- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's Note: This story appears in the April 23 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Joyce Harris will never forget the first time her son, Dontrelle Willis, tried out for an elite traveling team in a tony Bay Area suburb. Dontrelle hadn't thrown four pitches when another mother asked Harris, "Who's your son's pitching coach?" Harris, a former union ironworker, laughs as she recounts the story. "He had a box painted on a wall on the side of the house," she says. "That was his pitching coach."
During the past few years, The Magazine has done a number of features on African-American players who privately raised concerns about declining representation. In 1975, 27.5% of big leaguers were African-Americans. This year, on Opening Day rosters, the number was 8.4%. And so, 60 years after Jackie Robinson's debut, we invited three prominent black All-Stars -- Devil Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Indians lefthander C.C. Sabathia -- to discuss the issue. Is this, as Sabathia put it at the Civil Rights Game in late March, a crisis? And if so, what is to be done?
JIMMY ROLLINS: We see different teams come in, and the first thing we look for is how many brothers they got. Sometimes it's one dude by himself. And we're like, "Man, you know that's a long year for him." He has no one to relate to unless he has a coach. When you don't have your people around, it makes it tough. Whether it's racism in your face or being swept under the rug, you feel it. You have nobody to talk to, and that can cause a lot of anger.
CARL CRAWFORD: We have a joke among ourselves: If you ain't an All-Star, you can't be black in the major leagues. It seems like we always have to be the best player on the team. That's the only way we can crack the door.
THE MAG: Did big league scouts sometimes avoid your neighborhood?
ROLLINS: That championship ring wasn't on when they came to the house like it was when they came to the school. We had a nice field, so at home games you could line up 10, 15 scouts, but when we went on the road, to the Oakland Athletic League schools, scouts were not gonna walk up 98th Avenue and go to a game. So some guys weren't getting seen.
C.C. SABATHIA: I called home when I first got drafted, to tell people my high school team could beat my A-ball team. We have to get more exposure.
THE MAG: Is baseball becoming like soccer, which has the image of a suburban, wealthy sport?
SABATHIA: Everybody talks about how the game costs a lot to play, but it doesn't. Go get a tennis ball, go get a bat, and play all day. I think we've just gotta get the kids back interested. When I go home [to Vallejo, Calif.], the field I played on has weeds six feet high. When I lived there, it was green grass, and everything was nice, and we had brand-new balls. The community took care of the field. That's what I'm trying to do [in reviving the North Vallejo Little League], because there's so many kids in my hometown who need something to hold on to, and I feel it's my job to try to help them.
THE MAG: How much of it is image?
CRAWFORD: When I go back to my area [Houston's Fifth Ward], it's like, "Who are you?" I ain't really no big deal.
ROLLINS: You know, black people like to spend money! Shoot, let 'em spend some money on baseball. If you can make baseball look good to us, maybe that will spark an interest.
"I'm going to take on the problem head on. I want to go deep into the heart of where I came from. It's the only way we're going to get the results we're looking for."
-- Carl Crawford
THE MAG: It seems like baseball has often relied on the game to market itself.
ROLLINS: Well, times have changed. If we want to bring African-Americans back to baseball, what can we do besides the RBI programs? People want to buy our products. I wear a skully -- maybe make a skully. Make some of C.C.'s spikes and people will feel like they can get out there and throw lefthanded even if they're righthanded.
SABATHIA: When I was starting out, we had Ellis Burks and Matt Lawton. I definitely never thought I would see the day when I was the only African-American in the clubhouse. And you know, I think a lot of people don't believe that this is a big problem, because they see the skin tone of the Latin players. This is nothing against Latin players, because some of those guys are my best friends in the world, but I think people see their skin color and think it's not a big deal.
THE MAG: Baseball teams seem to realize the importance of putting Latin players together in a clubhouse, to share their language and culture. Do you think they just haven't seen a need to do the same thing with African-Americans?
ROLLINS: If we speak English, we should be able to adapt, right? That's probably the thought process. In the clubhouse, we call it the border. They're all over there, pulling their chairs together, huddling up, whether they're from Venezuela, the Dominican, Cuba, Puerto Rico. They speak the same language, they have the same experience coming from a poor country to a place where they can make a dream. We have to get on cell phones and highlight our boys three or four cities away.
CRAWFORD: Before I signed, I didn't have a clue what a Latin guy was. I got into the team van [in rookie ball], and I was like, "We're about to have a good team." I heard a Latin guy talking Spanish, and I didn't understand what was going on.
ROLLINS: I cussed one dude out. I thought he was ignoring me. I'm talking to him and he's not saying nothing. And then it was like, "No, he's Spanish," and I'm like, "No, that dude is black." It was a straight culture shock that somebody with skin the same color as mine doesn't understand one word I'm saying.
SABATHIA: A couple of years ago, a teammate saw me walking out of the clubhouse in Minnesota with Jacque Jones, and he was all over me the next day. "Why you always hanging out with guys from another team?" Well, I can relate to Jacque. I'm not saying I don't have white friends, because I do, but it's nice to have somebody who can relate to you whatever situation you are in.
THE MAG: C.C., given what's changed over the past 10 to 15 years, if you were 10 years old right now, would baseball be your sport?
"I think it's going to take black players coming together to really do something to turn it around. And there's no better time. Everybody gets along. It's not like we don't know each other, 'cuz there's not a lot of us!"
-- C.C. Sabathia
SABATHIA: I don't think so. The reason I wanted to play baseball was the A's. They had Dave Parker, Rickey Henderson, Dave Henderson, Dave Stewart -- guys I could look up to. Right now, the A's have Milton Bradley, and that's about it. I don't think I'd be playing baseball. I think it would probably be football, because that's what I see.
THE MAG: What can you guys do?
SABATHIA: I think showing our faces a lot is going to help. Donating, getting out there and maybe throwing camps. We could say, come to Torii Hunter's camp or Jimmy's camp or Dontrelle's. I think it's going to take black players coming together to really do something to turn it around. And there's no better time. Everybody gets along. It's not like we don't know each other, 'cuz there's not a lot of us!
ROLLINS: Spark it up. That's community. One person with hope can only go so far.
THE MAG: It might help if guys like you stayed in the game after you're finished playing, right?
ROLLINS: Truthfully, myself? When it's done, I'm done. I want kids and a family. But you know, thinking about the social responsibility, it might be important. I've never thought of it like that.
SABATHIA: The way you put that, you got me thinking about it now. Maybe we do need to be around and help some of these young guys out.
CRAWFORD: Hit the monster, you know? I'm going to take on the problem head on. I want to go deep into the heart of where I came from. It's the only way we're going to get the results we're looking for.
Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
10hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com