Rangers example of African-Americans' rise in baseball
By Cody Stavenhagen
ARLINGTON -- The numbers are not what they should be, and Rangers outfielder Delino DeShields -- like many African-American players in Major League Baseball -- senses it when he's on the field.
He looks around, and it's what he doesn't see that catches his attention. The relatively small number of black players on the diamond is not necessarily something that fazes him, but it's something he can't help noticing.
"Even coming up in the Minor League system, you always kind of notice as an African-American player how many there are on a team," DeShields said. "As far as teammates, I don't think I've had over four."
On Opening Day 2015, 8.3 percent of Major Leaguers were African-American, according to a Commissioner's Office report. The numbers are slowly coming up, and this year's Draft would seem to indicate the numbers will continue to go up as 9 of the 36 first-round picks were African-American, the most since 1992. Black players accounted for 22.7 percent of players selected on the first day of the Draft.
"I think it shows that some of the things we've been working so hard on are starting to bear a little fruit, in terms of the amateur Draft," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in June. "I think it's encouraging for us, and it makes us want to work even harder at the things we've been working on."
The Rangers took black players with their first two picks this year, selecting pitcher Dillon Tate with the No. 4 pick, and outfielder Eric Jenkins with the 45th pick. Five of the Rangers' first 12 picks were African-American.
Since 2010, the Rangers have taken 11 black players in the first three rounds of the Draft alone. Five of the organization's Top 30 prospects are African-American.
In DeShields, first baseman Prince Fielder and relief pitcher Sam Freeman, the Rangers have three African-Americans on their 25-man roster. First baseman Kyle Blanks would make a fourth if he weren't on the disabled list.
Kip Fagg, the Rangers' director of amateur scouting, says the club doesn't have any agenda for diversity in its players. Diversity, though, can come as a product of a front-office attitude that leaves no stone unturned in building a roster.
In addition to grassroots drafting, Texas has built a reputation as one of baseball's most diverse organizations via a renewed emphasis on the Latino markets and aggressive bidding for overseas free agents.
"Am I proud of that? Yeah, I guess I am," Fagg said. "We're willing to take any person from any part of the world and meld them into Texas Rangers."
More than labels
In 2006 -- the first year under general manager Jon Daniels -- all 10 players in the Rangers' Opening Day starting lineup were born in the United States, but not a single one was black.
Fielder was the only African-American in this year's Opening Day lineup, but that might not be the case in the near future. The Rangers are building a farm system loaded with young, talented players who happen to be black.
"I don't know how to explain it," Fagg said. "I've heard it before, and I've thought about it. It's not something I set out to beat the industry on."
The Rangers' scouting philosophy typically centers on finding middle-of-the-diamond athletes. Of the 11 black players the Rangers have drafted in the first round since 2010, six were outfielders, three were shortstops and two were pitchers.
It's worth noting that since 1970, the number of African-American players who are primarily outfielders has been consistently close to 60 percent, according to a 2012 study by the Society for American Baseball Research.
"I think what they've done the past few years, when it's their opportunity to draft, they're taking the best athlete, and he just happens to be black," said Ron Washington, Rangers manager from 2007-14.
In a broader sense, DeShields said African-American players can often be unfairly portrayed as pure athletes rather than well-rounded baseball players.
"You hear it all the time -- 'We're trying to get more athletic in the Draft,' or whatever," DeShields said. "It's usually African-American players. I am considered an athletic guy. But you kind of get labeled."
Fagg said the Rangers go for players who get their attention based on having the best chance to become above-average Major Leaguers. A player with speed and strength can improve on skills, but it doesn't work as easily the other way around. The Rangers simply want baseball players with upside.
"The better players in the Major Leagues are guys with plus skills -- the Andrew McCutchens, the Mike Trouts," Fagg said.
In terms of demographics, Fagg said the Rangers' high number of African-American draftees is likely pure coincidence. But it also goes back to a certain open-mindedness that fits in the context of baseball and society at large. They aren't afraid to bring anyone into their organization.
They signed Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish to a lucrative contract. They traded for young Latin players like Elvis Andrus and signed a veteran Korean-born player in Shin-Soo Choo.
And in a time where African-American players aren't big in number, the Rangers have drafted black players at a rate ahead of the curve.
Freeman, a left-handed pitcher in his first year with the Rangers, remembers hearing the comments growing up: "You're black. Why are you playing baseball? That's a white sport."
"This is what I love to do," Freeman said. "It was never really an issue for me."
But the basis behind those comments reflects the reasoning for the decline in African-American participation in the game.
The list of theories is seemingly endless: Kids in inner cities don't have access to the game. Basketball and football are easier to learn, cheaper to play, provide more full scholarships and a more immediate path to the pros. The proliferation of travel teams has made youth baseball a survival of the richest. Baseball just isn't cool.
The truth is probably a combination of all those. But that doesn't mean it can't change.
The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program continues to grow. MLB has launched Urban Youth Academies in Compton, Calif., Houston, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. The Breakthrough Series, a joint effort of MLB and USA Baseball, gives top high school players a fair shot at exposure to college and pro scouts.
The Rangers just happen to have the poster child for the RBI program in Tate, a right-hander pitcher from UC-Santa Barbara. When the Rangers selected him at No. 4 overall, he became the highest-drafted alum of the Urban Youth Academy.
Setting the bar
Early in high school, Tate was an average player. That changed when he began making a 50-minute drive from Claremont, Calif., to Compton to receive coaching at the Academy.
There, he said he worked with players of all races and backgrounds. The coaching also helped him become a top pitching prospect, and in his introductory news conference with the Rangers, he said he hopes to be able to contribute his own time to the program in the future.
Washington, now a coach with the Athletics, spent time this offseason working at the Urban Youth Academy in New Orleans. He said he was impressed by the coaches running the academy and the way they preached fundamentals.
Baseball was one of many things Hurricane Katrina wiped out in New Orleans, Washington said. The Urban Youth Academy is helping to bring it back.
"The city had to start all over again," he said. "The kids had to find stuff to do, and Major League Baseball gave them an outlet by opening that academy out there. It gives that area a chance to get involved in the beautiful sport of baseball. … Baseball is for anyone."
Washington said he believes the academies are making a difference. Now, the Rangers have an example in Tate that helps prove it.
They also have a star power hitter in Fielder, a young, willing spokesman in DeShields, rising draftees such as Ti'Quan Forbes, Lewis Brinson, Josh Morgan and Nick Williams plus other prospects such as Michael Choice. For now, the Rangers are an exception. But Texas is setting a standard that impacts an entire sport.
"A lot of my friends, they always told me they wished they got into baseball," DeShields said. "I know when young African-Americans come up to me and say I'm their idol or whatever, I think that's really cool to see. I might be opening some eyes to make young kids believe they can play baseball and be successful."
Cody Stavenhagen is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.