On Wednesday MLB and The New York Yankees held its annual Jackie Robinson Day, in which Robinson’s skill, courage and historic breaking of baseball’s color barrier is celebrated, as well as his post career endeavors as an ambassador for the sport. Robinson’s wife Rachel was in attendance at Yankees Stadium, and MLB honors Robinson by having every player wear No. 42. There’s so much pride that runs through my body when witnessing such a display of reverence and respect.
There’s also much irony in the fact that baseball will never actually have a team of Jackie Robinson’s. In fact, Robinson’s impact on baseball – once incomparable and magical – has never felt so irrelevant. There hasn’t been this few black ballers gracing MLB rosters since 1958, just nine years after Robinson gave Brothers, Hispanics and all other non-white ethnicities a lane to pursue baseball, free of bigotry.
The African-American population in baseball is almost unchanged from a year ago at 7.8%, according to USA TODAY Sport's survey of opening-day rosters and disabled lists. There are 67 black players in the major leagues, with three teams representing a total blackout – the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis Cardinals. It's a dramatic change from 1981 when, according to Mark Armour of the Society of Baseball Research (SABR), African-American basebrawlers peaked at 18.7 percent.
Robinson’s accomplishments have been diminished simply by the numbers and the lacking interest African-Americans are showing in baseball once they reach a certain age. As remarkable and courageous a journey it was, Robinson’s real American success story is becoming more mythical than memorable.
FLIPPING THE SCRIPT
As I’ve mentioned in previous pieces concerning the state of African-Americans and America’s former pastime, nobody is ignoring the problem. We are seeing black players dominate the centerfield position again in MLB and that is a positive sign. And baseball still matters in a lot of black communities. Look no further than the south side of Chicago where the 2013 Jackie Robinson West little league team advanced to the Great Lakes Championship Game and fell just one game short of The Little League World Series. It's been 30 years since a Chicago team made the LLWS, and that was the second straight year the young, Chi-Town sluggers almost made it to the big stage.
Jackie Robinson West has a long-standing baseball tradition fueled by the community’s love for baseball. They advanced to the first round of the 1983 World Series, coached by the late Joseph Haley, and seemed primed to repeat the feat with his son William at the helm before running into a game Michigan squad.
With all of the talk and statistics about declining participation by African-Americans in baseball, JRW is a league that stands as one of the last bastions of serious black youth baseball in America.
And on a larger scale, Bud Selig has commissioned an 18-member task force to start addressing the situation. Six urban youth academies are operating around the country and others are set to open. Also, there are 220,000 kids playing in (RBI) Reviving Baseball in the Inner City programs throughout the country. A nice group of MLB players including The Upton Brothers, CC Sabathia and Carl Crawford came up as products of the opportunities provided by RBI baseball.
Thirteen African Americans have been selected in the first round of the draft the past two years. As many as 14 are among the consensus top 100 prospects in this year's draft. "Right now, there is some momentum,'' says Jerry Manuel, the day-to-day leader of baseball's on-field diversity task force.”We have just not yet made it a movement.''
Manuel, a former MLB manager, knows better than anyone that building a movement doesn’t happen overnight. It takes the dedication of thousands of coaches from the T-ball level up into high school. It takes fathers and mothers who have played baseball and their desire to continue teaching the esoteric nuances and exciting intricacies of the game. People who love baseball passing it down to a younger generation of athletes that carry an unwavering and natural affection for the sport throughout their entire athletic lives.
The “movement” Manuel speaks of must be operating on every level from toddler batsman to minor league money makers. With all of these different mechanisms aimed at generating interest in baseball and simultaneously functioning as one culture-changing instrument, a day will come when the percentage of black ballers on MLB rosters at least reaches double digits again.
If you take a ride through New York City on a weekend, you’ll still see kids playing baseball all over. Everything is organized now. Nonetheless, they are out there, often being selflessly coached by a working-class adult with a family and the weight of the world already on his shoulders. It’s a natural exchange though, and the relationship works. The next generation gets to learn the treasures of baseball and the coach’s saving grace and opportunity to turn back the clock becomes his willingness and ability to coach these kids and share his knowledge. The coach doesn’t get paid. And most likely none of the kids he coaches will go pro. Coaches at those levels do it for the love of the game. For the survival of a sport that has brought them immeasurable happiness and life-changing experiences. A sport that people say is just not poppin’ like that anymore.
