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The talk today was supposed to be about Jason Heyward(notes) and Justin Upton(notes) and Andrew McCutchen(notes), about the future of African-American ballplayers. But it can never be that easy with Major League Baseball, where the misdeeds of generations past haunt the sport, ghosts incapable of exorcism.
The talk today is about Orlando Hudson(notes) and Jermaine Dye(notes), about their beefs with baseball – about racism and whether, exactly 63 years after integration, prejudice still courses through the game while every player honors Jackie Robinson by wearing his No. 42. It might. It might not. Hudson thinks it does, and he is not an unreasonable man, and even if his sentiment is misguided, it is important because it forces baseball to confront genuine issues instead of simply pouring more money into the Reviving Baseball in Inner cities (RBI) program and Urban Youth Academies like they're the entire solution rather than a fraction.
Throw aside, for a moment, the hand-wringing over how much money Dye deserves or whether Hudson has been underpaid and consider something more important to the game's future: the black experience, in life, in sports and otherwise. No matter how much baseball honors its black forefathers and tries to ensure generations more, it is not football and not basketball – not a sport whose existence depends on African-American men – and so the feeling of disposability is palpable.
When a black ballplayer walks into a clubhouse, he will see, on average, one other black player. This is the black experience in baseball today: near solitude. Even in the most color-blind world, people derive identity from their skin – from their history – and to think it doesn't matter is naïve. It does, deeply, especially in a place where so few African-Americans congregate.
Perhaps stronger than any other in the game. Black baseball players congregate regardless of team. They look out for each other. During Elijah Dukes'(notes) lowest moments, he heard from Torii Hunter(notes), who played in a different division and had no connection to him aside from skin color. Hunter felt it was necessary to do what others did for him: teach Dukes not just what it's like to be an African-American man, but one in a place where they're so sparse.
And so from Jackie to Jason and Justin, they passed along stories. The clearest way to understand who you are is to understand who your forebearers were, which means that even men such as Hudson and Hunter – ones whom the game made rich – harbor disillusionment toward their treatment. Old-timers who went through real strife remind the kids to always be wary of the establishment, and suddenly every slight – real or imagined – is real.
Hudson popped off about how teams aren't offering Dye enough money. Hunter called Latin Americans "impostors" and "imitators" of black ballplayers and told USA Today: "It's like, 'Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?' "
Hudson and Hunter are viewed as great people and teammates, smiling and sunny. They are also proof that an undercurrent of toxicity remains, not about how baseball views African-Americans, but how African-Americans view baseball. There is resentment and paranoia and survivalism. Hudson, 32, and Hunter, 34, arrived as the ranks of blacks thinned due to a three-pronged assault: baseball's own inaction, football's stranglehold on the sporting public and basketball's ownership of inner-city youth.
And yet against those odds, there is a wave of young African-American talent unlike anything baseball has seen in two decades. It's not just Heyward, Atlanta's 20-year-old star in the making, or Upton, Arizona's 22-year-old out-of-this-world talent, or McCutchen, Pittsburgh's 23-year-old five-tool monster. It's Matt Kemp(notes) and Carl Crawford(notes) and Curtis Granderson(notes) and Denard Span(notes) and B.J. Upton(notes) and Michael Bourn(notes) and Delmon Young(notes) and Austin Jackson(notes) at the major league level, Desmond Jennings(notes) and Domonic Brown and Michael Taylor(notes) and Aaron Hicks and Ben Revere(notes) and Jared Mitchell and Donavan Tate in the minor leagues, nearly a roster full of big league outfield talent alone.
The Rays Desmond Jennings during spring training media photo day.
(Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Baseball's top African-American prospects
Injury prone, but still the minor leagues' best five-tool talent.
Compared to Darryl Strawberry for build and bat.
Special bat strikes out plenty. When he connects, though — whew
Specimen (6-6, 260) could pair with Carter as middle-of-the-lineup hitters for years.
Flash's son is dynamic on offense. May ultimately shift to outfield.
Big switch hitter is almost ready. Should be up sometime this summer.
Could easily be No. 1 on this list next year. Could be off it, too.
Fast mover tore ankle ligament and will miss season.
Speedy hit machine with little power and suspect defense.
Tools, tools and more tools. Taken No. 3 overall last year.
