CHICAGO -- Jaron Madison, the Cubs' director of player development, knows how important baseball was to him when he was growing up. He hopes other African-American kids will not only learn from the struggles past ballplayers experienced but also take advantage of what the game has to offer.
"Baseball was a way for young kids to learn teamwork and leadership," Madison said. "That was the biggest thing you took out of it. My dad encouraged us to play all the sports because we learned leadership, teamwork, how to get along with different people, how to be competitive and work toward team goals. I think that part of it gets left out of the big picture. That's such an important part of the development of not only the player but also the person."
Madison would like to see more African-American youth involved in baseball. Perhaps some will be inspired in February during Black History Month.
"The biggest thing with black kids growing up, especially black boys, was that baseball was such a big part of your life, especially in the inner cities," Madison said. "It's such a big part of our culture and our history, the successes and the struggles that we've gone through over time. You look back at the fight guys went through just for the opportunity to play, such as the Negro Leagues and Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. You go through the whole history of baseball and see that black people have had to fight and struggle to play this game.
"It's such an important part of our history and who we are as a people. Now basketball and football [seem more popular], but back in the day, it was always baseball that the family circled around, and it brought everybody together."
Madison's father, James, was a colonel in the U.S. Army and taught at West Point. James Madison didn't push his children to play sports, but he encouraged them to do so, and it paid off.
Jaron Madison knows baseball is at a slight disadvantage. In Chicago, thousands of black youth want to grow up to be the next Michael Jordan or Derrick Rose and play in the NBA. The equipment needed to play baseball is expensive, plus there is the cost of travel teams and the fact "you can't play baseball by yourself," Madison said.
Still, he encourages kids to play. Madison said he was recently at his gym in northern California when he overheard guys talking about getting their baseball leagues together for the summer.
Madison said one of the highlights of the Major League season comes April 15 when every player wears No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day.
"It still gives you goose bumps any time you see that," Madison said. "You feel it, you definitely feel it."