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Bob Ryan

Hoping to fill some gaps in baseball

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 22, 2011

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Jackie Robinson died in 1972. If he were alive today, he would be appalled at the state of the game he changed.

The man who was The First might have had to contemplate the idea that the countdown is on to see who will be The Last.

An exaggeration perhaps, but is it, really? Nothing seems to be changing. We’re always a bit surprised when a young baseball prospect turns out to be African-American.

“It hurts, it really does, to see the decline of the sport,’’ says San Diego Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson, one of the dwindling number of African-American major league players. “To think that our baseball ancestors put up such great numbers and stood for so much and how much they went through in this great game.’’

Once upon a time, baseball was the city game, for all races. There was always a field or lot somewhere. Playing baseball was a standard way of life. It can easily be argued that, in the first 50 or 60 years of the 20th century, baseball was, by far, the most popular sport for African-Americans.

And now?

“I’ve had kids come up to me and ask why I’m playing that white man’s game,’’ sighs Hudson.

But Orlando Hudson is a doer. If baseball dies out among the African-American community, it won’t be because Orlando Hudson didn’t try to keep it alive. The nine-year veteran, a four-time Gold Glove winner and a two-time All-Star, has founded a program called Around The Mound, the purpose of which is to let young people from the inner cities of America know that baseball is a worthy athletic pursuit, and, by the way, there’s a lot more to life than sports, just in case you don’t make it.

That’s why he was perched on the Red Sox dugout at 3 p.m. yesterday, addressing a gathering of local young folk, many of whom were wearing T-shirts championing Major League Baseball’s 22-year-old RBI program, which was created to foster interest in the sport among the cities of America. (“RBI’’ stands for “Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities.’’) He was joined by Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford, a Houston RBI product who was an advertised participant, and by impromptu kibitzer Mike Cameron, another Red Sox African-American outfielder.

Hudson delivers this message around the country, abetted by such friends as Torii Hunter, Juan Pierre, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins, all African-Americans who have achieved great things in the game.

“I do what I can,’’ he explains. “You can’t get everyone into the church, so to speak. If you get a couple, that’s a start.’’

The great competition, of course, comes from basketball and football, which are far more glamorized in African-American culture, and each of which benefits from a convenient marriage with music.

“Hip-hop relates to those sports and those kids,’’ says Hudson. “In football, you see Ray Lewis on the sidelines doing his thing. Basketball is all about hip-hop.

“You come to a baseball game, and you hear Willie Nelson. Now, I like Willie Nelson because I like all kinds of music, but he doesn’t mean anything to these kids. Mickey and the Duke, same thing. Means nothing to them.’’

A second problem is that a baseball’s player’s path to the majors is basically hidden and consists of a lot of repetitive work. No matter how great a prospect is, he’s not coming from high school directly to the majors. This game offers little in the way of instant career gratification.

“Baseball is a process,’’ confirms Cameron, whom Hudson cites as a mentor. “You may have raw talent, but it takes time to develop. Basketball, particularly, seeks raw talent, and you can make it right to the NBA with that talent.’’

And even when an African-American baseball player makes it big, a kid doesn’t see the payoff in terms of commercial viability the way he does with a basketball or football player. Now, if someone says, “Well, Barry Bonds was toxic and unlikable,’’ that’s true, but what about Ken Griffey Jr.?

“He was the [Michael] Jordan of baseball,’’ maintains Hudson. “And what did he ever get? Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins won back-to-back MVPs. Howard got a Subway commercial. Rollins didn’t get anything. Then they see LeBron, they see Peyton Manning, they see Dwight Howard everywhere.’’

Hudson was a three-sport high school star in Darlington, S.C. His first love was football. But his father steered him into baseball.

“He said, ‘Son, I know you don’t like this, but you’ll thank me later,’ ’’ Hudson says. “And I have, a thousand times. I was lucky. Parents married 34 years. He looked out for me.’’

The little irony of the juxtaposition of baseball on the one hand and football/basketball on the other is that baseball, if you make it, is the preferred life.

“We make the most money,’’ Hudson explains. “Less stress on the body. And you can’t beat the lifestyle. The minors are one thing, but once you get there, you are living the life. I have friends in other sports. They see how we live and what we eat in the clubhouse and they say, ‘We don’t we eat like that.’ ’’

It’s hard to believe that in the not very distant past, the dominant players in the game included African-American Hall of Famers such as Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Bob Gibson, Eddie Murray, and many more All-Stars.

Nowadays, eyebrows lift all over baseball if the next great player isn’t from Latin America.

But thank God for heredity. I hear Mike Cameron’s 12-year-old son looks pretty good.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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