Diversity plays key role for Brewers
African-American players hope to set quality example for youth
PHOENIX -- Mike Cameron looks around the Brewers' clubhouse and sees one of the league's best clusters of African-American talent. It makes him proud to be part of it.
"It's fun, man, to be around young brothers that really understand the game," Cameron said. "It's special."
It is also increasingly rare. But the Brewers, mostly through the First-Year Player Draft, have made themselves into an exception. Barring injuries, four of the team's eight everyday hitters will be black -- center fielder Cameron, first baseman Prince Fielder, third baseman Bill Hall and second baseman Rickie Weeks. While Cameron serves a 25-game suspension, a candidate to fill his spot in center field is Tony Gwynn, Jr.
Fielder, Gwynn, Hall and Weeks are all Brewers Draft picks. Only Cameron, who inked a free-agent contract with Milwaukee during the offseason, grew up outside the organization.
"It's definitely meaningful," Hall said of the Brewers' relative roster diversity. "I think that's especially so given the declining numbers around the game and the way we all play. This team, they're not just throwing anybody out there. They've got some real talent here.
"It's a credit to Milwaukee and to Doug [Melvin, the Brewers' GM,] and everyone else for giving us a chance to be who we are. It's a lot of fun."
Melvin deflects the credit, citing circumstance as the reason the Brewers and amateur scouting director Jack Zduriencik have hit on so many African-American talents.
And Melvin points out that there is more of that talent in the pipeline. Outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Darren Ford, infielder Brent Brewer and right-hander Jeremy Jeffress are all high-profile African-Americans in the team's Minor League chain. Jeffress was the Brewers' first-round Draft pick in 2006 out of a rural Virginia high school and he has a live arm, but will continue to serve a league-imposed suspension into 2008 for testing positive for a recreational drug.
"We're fortunate to have these players," Melvin said. "There is a lack of African-American players playing the game today. You go to college programs and there's not as many playing at the amateur level, so the talent pool we're reaching into is smaller. More guys are playing football and basketball, and there are not as many guys you can 'buy out' of those sports."
The Brewers are certainly not the only Major League team with talented black players. The Angels, Dodgers and Rays come to mind as teams well-stocked with black stars, from Torii Hunter to Russell Martin to Carl Crawford.
But across the game, the numbers are troubling to players like Cameron, whose oldest son, 11-year-old Dazmon, has Major League aspirations. Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, studies various leagues and noted that MLB was near an all-time high in 2006 with 40.5 percent players of color, while at the same time, the number of African-Americans in the league fell to a new low of 8.4 percent. As recently as 1995, 19 percent of big leaguers were African-American.
Only two black players appeared in the most recent World Series: Boston's Coco Crisp and Colorado's LaTroy Hawkins.
It's all about reigniting a passion for baseball among African-American kids, Cameron said.
"You can have all the talent in the world, but most important is that you have to be passionate about playing this game," Cameron said. "The ups and downs of it are so difficult, and for most African-American players, for them to struggle at a sport is really difficult to accept. But once you learn to get past not accepting failure, but learning to deal with it, then your talent stands out even more."
Said Weeks: "Kids are looking for the fast way out, and in baseball it's hard to do that. The thing about baseball is you have to stick with it. You can't play a season and take a whole offseason off. In football and basketball, you can. Kids see those other sports on TV more and they think it's a way out."
Baseball, the argument goes, is a tougher way out because it takes so long for the vast majority of players to advance through the Minor Leagues, and only a small number make it. Football and basketball, they believe, offer a more direct path to a payday.
Hall also believes that marketing plays a role. For every Ryan Howard television commercial, he says, there are 10 featuring the National Football League's LaDainian Tomlinson or the National Basketball Association's LeBron James. A group of African-American players is still considering hiring its own marketing firm to boost the profile of black baseball stars, Hall said.
Tony Clark, currently with the Padres and a prominent member of the player's union, organized a meeting in New York during the offseason to discuss the issue. The group, with current players including Hall, Howard and Hunter and former stars like Eddie Murray and Frank Robinson, met with Major League Baseball officials Jimmie Lee Solomon and Bob Watson.
"But outside of television marketing, we have to get out there and market ourselves," Hall said. "We have to let the kids see us. Let them know they can relate to us."
Hall has been particularly active in Milwaukee's inner city during his Brewers tenure, and along with Weeks led a group of kids on a day trip to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City on a snowy December day.
Fielder probably has the highest profile of Milwaukee's young players after finishing third in last year's National League MVP balloting won by Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins, another African-American superstar. He's thought about the issue, but said the current group in Milwaukee is there because of talent, period.
"All of the guys in the Negro Leagues played well enough and handled themselves in a way that allow us to now play in this league," Fielder said. "After that, it's not about skin color. It's about being a good player.
"If we keep saying that [African-American kids] aren't into baseball, then they're not going to be into it. If anybody keeps putting things in your mind, of course it's going to stick. I think we should be more positive. Let's not worry about who's not playing, and look at who is playing."
Can the trends be reversed? Hall is hopeful but not entirely sure, but he does believe that he and his teammates did not come together by chance.
"Everything happens for a reason," Hall said. "I guess we have to figure out what this one's for."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.