Others: Brandon Allen, 1B, Diamondbacks; Tim Beckham, SS, Rays; Anthony Gose, CF, Phillies; Jay Jackson, SP, Cubs; Jiwan James, CF, Phillies; Wynn Pelzer, SP, Padres.
"Football and basketball are winning in urban communities," said Span, the Minnesota Twins' center fielder. "But we're trying."
For all the investment in RBI and the youth academies, it's money spent to draw elite athletes toward baseball that works best. No other sport pays its players big dollars as quickly as baseball, which rewards raw talents with even rudimentary skills six-figure bonuses.
"Three years ago I looked at the draft and was surprised by how many No. 1, 2, 3 picks were black players," Rollins said. "I thought, 'Wow, these kids are starting to play ball again.' Maybe it's coincidence. Maybe it's us up here. Maybe it's the RBI program working. Whatever it is, it's good."
Philadelphia best personifies the trend. In addition to Rollins and Ryan Howard(notes) – who along with Derek Jeter(notes), Ken Griffey Jr.(notes), CC Sabathia(notes) and Prince Fielder(notes) are the game's most easily identifiable African-American players – the Phillies have a farm system loaded with projectable black talent. In 2008, the Phillies spent their first three draft choices on raw, athletic, shoot-the-moon outfielders: Anthony Hewitt, Zach Collier and Anthony Gose. The year before, they drafted Taylor and Jiwan James. And in 2006, Philadelphia waited until the 20th round to draft a 6-foot-5, thin-as-a-reed kid who planned on going to Miami to play wide receiver: Domonic Brown.
He had moved from Florida to the Atlanta area and fallen off some teams' radars. Philadelphia stayed on him and, following the draft, took him to a park in Atlanta. Four Phillies representatives came for a one-on-one batting session. They asked Brown to make one adjustment to his swing.
"And when he did," Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever said, "we couldn't believe what we were watching."
The Phillies offered $200,000, and no longer was Brown a wide receiver. He worked his way to Double-A at 21 last year and received a major league spring training invitation this year. During his last game in camp, Brown hit two home runs.
"One off Justin Verlander(notes)," Rollins said. "That was legit. Big league stuff. (Phillies manager Charlie Manuel) was there that morning trying to teach him how to get to his power. He has that little drag and lag in his bat, and it's great for contact. But at 6-5, as a right fielder, we're not paying you to hit doubles to left.
"On leverage alone, he's going to hit home runs. Then all of a sudden, he knows what he's doing with that leverage? Scary."
The Phillies hope to hit on one of the others as they did Brown. When Collier comes off the disabled list, the Phillies' Class A affiliate in Lakewood, N.J., could have an all-black outfield with him, James and Hewitt. Span said he dreams of the same at the major league level in Minnesota, Revere and Hicks flanking him.
"Since I started scouting 27 years ago, it's been about athletes," Wolever said. "We subscribe to that theory. We live by it. And we're going to continue to go down that path. It just so happens some of them are African-American."
If only it were so easy. Wolever operates in a world where talent is the only master, where a good draft means one or two players making the major leagues, and finding that one or two by whatever means possible or getting fired. General managers balance budgets and chemistry, predict ascents and downfalls, try to find the right blend of offense, pitching and fielding. Statistics can explain Dye's inability to get the $4 million he seeks, and it's easy for a public jaded to such huge money to accept such arguments.
It's not as easy for Hudson, or Dye, when they've heard the stories of exclusion from those who preceded them. The feeling of disposability is pervasive, no matter how studies might dismiss any racial bias. It's not that they're ignoring Sabathia's $161 million deal, or the $30 million and repeated chances lavished on Milton Bradley(notes), or the inability of out-of-work white players like Joe Crede(notes) or Jarrod Washburn(notes) to get the contract they want.
It's that every situation is unique, and though racism may not exist in baseball writ large, it could very well in small doses. Not every player in 1947 hated Jackie Robinson. Only a few tried to spike him at second base. A few is all it takes.
Those are the stories passed from generation to generation. Orlando Hudson and Torii Hunter and Jimmy Rollins were regaled, and they'll tell Jason Heyward and Justin Upton and Andrew McCutchen, and they'll tell Desmond Jennings and Domonic Brown and Michael Taylor, and on it will go. Baseball's history of prejudice is ugly, unfathomable today, and yet modern players don't forget, won't forget, can't forget.
The black experience in baseball won't let them.