Watson: 'I don't think we market our product'
After 17 years in the trenches trying to find, procure and develop young talent for Major League Baseball teams, DeJon Watson is well aware of the influence that role models play on a young man's dreams.
Growing up outside Los Angeles in the city of Compton in the early 1970s, Watson embraced an aging Willie Mays as his favorite player. How could he resist, when he switched on the television at age 5 and the ABC Saturday Superstar Movie, "Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid,'' was staring right back at him?
Several years later Watson sneaked into Jackie Robinson Stadium at Gonzales Park to watch a traveling baseball team called the Dukes, which featured such budding talent as Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry, Shane Mack, Chris Brown and Rodney McCray -- the outfielder who later achieved notoriety for accidentally running through a plywood fence during a minor league game in Portland, Ore.
Davis eventually received basketball scholarship offers from Pepperdine and Arizona State, and his friends and teammates had options, but they still gravitated to baseball. Their devotion to the sport resonated with Watson, an African-American and multisport athlete himself.
"Once you laid eyes on them you said, 'Hey, I can be one of those guys,'" Watson said.
Watson did become one of them -- to a point. He played five years of minor league ball in the Kansas City chain before realizing that his future lay in a different realm. After working as a scout for the Marlins, Reds and Indians, he's now running the farm system for the Dodgers, the organization of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. And he's aware of the legacy that he's helping to perpetuate.
"For me to have this opportunity to work for the Dodgers ... without Jackie, none of this is possible,'' Watson said.
Watson, 40, has been sensitive to the issue of young black athletes tuning out baseball for years. During his tenure with the Marlins, the team organized the Jackie Robinson Classic, an annual tournament designed to increase the exposure of ballplayers at historically black colleges. But when Watson called Black Entertainment Television to pitch the event as worthy of broadcasting, he received a "thanks, but no thanks" response.
Watson is convinced that baseball, in contrast to the other major sports, does a poor job of promoting its players.
"From an industry standpoint, I don't think we market our product like the NFL or NBA market theirs,'' Watson said. "We live in an MTV, VH1, music, hip-hop era. Kids today aren't watching regular television. If you're not trying to market to them, you're missing an audience you need to reach.''
Watson has some ideas to spread the gospel. He would like to see MLB complement its $10 million Urban Youth Baseball Academy in Compton with similar projects in Atlanta, Houston and other cities. He thinks baseball should provide college credits to African-American minor leaguers so they can work as assistant coaches at schools and help cultivate the next generation. And he'd like the game to make better use of resources such as the rapper Nelly, who was once scouted by the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates.
"How do you not have Nelly doing commercials, messing around in batting practice, saying, 'Hey, it's all right. Baseball is a cool place to be'?" Watson said. "In the NBA, you see a lot of celebrities at games. There are a lot of celebrities at baseball games, too. We just don't use them to our advantage to parlay this into something positive.''
Meanwhile, the tug of war continues, as promising multisport athletes spurn baseball for what Watson calls the "instant gratification" of football, basketball and track.
He doesn't know if the kids dislike baseball or are simply oblivious that it exists as an option.
"I'm not sure if they're really paying attention to it, to be honest with you,'' Watson said.
For the people on the front lines, apathy might be the biggest enemy of all.
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