Taijuan Walker stands 6-foot-4, weighs 215 pounds and fires 97-mph fastballs. He is bright, personable and smiles like a 21-year-old in his first week with the Seattle Mariners should: wide and often. He grew up in a single-parent household and played mom and dad for his younger brother and sister when his mother was out serving court summons deep into the night. He is the sort of son who could hear the fear in his mom's voice when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, tell her everything was going to be fine and convince her it was absolutely true.
People at Major League Baseball love this about him. They do. By itself, it's a wonderful story. With another component, however, Walker can become an essential part of the sport's future, symbolic of everything it will spend tens of millions of dollars trying to become.
The vital piece: His skin color.
Walker's father is black and his mother half-Mexican, half-white. He is modern America in 46 chromosomes. And in a sport where not only is the paucity of African-American players stark but troublesome enough to commissioner Bud Selig that he created a task force to address it, the emergence of Walker and Tampa Bay Rays starter Chris Archer, who was born to a black father and white mother, represents what the league desperately hopes is a trend and not an anomaly.
Through Wednesday night, 648 pitchers had thrown in a major league game this season. Only 15 were American-born black players. That is 2.3 percent. On opening day rosters, 8.3 percent of all players identified themselves as black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, a number consistent with levels of the past decade. Prior to that, the last time baseball saw such low numbers was 1960, according to a study published by the Society for American Baseball Research.
While plenty of people see the concern over the declining number of African-Americans in baseball as political correctness run amok, the problem runs far deeper than some purported liberal agenda. The dearth of black ballplayers is a microcosm of a far larger dilemma: After decades of laurel-resting, MLB saw interest in the sport wane. As much as baseball touts its high attendance and staggering revenues, other truths – that pro and college football surpassed it in popularity, that pro and college basketball certainly could make the same argument, and that with options galore the entertainment marketplace struggles with nightly three-hour commitments – make this a serious priority.
There is an assumption in this that goes unspoken: If baseball can bring back African-American youth, chances are it will have captured the zeitgeist of all races. The idea that a population laden with athletes is shrugging its shoulders at baseball, let alone flat ignoring the sport, makes cases like Walker's all the more interesting – and perhaps worth studying to see how to better appeal.
Walker didn't start playing baseball until he was 11. He was more of a basketball kid. All he needed was a ball and a hoop. Walker liked baseball – the Angels, the way Jose Reyes played shortstop, going out on the mound and throwing as hard as he could. He only played a little travel ball, an overwhelming requisite for kids who get drafted or fetch scholarships.
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"It's so expensive," Walker said. "Paying for tournaments, uniforms, fees."
One longtime travel-ball coach estimated costs of $2,500 for just a summer session, an absurdity for someone in Walker's situation. He was lucky. Without instruction or extra play, throwing a ball came as naturally as breathing. Come his senior year, Walker's fastball was hitting 94, 95, 96, and while teams such as the Dodgers wanted him as a right fielder, the Mariners targeted him as a pitcher, drafted him out of Yucaipa High in California and gave him $800,000 to sign.
He was the raw sort that some baseball people believe are still salvageable even if they haven't played baseball by their late-teen years. Walker and Domonic Brown personify this idea: If you polish enough rough diamonds, a few are bound to sparkle.
Walker could have chosen to play basketball at a junior college or even professional hoops in the Philippines. He went with baseball, he said, "Because I love it." To see those words come from an African-American ballplayer and particularly a starting pitcher – his only positional compatriots: CC Sabathia, David Price, Edwin Jackson, Jerome Williams and Archer – lets baseball realize the misdeeds and failures of its past are more harmful than lethal.
"It's not something that happened overnight. It happened over a lot of time," said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' GM who is the chairman for Selig's On-Field Diversity Task Foce. "Some of that is not unique to African-Americans. Some of it is participation in the sport in general. I think there are a lot of people involved who aren't only intelligent but passionate about the topic and willing to put a lot of effort forth to tackle the issue."
He started listing off names. Marquis Grissom started the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association in Atlanta. Jerry Manuel built the Jerry Manuel Foundation in Sacramento. Former Tiger Chet Lemon runs a 162,000-square-foot sports complex about 30 miles outside of Orlando.
"When it comes to baseball, just having the opportunities – that's what you want to see happen," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "The fact that we're talking about it and the players are talking about it and the league and front office and everybody's talking about it – it's going to just keep pushing itself forward, and that's a good thing."
How it will manifest itself is unclear. Dombrowski declined to delve into specifics, saying the committee is at the point where it has identified the main issues. The next step: solutions that run the gamut age-wise. It could be easy for baseball to ignore kids over 12 who already are in the throes of their specialized sport and focus on the newer generation in elementary school.
More than anything, it will take money. Baseball cannot watch football cannibalize it without investing capital into its future. Whether that means overhauling the showcase circuit for teenagers to centralize and subsidize it, thus taking the onus off families, or doing more for impressionable kids than running the RBI program or Urban Youth Academies, both of which have had mixed results, MLB knows it cannot be tight-fisted here, lest the spiral continue.
Think about this: Baseball is celebrating the arrival of two black pitchers. Two! Walker and Archer are, like, victories, which is really odd to say about a human being but entirely apropos here. Baseball beat football and basketball and everything else. And it's surprised by that.
Archer has been superb, with a 3.14 ERA in 106 innings, and Walker can be even better. There's the radar-gun mania of his fastball, the BBQ curve (low and slow) and a pitch he learned this year, the cutter, which he already thinks is his best pitch.
"A lot of things come so easy to him," Mariners catcher Mike Zunino said. "It's his athleticism, his maturity. He just turned 21, and he's handling himself really well here."
It's been a good year. On Feb. 25, doctors told Walker's mom, Nellie Garcia, that her cancer was in remission. She's moving in this offseason with Walker in Peoria, Ariz., near the Mariners' training complex. No more need for FaceTime sessions when she walks him through her Spanish rice recipe. He'll have her and the rest of the family in person.
When he's not with them, he'll prepare for his first full season in the big leagues, one larded with expectations. For the Mariners, he is the best pitcher they've developed since Felix Hernandez, and they need him to fulfill that like he did in his first start, in which he shut out Houston over five innings. For baseball, he is every kid from a single home, every kid from limited means, every kid who could play baseball, should play baseball and doesn't play baseball.
Walker is all of these things, and he embraces that as part of his identity. He shifts between formalwear and skate clothes with élan. He dyes his hair blonde because he can, then shaves it because he can, then dyes it again because, well, you know. He is black and Mexican and white and appreciates all parts of himself. He is his skin color only when baseball wants him to be, and as the sport enters this period of self-examination – of hopefully asking tough questions instead of skirting around the same issues it has for far too long – it needs players like Taijuan Walker more than ever.