NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Major League Baseball has a problem and had struggled to fix it for decades. For various reasons, African Americans have been leaving the sport in droves since the mid-1980s.
But, there is a push to change that and members of the New Orleans baseball community are doing their part.
“When I first saw it, it made me feel like I really wanna play that sport, It looks kind of fun,” says Ivell Otis of the New Orleans Monarchs.
“I started out as a pitcher. I just fell in love with the game. It’s like a true love story,” says Grambling University baseball player Michael Mims.
On any given night, diamonds all across New Orleans are full of kids that still have dreams of being a big leaguer.
“I wanna do more. I wanna carry my team to a World Series,” says St. Augustine High School’s Kenny Rhodes.
And one path to that is here at Major League Baseball’s Urban Academy and also with the New Orleans Monarchs. Both organizations have the same mission to help kids at an early age find their love for America’s pastime.
“We owe it to these kids to develop a love for the game as it used to be back in the day,” says Dorian Rawles, Manager of the New Orleans Monarchs.
“It’s important that they have fun. They gotta have fun. Put them in those situations,” Eddie Davis. “It is kind of new to them. Baseball is a game of failure. You don’t get instant gratification. Try to make them feel. Give them some success. It’s a process for different age groups.”
But, this is more of the exception than the norm all across America.
Nearly 100 years ago to the day, Negro League Baseball owners got together to form their first professional league. But, a century later, the number of African Americans still playing pro baseball has declined sharply.
From a league high 18 percent back in 1981 to around eight percent today, that according to the Society of American Baseball Research which begs the question why the steep drop off.
“I think a lot of black athletes focus on basketball and football,” says Mims.
What’s out here compared to what’s in here, over there, the competition for multi-sport players is fierce.
I’m all about the multi-sport athlete,” says Eddie Davis. “I think it works different muscles. I encourage it.”
And more often than not, being able to get and later keep players comes down to money.
“That’s a huge challenge. Cost of equipment, field space and baseball need more than one to play. Need eight other guys to play. On another level, for those guys that wanna go play college and pro, get on the circuit. When I say the circuit, that’s travel ball. That triples the cost. You’re gonna spend between $1000 and $3000 easily,” says Davis.
“It’s extremely expensive. You gotta realize, one of the dimarina bats, $300. And you gotta have one size appropriate for kids. And when you’ve got three teams like our kids, you’re talking about thousands of dollars,” says Rawles.
And there’s also the optics of baseball and why it may matter less to African American kids today than say, when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier back in 1947.
It’s a time that Alvin “Snake” Martin remembers all to well.
“That was the model with him being recruited as the first black athlete. So, everybody said, if he can play hard enough, I may be able to play professional ball,” says Martin.
It also meant that Martin has someone to look up to someone that looked like him playing the game that he loved so much. The game that he went on to play at Xavier University back in the mid-50s.
“I was pretty good. In terms of how good I was, I was pretty good. I was a pitcher and I played outfield,” says Martin. “Baseball in New Orleans was big. Baseball was like something that caught on in this whole area. From New Orleans to all the way down the river.”
And back in those days, Xavier teams packed the stands at the old Pelicans Stadium and Borrow Stadium. The latter of which is still standing and in use today. And Xavier will use it once the program starts up again in 2021, some 60 years after the university dropped the sport.
“I thought it was great. Seems like a long time. Baseball did a lot for a lot of young people like myself like back then.”
“Now that we’ve brought it back, those kids have reached out and said, ‘Hey man, we’re so glad that you’ve brought baseball back,’” says Xavier Baseball Coach Adrian Halloway.
Xavier recently hired Holloway to lead the Gold Rush back onto the diamond next year. It’s a responsibility that he doesn’t take lightly.
“This is why I got into the business, to help young African American men who want to play baseball at the next level and want to pursue it even further,” says Halloway.
And it’s giving kids that grew up playing ball here a place to continue playing baseball here.
“That was music to my ears to hear that Xavier was bringing back baseball because it’s a real opportunity for local kids that wanna stay home and get a chance to experience opportunity,” says Rawles.
“You’ll find a lot of local kids want to stay home. They just need a reason,” says Halloway.
And Xavier, in Halloway’s eyes, can be their reason. Because, again, it comes back to the optics at work here. Kids at little league level, eventually getting to the collegiate level and beyond.
Enjoying baseball and understanding that this game, like many other sports, can open the same doors to opportunity for a college scholarship. Even a shot at the pros.
“That’s the educational challenge. That’s educating the parents for one and educating the kids,” says Davis. “Even though football may provide 100 percent scholarship and baseball may not, there are ways to still play baseball and still get that education paid for or reach the pros it that’s your ultimate goal.”
“I used to write in my journal my goals. I wanna hit 92. I wanna hit this amount of home runs. Make it to the draft. So I’ve done everything step by step. Next thing is to just get drafted,” says St. Augustine High School player Kenyon Higgins.
“I hope to get a few scholarships from top schools that have good baseball programs and I hope to make it to the major leagues one day. It won’t matter who it is. Just to say I made it there and I tried my hardest to get there,” says Rhodes.
“If I don’t make it to the pros, I just wanna give back to my community and open eyes to the baseball world in New Orleans because we don’t have a lot of baseball players coming out of New Orleans,” says Mims.
“Once kids fall in love with the game, it’s easy to stay in love with it. If we do it the right way, teach it the right way and make sure it’s done the right way,” says Rawles.
Of the nine cities that Major League Baseball decided to open its Urban Youth Academies in, New Orleans is the only city without a major league franchise.