THE FUTURE: The Dukes Are Born
An organization like the Dukes Baseball Club (Brooklyn Dukes Inc.) is the type of grassroots baseball mini-movement popping up in inner-city and undeserved neighborhoods, that's laying the groundwork for the larger movement that Manuel refers too.
It's also the type of growing and ethnically diverse organization MLB’s RBI program embraces. It’s no mystery that African-Americans aren’t playing baseball at the rate they once did and baseball overall is losing its best “athletes” to more immediately glamorous and beneficial sports such as basketball and football. That has made it hard for black superstar talent to be cultivated past the age of 13 or 14. While baseball’s current black stars such as Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, C.C. Sabathia, Curtis Granderson and Torii Hunter are all in the twilight of great careers, the up-and-coming stars such as Andrew McCutchen, Justin Upton, Austin Jackson and Jason Heyward haven’t captivated the African-American community and bumrushed their athletic senses like a Ken Griffey Jr. did. The causes are debated endlessly. They have been well documented and seeking a solution is the driving goal behind all of the social programs, local leagues and MLB support for programs such as RBI.
Naturally, breeding a sustainable generation of black baseball players begins with Elementary school players. The Dukes 9u team (sometimes these band of ball busters play 10-11 year olds) plays travel baseball in the NY Travel Baseball league. They also participate in various tournaments throughout Brooklyn, Queens and the Metropolitan area and out of state. NYTB is a wood bat league where The Dukes consisting of players ranging from age seven-to-nine, play doubleheaders every Sunday against older and more polished players.
“Playing these guys up, making a name for Dukes Baseball and NY baseball in general, while preparing them for a lifetime of participation is the point,” said Dukes Assistant Coach Kerron Ware.
The Dukes Baseball Club grew out of The Brooklyn Dukes baseball team coached by Carlyle Leach, a Brooklyn resident whose uncle Gerald Leach would share numerous stories of playing baseball for the original Dukes in the sandlots of Brooklyn in the 1930's. Gerald passed down his passion for baseball to Carlyle, who infested his son Auguste Leach with the same baseball bug. Auguste and his high school friends decided to start their own baseball league in 2011 and name it after grand uncle Gerald’s old baseball bunch. Carlyle became the coach. Dukes Baseball was born.
Since that time, the Dukes have played in the 8U-16U divisions in Parade Ground Baseball League, Brooklyn Baseball League, Queens Sandlot Baseball League, and numerous tournaments in New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. The 8u Dukes finished their first travel season in 2013 with a championship in the seven-team College Point World Series Fall Tournament. They did it in dramatic fashion, losing the first game of a five-game series, before sweeping tne next three.
"It was great to win our first big tournament. I can't imagine what life would be like without baseball," said 8-year-old Dukes oufielder Sammy Benitez.
The Dukes Baseball Club is based in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and the players come from the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens, Yonkers, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Carnarsie, Red Hook, and downtown Brooklyn.
Dukes coach J.R. Gamble was coaching his son’s team in local Queens and Levittown, L.I. in-house leagues and recruiting young players to play on a travel team he was starting along with assistant coaches Jason DeMarco, Robinson Rodriguez and Ashely Vieux. All of the coaches have sons playing on the team and it’s their mutual obsession with baseball that formed a brotherhood committed to raising the stakes for baseball in the inner cities and recruiting a cultural and ethnic mix of players which accurately reflects New York’s diversity. A diversity MLB desperately needs.
DUKES MISSION STATEMENT
"The mission of the Dukes Baseball Club is to develop in our young players a drive for excellence and high achievement on and off the baseball field."
The Dukes team is an independently-funded squad of babies who play baseball like the big boys. They are comprised of an eclectic ethnic mix of African-American (half the team actually), Pacific-Asian, Italian-American, and Hispanic baseball players. They even have a set of twins – Mathew and Damon Jackson – who not only run like the wind but already are in full MLB swag mode with their confident mannerisms. At a recent game, one of them blew kisses to the crowd before lining a shot down the third base line and legging it out for a triple.
