On Tuesday afternoon, Blue Jays outfielder Jonathan Davis greeted his Houston Astros counterpart Tony Kemp at pre-game batting practice with a warm smile, a hearty hug and easy conversation.
They’re competitors, but they’re also part of a small and tightly-bound fraternity of African-American major league players. Opening day rosters featured just 63 players who identified as Black or African-American.
More importantly, they’re young. In August the Jays traded veteran Curtis Granderson to Milwaukee, and the mean age of the five U.S.-born Black players currently on the Jays’ roster is 25.6.
The players hope to trigger a baseball resurgence in African-American communities — Dwight Smith Jr. runs an off-season baseball program in his native Atlanta, and Davis plans to start one this winter in Arkansas, where he grew up.
But they also acknowledge that cultivating elite African-American baseball talent also means countering the cultural and economic forces that often combine to drive Black teenagers out of the sport.
Davis, Smith and Anthony Alford, for example, all grew up in southern states where top athletes are simply expected to prioritize football.
“You see a lot of us playing at a young age but the higher up you go, you see it everywhere — we fall out of the game,” said Davis, a 15th-round draft pick from the University of Central Arkansas in 2013. “We’re so involved football and basketball. Those things are kind of blown up in our culture.”
The push-pull grows even more pronounced each fall, when baseball season overlaps with NCAA and NFL football.
Alford was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2012, but was a high school All-American who played football at two different universities before becoming a full-time baseball player. In August, outfielder and first-round draft pick Kyler Murray signed a $4.66 million contract with the Oakland Athletics, but still returned to the University of Oklahoma for one last season quarterbacking the school’s football team.
Before the season, the 21-year-old Murray had to assure fans and media that the signing bonus wouldn’t dull his focus on football.
“I wouldn’t be here right now if I wasn’t hungry to play (football),” Murray told reporters in August. “I think this is the most anticipated football season I’ve ever been ready to play for in my life. I’m ready to go.”
The tension between football and baseball isn’t specific to Black athletes. Drew Henson starred in both sports at Michigan, then had short careers as an NFL quarterback and third baseman in the Yankees’ organization. Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow just finished his second season in the Mets’ minor league system.
But in a country where, according to research by the Urban institute, the average Black family has only one seventh the wealth of their white counterparts, players say the cost of elite youth baseball is an especially stiff imposition on Black families. Under those conditions, choosing between baseball and football involves a series of business decisions.
Alford played football for free at Petal High School in Mississippi, but says his family held a series of fundraisers — from fish fries to raffles — to send him to baseball tournaments.
While MLB’s median salary on opening day was a reported $1.32 million, the middle of the NFL’s pay scale this season was $760,000, according to Pro Football Reference. At the college level, however, football provides a better payoff – offering full scholarships where baseball teams generally spread portions of scholarships across their rosters.
Two-sport stars like Alford and Murray can delay a final decision until their earlier 20s, when they have a clearer idea where they should focus their effort and energy. But Alford says lower up-front costs and the prospect of full scholarships push many African-American athletes to dump baseball earlier in adolescence.
“Someone who’s in my shoes, their parents are going to push them to play football or basketball because it’s a full ride,” Alford said. “If I had to depend on baseball to go to college, there’s no way I would have made it. My family couldn’t afford to cough up the extra money.”
Organization-wide stats hint at Black American youth movement within the Jays franchise.
A trio of Black players on the Lansing Lugnuts led all Blue Jays and minor leaguers in stolen bases;19-year-old Californian Samad Taylor and 20-year-old Bahamian Chavez Young, who played high school ball in the U.S., each swiped 44. Teammate Reggie Pruitt, a 21-year-old from Georgia stole 43 bases.
And at the major league level, Davis, Smith and Alford took the field together Sept. 21, marking the first time since 2002 the Blue Jays had fielded an all-African-American outfield.
At the time Smith was unaware of the milestone, but when informed he recognized its significance.
“(Veteran players) paved the way for us, just like previous players paved the way for them. They just passed the baton,” said Smith, whose dad also played in the majors. “(The bond) is pretty strong among the guys I’ve met and played against. It’s good for any sport to have diversity.”
Smith says the sense of shared purpose transcends teams. Last winter he teamed with Baltimore Orioles infielder Tim Beckham to coach teenage players in Atlanta.
But co-operation has limits.
In the second inning of Tuesday’s game Kemp hit a sinking line drive that looked like it would land in the left field corner and yield and extra-base hit – until Davis sprinted over and made a diving catch.
They might be colleagues and good friends, but they’re still competitors.
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