Baseball Whiz Kids in Down Home Football Country
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you might have heard about the decline of baseball – but Georgia’s driving a new surge in America’s still-favorite pastime: by way of young, black talent.
By Sanjena Sathian
Somewhere in the sticky humidity of downtown Atlanta, America’s next great baseball player is at work.
And that player might be an 11-year-old black kid, who, just a few decades ago, would never have been seen playing the sport — and certainly not so young.
It’s been almost a century since Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Ga. (that’s Kay-Row, please). But baseball, though peppered with increasing numbers of Dominican, Puerto Rican and Japanese-born players, remains thoroughly white: The portion of black players in the league has dropped in half since 1986. But in Atlanta, where the Braves’ star is the Henry County, Ga.-bred rightfielder Jason Heyward (who even Hank Aaron has said is a game-changer for race), something new is afoot.
Which is an especially big deal in Atlanta since the Braves announced they were moving their stadium from the inner city to the wealthy suburbs, sparking a flurry of debates over race and baseball (much like the San Francisco 49ers’ move to Santa Clara, to name just one parallel).
Georgia players who head to the MLB have produced more value than players of any state.
Plus the south is, after all, football country (compare the Atlanta Falcons, worth $1.2 billion, to the Braves’ $630 million, or just think about the mega-industry that is football recruiting in Georgia). And take middle-class-dominated Atlanta, where the median income is $45,000 (your typical baseball-lover’s average income is more than twice that). The odds, demographically and conventionally speaking, are stacked against baseball in the ATL — and not just because the Braves haven’t won the World Series since 1995, and not just because seemingly every year they make it to the playoffs only to tantalizingly fumble in the home stretch.
Unless you look ahead — way ahead. So ahead that you’re not talking about the upcoming crop in the majors or minors or even high school talent. Wanna know what’s next in baseball? Ask the 10-year-olds, and their moms, who could give their tiger peers a run for their money.
What’s taking place in Georgia could eventually change the racial makeup of the MLB.
That’s certainly true for Tia DeLoach, whose 10-year-old son, Chase, devotes most of his year to baseball. “We were not a baseball family, like most African-American families,” she said. ”But we learned to like it … and with the face of the MLB changing — especially on the Braves — our kids are starting to want to stick with it.”
Coach Paul Fletcher, a former MLB minor leaguer and an Atlanta native, says even though the city may “always, always be a football town,” more parents in the region are turning to baseball as their sport of choice for young kids (and not just to avoid concussions).
For starters, you can play baseball year-round in Georgia. And that’s only true of a handful of temperate states, including California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. As a result, Atlanta’s Little League is among the strongest in the country. Which makes it the obvious choice for hosting national tournaments for teenagers and attracting college scouts for some southern, home-turf hospitality. And don’t underestimate the importance of those early tournaments: They might just foreshadow the MLB in a big way (à la the high school face-off between J-Hey and Leesburg, Ga.’s two-time-World-Series-winning Buster Posey — repeated once more in the big leagues).
And, it’s building: USSSA, Georgia’s largest youth baseball league, has quadrupled in the last decade, says Moe Trebuchon, director of the league’s operations. Most of the growth is in travel baseball, where the “real competition comes in.” And having more young black players has “at least a little something to do with it,” he says, adding that there’s probably been a larger rise in Latin American players.
But more importantly, there’s a tradition of homegrown talent in the state. Granted, the Braves’ recent track record ain’t all that, but they had enormous success in the 1990s — and they like to draft native sons. Overall, Georgia players who head to the MLB have produced more value than players of any state but three (and those three, California, Florida and Texas, have nearly twice the population of the Peach State). And Georgia has produced the fourth-highest number of MLB players (behind those same bigger states).
Georgia has become a breeding ground for more than mosquitoes and peanuts.
Stats aside, the fact is that Georgia, and especially Hotlanta, has become a breeding ground for more than mosquitoes and peanuts. Talent takes root once it’s planted — and former Braves players, coaches, managers and aspirants are staffing youth baseball’s full-time training industry. They’re coaching, operating summer camps and running the largest amateur tournament in the country.
William Dye, a baseball coach and parent, agrees that what’s taking place in Georgia could eventually change the racial makeup of the MLB. There’s something afoot among young black kids raised on Atlanta’s south side. Take former Braves player Marquis Grissom, who started a team with John Smoltz on Atlanta’s south side; or the Atlanta Blue Jays or Avalanches, travel teams that are heavily populated with young black players; or the 35 MLB alums who hail from Atlanta (giving the suburban East Cobb Baseball machine a run for its money).
There have long been (somewhat racially discomfiting) “opportunities” in baseball — often in the form of Little League teams “renting” talented out-of-neighborhood 12-year-olds for tournaments (meaning wealthy parents sponsor sought-after, often black, low-income kids to play for their local teams).
But even amid the historical shadows of a racially segregated South, there appears to be a sunny spot on the diamond.
For DeLoach’s son, Chase, that bright ray comes in the form of 24-year-old Braves superstar Jason “J-Hey” Heyward and his fellow black teammates the Upton brothers. It’s the first time that, on any given day, you’re more likely to see black players’ names on the backs of jerseys in Turner Field than their white counterparts. And when Chase watches them take the outfield on his home turf, he’s catching a glimpse of himself — and the future of baseball.