“We play old school Negro Leagues style ball,” Gamble said. “We are ethnic. Athletic. Intelligent. Charismatic. Fundamentally Sound, but non-inhibiting and the fastest team at our age, I’d say in the country. We also have the most naturally talented crop of 7-8 year-olds in New York City. We definitely want to put on a show for the people and the kids in attendance who might be thinking about playing baseball. Always respecting the game and our opponents but bringing an excitement and enthusiasm to the game that is similar to that found in football. But that’s how deeply our coaches love the sport and we are giving these kids every opportunity and reason to continue playing baseball, regardless of what other sport they play.”
Travel teams in baseball are considered like AAU teams in basketball. Parents usually pay exorbitant prices for their kid to travel to different fields and states to play a higher level of baseball against kids who are considered “serious” baseball players, as opposed to an in-house league where teams are randomly compiled and kids with drastically different skill levels play against each other according to age. The Dukes are purposely much lower priced than most travel teams but with the help of sponsors such as The East Village Community Coalition, along with strong parent fundraising efforts, The Dukes are able to spread their baseball joy all over the place.
These kids have to really be into baseball to handle playing over 30 games in the spring and another 40 in the summer. They are also going to represent NY in The Baseball Nations in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina from June 27th to July 3rd and are currently raising money to cover some of the expensive costs of travel, hotel and eating expenses for the 14-player team and their families.
Playing on The Dukes is a major commitment for any athlete, but especially a second or third-grader. Incredibly, the Dukes’ ace lefty pitcher is first-grader, Todd Feurtado. He’s been playing on the team since he was six and striking out 9 and 10-year olds with regularity. There’s a seven-year-old vacuum at shortstop named J.C. Gamble, who switch hits and bombs with a nickname to match his exquisite game – Lil Legend.
Watching eight-year-old Kelvin Rodriguez scoop balls out of the dirt at first base like a young Keith Hernandez and spray them all over the field like a Dominican Rod Carew, is breathtaking. There’s the elder statesmen on the team (if 9-year-olds can be elders)— ace pitcher and three-hole hitter Iravan Bhattacharyya, cleanup hitter Melvin Perez and multi-faceted Justin Virasami, who can play any position on the field. KJ Ware and Jaden Vieux all add their own unique flair and skill set to the mix. This crazy group of baby baseball kings (win or lose) bring heat. The stolen base is a lethal Dukes weapon and they don’t care if everyone in the park knows they’re going to run. In true Jackie Robinson fashion, they easily average 10 stolen bases a game.
“We do it anyway,” said Coach DeMarco, whose 8-year-old son Jordan can pick it behind the plate or at first base and hits opposite field lasers. ”We do everything 100 percent, full baseball rules. The only way these kids are going to learn to love the game is to get past what they would consider the boring stages of development… when the outfielders aren’t seeing much action, kids are playing with rocks and kicking dirt, there’s no stealing and the only players that are engaged are the pitcher, catcher and hitter.”
Pre-game dances during line-up introductions immediately let you know that The Dukes are a little loopy. Not just because they are a cornucopia of ethnicities, but because they get it in like a college basketball team by shouting, “It’s time to represent! It’s time to represent!” as they each get a turn to dance in the middle of a circle when their name and position is announced by Coach Vieux, who controls the dugout madness and the book.
After all, these kids are just shorties. The way they play, without actually seeing them, you’d probably envision a tight-run military operation where kids are totally engaged in the game, totally engaged with the coach and being mature beyond their years. It’s always an adventure at a Dukes game. These guys play beyond their age, but still conduct themselves off the field like little kids. They are full of life and laughter and comedy and sensitivity. Some of them even cry when they strike out still. It’s rare that crying occurs, and with every game they learn to redirect that passion to excel in more concentration rather than feeling bad about failing.
Baseball is such a character building sport. Unlike football and basketball, it’s not a game that one man can dominate every single night. There are going to be setbacks. That’s what baseball is experiencing now with the dearth of African-American pros – the imperfection in the sport. The challenging down time when it seems like you may never get another hit again. Or in MLB’s case, see another Hank Aaron again.
Inevitably, however, that hot streak eventually comes. You can’t get to .300 after starting 0-for-20 by hitting one grandslam. It’s a slow, methodical process of grinding and respecting each at bat. Baseball’s on a similar grind now. The grunt work is being put in place and if teams like the Dukes Baseball Club are becoming more common, then baseball’s hot streak is right around the corner.
To help the Dukes spread their love of baseball at The Baseball Nationals, you can donate towards the team's travel, food, equipment, tournament costs and overall survival at the following link: http://www.gofundme.com/6m9n14