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Gray Area: How baseball is taking steps to confront its complex racial future

An incident at Fenway Park shed light once again on the sport's issues with race and with attracting African-American players and fans, but there have been signs of progress.

Baseball’s problems with race are not confined to the stands behind the visitors' dugout at Fenway Park. No one knows that better than the man who was subjected to racist taunts in Boston on May 1, Orioles outfielder Adam Jones.

On an MLB Network special last month commemorating 70 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color line, Jones, 31, said, "What I see in the media, front office, scouts, [public relations], community relations—they're white. When you look into the stands—they're white! You're uncomfortable now that I've said something? I'm uncomfortable every single damn day."

Baseball is a diverse game, but it is not now, as Jones notes, a black one. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, 36.3% of 2016’s major leaguers were something other than white Americans, but just 6.7% were African-American. The league hit that modern-day low point twice previously, in 2013 and '14. Before that, the last time so few major leaguers were black was in 1957, a mere decade after Robinson’s debut, when the Tigers and Red Sox had yet to integrate. There are only two black managers, one GM and no black majority owners.

To baseball fans of every color these statistics must sound grimly familiar, repeated as they are with unease every April 15, when the game celebrates Robinson, and, with greater unease, after every instance of racist abuse directed toward a player. Invariably what follows the numbers is a mixture of resolve and resignation. Baseball should do something about the problem, but, really, how much can it do?

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Tastes change with time, and even omnipresent sports have no special insulation from the whims of audiences and young athletes alike. (As we consider the oft-debated possibility of youth football going the way of youth boxing, it’s worth pausing to remember that there even was such a thing as youth boxing.) The goliath of TV sports, NFL football, saw its ratings fall precipitously last year, and even the buzziest youth sports, like soccer and basketball, are seeing overall participation drop. No sport can force anyone to play it or watch it.

And yet it is undeniable that most sports, baseball very much included, compel deep and arresting feelings from their adherents, once they have been converted. In baseball’s case, the churn of a long season, of daily action—all of it common to a wide swathe of people, black and white—can imbue moments of seemingly ordinary athleticism with great drama. Late commissioner Bart Giamatti once called baseball a "vast, communal poem." That poem gets less vast and less communal without black fans. As Chris Rock put it in a memorable HBO rant in 2015 on the disappearance of the black baseball fan: "We don't really need baseball, but it needs us."

Black America, Rock argued, has long shown white America what's cool. What could have driven black players and fans away from baseball? Every baseball fan under 75 has come of age with black greats atop the game. Robinson won NL MVP in 1949, followed by Dodgers teammate Roy Campanella in ’51, ’53, and ’55. Between those last two trophies for Campanella, the Giants' Willie Mays won his first. From ’53 to ’62, just one white player won the National League MVP, while seven black men did. It was a similar state of affairs several decades later. From 1989 to '95, there were four black NL MVPs and one white one. Five of the top 10 all-time home run hitters are black. Black men have authored two of the best pitching seasons of all time. The Hall of Famer who won the greatest-ever share of writers’ ballots? Ken Griffey, Jr., just last year.

As recently as 1986, African-Americans made up 18% of MLB players, and eight of 18 All-Star starters were black. The game’s sometimes stodgy culture—what Rock calls “playing the game the right way: the white way”—is often cited, convincingly, as a hindrance to present-day black participation. Most of the other culprits fall into the prosaic category. Baseball equipment is expensive, and the bill gets higher when youngsters are asked to travel to tournaments and showcases to audition for college coaches and scouts. Baseball is also less likely than football or basketball to yield a full college scholarship. And the game lacks the inner-city cachet both of those sports have.

Corey Ray, a 22-year-old outfield prospect in the Brewers' system, hails from the south side of Chicago, where played at Simeon Career Academy, the alma mater of NBA stars Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker. “I would always get asked if that was where Rose and Parker played. I don’t think anyone asked Jabari Parker if that’s where Corey Ray played,” he says.

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But things may be changing. According to data provided by MLB, more than 20% of first-round picks since 2012 have been African-American, including Ray, who went No. 5 overall last year and is the major success story to come out of the White Sox' Amateur City Elite (ACE) program. ACE, started in 2007, seeks to identify and nurture talented young baseball players in Chicago who might not have access to strong coaching or facilities, or enough money to travel. More than 100 boys from ages 12 to 17 participate.

MLB also has its long-standing RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) initiative, and it recently opened Urban Youth Academies in Houston, Philadelphia and elsewhere. And in 2015 the league hired former Angels general manager Tony Reagins to oversee all of youth baseball, with a goal of bringing the game to new players white and black, rich and poor.

Reagins recalled a trip earlier this year to Flint, Mich., a majority-black city, where he brought baseball equipment to "11-, 12-, 13-year-olds who had never held a bat. I told them, 'Let's put a bat and a ball in your hand and see if you have fun, and if you do, let's keep a bat in your hand, so you can keep playing.'"

Ray too wants to connect with youngsters. "I want to make it to the big leagues and play for as long as I can, but at the end of the day I'll be happy if I can somehow inspire as many African-Americans as I can to get out of the inner city," he says. That's the kind of quest that could make anyone want to become a baseball fan.