Its one thing to talk about the dwindling number of African-American players on major league rosters, its another thing to try to do something about it.
Count Dennis Oil Can Boyd, Marquis Grissom, and Delino DeShields among those taking a proactive approach to reviving baseball in the inner cities. Theyre doing this not only through their barnstorming tour Oil Can Boyds Traveling All-Stars which starts May 16 vs. the Brockton Rox and continues through the US and Canada, but through their newly formed Urban Baseball League, which will start in 2008.
Independent pro baseball will be marketed in predominantly African-American cities (the hope is prominent African-Americans will purchase franchises), and inner-city kids will be taught the game Boyd, Grissom, and DeShields so love.
Im sick of the rhetoric, DeShields said from Charlotte, N.C., where his 14-year-old son was playing in a baseball tournament. If we want more black kids playing baseball, if we want more black people in the stands, if we want more black people running baseball teams and in positions of power, then we have to go after it ourselves. We have to do something about it, and not just talk about it. Oil Can, Marquis, and I are going after it. Were trying to change things as businessmen and as baseball players.
At 45 years old, Boyd is still pitching and he hopes to carry Satchel Paiges legacy as long as he can. Oil Can will be buried on a baseball field, kidded DeShields.
As part of the Red Sox makeup of rained-out Jackie Robinson Day festivities, Boyd last night was recognized before the Sox-Yankees game and Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., who created the Charles Houston Institute for Race and Justice, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Boyd said hes hoping to re-create the atmosphere of the old Negro Leagues with his barnstormers. Boyd said his team will be a multiracial mix of 21 players, and may include former Red Sox lefty Bill Lee, who turned 60 last year.
Boyd and his teammates, who will wear jerseys reminiscent of those in the Negro Leagues, already have lined up exhibitions against Independent League teams Brockton, Nashua, Connecticut, and Quebec. Former Sox general manager Dan Duquette wants the All-Stars to play the Berkshire Dukes, his semipro team in Western Massachusetts. Hes also talked to Boyd about playing the national team of Israel that Duquette currently oversees.
Theres also been interest in the traveling show in the Dominican, Puerto Rico, and Europe.
Its a wonderful idea, according to Baltimore Orioles scout Deacon Jones, who attended Negro League games as a youngster and is impressed Boyd has made this his lifes work.
My dad brought me to Negro League games as a kid, and they were so fun, said Jones. Such great athletes, great things you saw. Its a wonderful idea that I hope really takes hold and revives the game in African-American areas around the country.
Other ex-major leaguers who have committed are Derek Bell, former Sox slugger Sam Horn, and 1988 Olympian Ty Griffin. Also committing are former Sox pitchers Chris Howard and Ken Ryan. Former outfielder Bernard Gilkey has shown interest, and Boyd wants to lure former Sox second baseman Pokey Reese, who has retired, and ex-Sox center fielder Carl Everett.
The Red Sox have shown interest in promoting the tour and helping Boyd get sponsorships to help reduce costs and pay salaries to the players.
Boyd wants to show how fun baseball can be.
As he puts it, Baseball is a very conservative game. When we were growing up playing the ballgame, African-American kids made it fun. We were flamboyant, stylish, athletic, and colorful when we played the game, and when we got to the major leagues, that was taken away from us. Were going to get back to that. Were going to have fun but respect the game. At the same time, we want to draw the African-American fan back to the game.
Boyd said an independent owner in Missouri turned down his exhibition because he claimed African-Americans arent interested in baseball.
I couldnt disagree more, said Boyd. So many families are priced out of watching baseball. Like me, Im a fifth-generation baseball player. There are many families like the one I came from who grew up with baseball, but its been lost on a generation because theyve replaced ballfields in the inner city and the kids have turned to crime and drugs. Weve got to get those ballfields back.
DeShields, who retired after the 2002 season at age 33 after 13 seasons in the majors, said hes very interested in the business aspect of the venture the three ex-Montreal Expos have undertaken, and the former second baseman is interested to see what will happen.
I think we hear so much about the fact kids arent playing baseball ... where I live in Atlanta, black kids are playing baseball, he said. We just have to get kids in other cities to play. Were concentrating on areas where there are heavy African-American populations because we want black baseball fans to start filling the stands again. We want to give them a place where they feel comfortable to watch baseball again.
And a place where baseball is fun.
DeShields said he hopes the tour will become baseballs version of the Harlem Globetrotters. At the very least, he feels it will create awareness.
If we want to improve things, weve got to do our own thing, he said. Im tired of the talking. Tired of the rhetoric. Its our right to run our business the way we want to. If we want to change things, we have to do it. Thats what were doing.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.