I never understood why there was so much fuss over C.C. Sabathia. I assumed with his name that he too was a Latino player. Not until two weeks ago when my friend Antoy told me otherwise was I shocked to find out that C.C., named Charles Cathen Sabathia, is an African American player from Valejo, CA. The highest paid pitcher in Major League Baseball is Black. He plays on the most visible team in the world, the New York Yankees. He plays with the sport's ultimate sportsman and leader in Derek Jeter who is also Black, and he is 27 outs away from his first world championship win tonight. And to top all of that off, C.C. has been outspoken over the fact that Major League Baseball, for all its greatnesses has done little to nothing to promote the values and positive qualities of playing baseball in the inner-cities of America. He has been very critical of Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to be more proactive in this area, and not been a silent athlete like so many others.

How fitting that the first team I cheered for at my father's knee, the Yankees, would have the Reggie Jackson of today in Derek Jeter and would have the most feared pitcher in the game, C.C. Sabathia on the same team? Sure, I'm sure there is no social agenda here, the Yankees want to win, but I'm sure, tonight when the Yankees win and bring the 40th world championship back to New York City and wrestle it away from Philadelphia, that somewhere those nameless, countless others; Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Don Newcombe, Donn Clendenon, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Vida Blue and countless others are smiling, smiling, smiling.

But where are the Black ballplayers? Is it because to excel in baseball one now goes to camps to learn to hit, field, pitch and throw? And those same camps aren't as accessible in inner-city communities as in suburban ones? Is it because while the baseball diamonds are still in the parks, rarely if ever are they used outside of recreational play? Is it because it's an expensive sport? What are the reasons? It makes no sense that America's past time, which arguably has had some of its greatest contributors to come from the African American community, is hard pressed to produce more talented players today. Is this more indicative of the educational systems or is this simply a case of, who cares? And no, believe me when I say that baseball is not the panacea to what ails the African American community, but there are countless opportunities available to those who are skilled in this area, and yet we let opportunity after opportunity pass us by year by year in this regard.

Sure there are bigger issues, bigger problems, but it's a curious notion that a thing that was fought so hard and desperately for is now not even an issue. Have we come to that point? Is a little bit enough? If that's how you feel, fine. But to think for a moment that involvement in an organized and positive activity like baseball doesn't have a lasting positive effect on a young person is ludicrous. Baseball may not be able to cure all of the ills of our society, but it definitely can't hurt it, nor can it's lessons of teamwork, sacrifice, leadership and accountability. Think about it.

I'm Joe and that's how I see it.


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