We’ve all heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, when you think of youth baseball in 2015, try to consider it through a similar lens: “It takes a community to raise and nurture a baseball program.”
You constantly read stories about the dwindling number of African-American baseball players at the Major League level and the declining interest in baseball among black fans and in black communities. Many theories have been offered to explain this: Fewer fathers in the home to teach the game. Competition from other sports. The evolution of the “pay to play.” Diminished parks and recreation services across the country. Volunteerism in decline.
Each of these theories, on its own, holds some weight. Collectively, they form a pervasive set of trends from which seemingly every community suffers.
In December 2013, when Tony Clark was named executive director of the MLBPA, he asked if I would serve as his advisor. I had already been successful in my post-playing career, having worked as an executive for a ball club for more than a decade. But I accepted for a number of reasons, chief among them being that he was the first former player to be named executive director in the history of the organization. I saw it as a great opportunity to share the wisdom and experience I’d accumulated, while helping the organization that has meant so much to me over the course of my life.
I called it “going from success to significance,” and for me, that is exactly what it was.
The MLBPA has always done a fantastic job of protecting players’ rights, advancing their careers and enabling them to share in the game equitably. For nearly two decades, the MLBPA has maintained a charitable component called the Players Trust. Through the Trust, players have conducted clinics, organized buses to games, promoted volunteerism and contributed mightily to international causes and relief efforts. As a group, I’d say professional baseball players’ level of giving is extremely high. So when it came to supporting the people and the city of Baltimore, we were all in.
During my own career, giving back was where I put my imprimatur, being perhaps the first athlete to start a nonprofit operating foundation, nearly 40 years ago. In my 2007 book, Dropping the Ball: Baseball’s Troubles and How We Can and Must Solve Them, I suggested that if the MLBPA and MLB worked together, they could succeed in turning around those pervasive trends you keep reading about. I further suggested that a major part of the solution lies in supporting and adopting communities that have built and maintained baseball as their primary sport. I’ve long maintained that for baseball to flourish, community is essential.
It is with this notion in mind that I took part in the planning committee for the Baltimore Baseball Celebration on the west side of Baltimore in the lower-income community that is home to the James Mosher youth baseball league — the oldest continuously operating African-American youth baseball league in the country.
The celebration was a special event. Right in the heart of Baltimore, the volunteers, coaches, kids and their families were treated to a strong show of support from the MLBPA. Leading the contingent was Tony Clark. Joining Tony was former Oriole and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, as well as other former MLB players, including Jeffrey Hammonds and Eric Davis, and a number of current Orioles players. (Unfortunately, I could not be there due to my speaking duties at the Opening Ceremonies of the College World Series in Omaha.) They all came together in a multifaceted effort, not only to support the kids and the program that has done so much, but also to recognize and honor the coaches and administrators who have worked indefatigably for more than two generations. Coming together now for a Baltimore community that has so recently been stricken by turmoil and unrest made it all the more special.
The day consisted of many parts, starting with breakfast for the families and then a mini-coaching clinic from the former players. Next, two games took place simultaneously on the fields, and the players involved were coached by the likes of Orioles stars Adam Jones and Delmon Young and coach Wayne Kirby. Prior to the games, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake threw a ceremonial first pitch.
A postgame lunch followed, featuring a Q&A session with the players and a recognition ceremony. To me, to honor the parents, coaches and volunteers of James Mosher was perhaps the high point of the day. They have been the glue of the program and of that community for a long time, in a way that flies in the face of the perception that black dads are not in the home, involved or supportive. These are men who exemplify what is right about Baltimore and what is good, and they are living proof that baseball can be a cornerstone of a community’s betterment.
Then came the gifting of generous support items for the players and the league. Contributions included immediate support in the form of baseball bats, gloves and equipment for the players. An additional commitment, through the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, was promised to make permanent field improvements: dugouts, covered stands and field equipment to keep the field pristine.
Finally, a full 600 Orioles tickets were made available to the league.
As a professional athlete and then youth coach, I know that good parenting, coaching and mentoring skills are key elements in helping to mold and shape healthy, well-balanced kids. I have the benefit of hindsight today, and I will forever be grateful to my own coaches, from Bob “Big Six” Carter to Billy Peterson. I was fortunate and blessed that I learned what I learned from them, and I’m even more fortunate now that I can share the art and science of the game — and of life in general — with others.
When the MLBPA, MLB and a number of Orioles put their heads, hearts and wallets together, they can carry out a lot of caring and sharing. The Baltimore Baseball Celebration was an experience that I hope will have long-lasting effects on this community, not only because of the size of the support given, but, just as importantly, because of the time and personal touch involved. These are people who understand and care about the communities and issues of Baltimore. That is a force of goodwill that has been missing for quite a while. We don’t care if a single participant in last weekend’s event makes it to the big leagues. All we hope for is that they are better kids and better citizens when they come out the other side.
It goes back to some of the founding principles of baseball — back to the early days, when they called it “TownBall.” It is a sport that was always meant to be played at a little bit of a different pace than the other sports. A little more patiently. A little less about the quick highlight and with a focus not on the individual, but instead on the team.
Baseball’s spirit has endured for generations on the strength of these pillars: on teamwork, on community, on health and on fun. That spirit was on full display this weekend, and I am hopeful that in the years to come, it will only grow stronger.
Dave Winfield was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. Keep up with him by visiting DaveWinfieldHOF.com.