On why Gary Sheffield (and now Torii Hunter) should just play

This week we learned why good players should play the game and possibly leave issues like racism to people who actually know what they’re talking about.  Unfortunately for Gary Sheffield and Torii Hunter, being black does not qualify you to make enlightened comments about the reason for the decline of black players in Major League Baseball (the percentage of black major leaguers is about 8.5 percent, less than half what it was just 10 years ago).

Sheffield’s comments were essentially this: Black players are tougher to control than Latino players.  He said:

“Where I’m from, you can’t control us…These are the things my race demands.  So if you’re equally good as this Latin player, guess who’s going to get sent home?”

Hunter chimed in yesterday:

“You can go to Latin America and get that same talent as a black player in Compton and if he’s in Compton he gets drafted in the first round he’s going to get two million dollars.”

Or, basically, black players are more expensive.  He added:

“I do agree that, you know 10 years from now you’ll see no blacks, at all.”

There is actually some measure of sense in Hunter’s comments, and it’s important to note that Sheffield’s Tiger teammate, Carlos Guillen, basically agreed with him.  Personally, I think it’s pretty obvious that race alone isn’t the reason, and both players hinted at that.  Sheffield’s comments are tough to defend, though, because he hints that the main difference is in some kind of ingrained characteristic of submission in Latin players.  That might be partially true, but I don’t think it explains everything.

Here are my reasons that black players are tougher to find today:

  1. The NBA and NFL.  The vast majority of NBA players, plus over 50% of NFL players are black.  Basketball is now fully ingrained in African-American culture as the #1 sport, and football is the second best option.  Coupled with the dramatic rise in popularity of baseball in Latin American countries, and you have one big reason for the dramatic shift in the player pool.
  2. The MLB Draft.  What Hunter said is partially true, but it’s really a function of MLB’s First Year Player Draft.  Basically, Americans must go through the draft process, while teams can sign all the Latin players they want, as long as they have money.  While I think he was exaggerating by saying there would be no blacks 10 years from now, it is true that Latin players (at first) are cheaper, and thus a better value for scouting resources.  Of course, this problem affects black and white players equally.
  3. Baseball teams like to minimize both risk and cost.  In order to minimize risk (and maximize projectability), some teams have decided to focus more on college players than in the past.  College players are easier to project as major league talent, so this makes sense.  More white people go to college, so it’s possible that fewer black American players are being scouted as a result.

The bottom line is that I don’t think MLB or any of the teams are racist.  Even if they were, it would be too costly for them to let anyone know that from both a P.R. perspective and a baseball talent perspective (ignoring an available set of players would be very costly).  MLB is opening an academy in Compton, CA, and they’ve been very proactive elsewhere, realizing that there is a P.R. problem on the horizon and addressing it, even though the problem really has little to do with race itself.

Let’s get back to the games.

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