TORONTO -- Baseball has to do a better job of increasing its diversity -- especially in regards to African-American players, Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi says.
The percentage of black major leaguers has dropped to 8.2 per cent, the lowest total in 20 years, according to last week's annual racial report card released by Richard Lapchick, director the Institute of Diversity and Ethnics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
However, 40.1 per cent of big-league players are now non-white (Latino, African-American or Asian). That's the second highest number in the history of baseball.
One year ago, on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball colour barrier, baseball reached its highest number of 42 per cent non-white.
Ricciardi said he has come across drafts where there have only been "about three good African-American players" warranting selection.
"When I was growing up, Willie Mays was still playing. Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey -- they were all still playing," Ricciardi said. "Who are the great black players now? There's A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez). Baseball always thought it would be king here, and it's still king in places like Puerto Rico and Venezuela, but it's not king here any more. We have to do a better job at it.
"(Denver basketball star) Allen Iverson chose to play basketball but at his size, he would've made a great middle infielder. New York, Massachusetts, the eastern seaboard -- we know there's a heavy concentration of black kids there in the big cities.
"But this goes back to the grassroots. We have to get a bat in their hands at an early age. Basketball has done a great job promoting its game."
Dontrelle Willis grew up in a multicultural part of Oakland and feels Toronto gives him the same feeling as his hometown. The Detroit Tigers pitcher is part of one of the most ethnically diverse clubhouses in baseball.
With the departure of designated hitter Frank Thomas on Sunday and the recall of catcher Robinson Diaz from the Dominican Republic yesterday, the Jays have six non-white players on their current 25-man roster.
"You can't look at whether a player's white or black," Ricciardi said. "If we looked at players based on racial lines, that would be going back to the pre-Jackie Robinson era and that's not somewhere we want to go.
"I don't care if I have nine green guys out there. I just want them to be able to play."
Each year, Lapchick holds up his study as a mirror and invites Major League Baseball to take a look. He releases it on Jackie Robinson Day (April 15) when racial awareness is at its highest and big leaguers are wearing the former Dodgers barrier buster's No. 42 to highlight the always-important question: "Does everyone, regardless of race and gender, have a chance at bat or to operate a team?"
Lapchick doesn't discuss the breakdown of racial lines on individual clubs. That's left to the old eyeball test.
"It's hard to argue against numbers," he said. "We're dealing with statistics here. Obviously, we realize teams are going to use players they think give them the best chance of winning.
"That is and should be their goal."
During the last decade, the number of white players in baseball has remained remarkably consistent -- hovering in the 58 per cent to 60 per cent range. Latinos have shown the biggest jump at 29.1 per cent, while African-Americans have dropped to 8.2 per cent -- down from 17 per cent 10 years ago.
Lapchick doesn't think there will be a spike in the percentage of black major leaguers any time soon.
"I think it could take a generation," he said. "When you look at the NBA and the NFL and the stars young African-Americans see and then you look at baseball and who was the most prominent African-American last year?
"Barry Bonds broke the biggest record in the game (the all-time home run mark) and there was little positive in the media being said about it.
"If you're 13 years old and all you watch or read about is the negative impact of his achievement, there's going to be a subtle influence on which sport you choose."
It isn't surprising the Jays' outfield is entirely non-white and two of three -- centrefielder Vernon Wells and left-fielder Shannon Stewart -- are African-American. The outfield, a position dependent on speed and reaction time, is where 28 per cent of African-Americans play -- more than three times their total representation in baseball.
Jays right-fielder Alex Rios, who is of Latino descent, said he was converted from third base to the outfield.
"I didn't mind changing because I like playing baseball," he said.
Detroit isn't winning right now, but everyone expects the Tigers to have one of the better teams in baseball by season's end. When centrefielder Curtis Granderson returns from injury, Tigers manager Jim Leyland can -- and likely will -- put together a nine-man batting order without one white player in the lineup.
"There's a lot of guys from different countries here and maybe that's nice from a historical perspective," Detroit left-fielder Jacque Jones said, "but if it doesn't translate into wins and losses, then it's just a neat thing.
"We're here to win games. If we don't, then it doesn't mean anything to anybody.
"I'm not a rocket scientist -- I don't know why the numbers (of African-American players) are down.
"I chose this sport because this is what I liked to do. It was simple as that."
Rios isn't concerned his clubhouse is predominantly white.
"I grew up in Puerto Rico and you'd see a Venezuelan guy or Dominican once in a while, but our teams were pretty much all Puerto Ricans," he said.
The hardest part of moving to the U.S. or Canada as a young Latino player, according to Tigers catcher and future hall-of-famer Ivan Rodriguez, is the language barrier. Ethnicity doesn't usually register high on the importance scale in a business about wins and losses.
"It's nice to have players from different countries, but it doesn't matter," he said. "You have to come together as teammates no matter where you're from. If you do that, you have a chance to win."
Overall, baseball received an A- on Lapchick's annual racial report card for the diversity that's happening on the field. But it's clear minorities are still under- represented at the sport's power positions -- owner, president, general manager and senior administration.
The Jays have two non-white vice-presidents and four women in senior positions, but across the big leagues, there is only one non-white owner (Artie Moreno of the Angels), no presidents and only three general managers.
"There is a potential for baseball to get an A+, but I don't know how long it will take," Lapchick said. "If the leaders stay aggressive in trying to be racially representative, it will happen."
Lapchick believes baseball's highest powers are taking the steps to address that number by supporting various diversity initiatives. At the same time, the sport's central office has grown in its race representation -- a goal that had been aggressively sought since 1995.
"Commissioner Bud Selig has received great compliments and criticisms at times for different issues but there's no doubt he has taken a lead on this one," he said.
If it continues to improve, will Lapchick stop publishing his report?
"I think the better it gets, the more important it is to continue on and celebrate what baseball has achieved," he said.
BASEBALL RACE AND GENDER REPORT HIGHLIGHTS
Highlights of the report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. All numbers are for the 2007 season.
-- 40.1 per cent of big league players were either Latino (29.1 per cent), African-American (8.2 per cent) or Asian (2.8 per cent)
-- The 8.2 per cent of African-American player total (2007) was the lowest in more than 20 years, dropping from 17 per cent in a decade.
-- For the last 10 years, the percentage of white players has been remarkably consistent: between 58 per cent and 60 per cent each season.
-- Arturo Moreno, who owns the Los Angeles Angels, remains the only person of colour to own a Major League Baseball team and only Latino in pro sports to be a majority owner.
-- Slightly more than one-quarter of MLB managers are people of colour (four African-Americans and four Latinos). That's up 6.7 per cent from 2007.
-- 36 per cent of the combined major- and minor-league coaching staffs are people of colour -- down one per cent.
-- There is no person of colour as either chief executive or team president of a big-league team and there hasn't been since Milwaukee's Ulice Payne Jr. in 2003. There were two women in that position in 2007.
-- Three people of colour are big-league general managers: Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox, Omar Minaya of the New York Mets and Tony Reagis of the Angels.
-- 28 per cent of baseball's central office staff were people of colour and 42 per cent were women.
-- On the professional administration side, 72 per cent were white, while people of colour held 28 per cent of the positions. Women were at 26 per cent.