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Published: Saturday, 4/5/2008

Mud Hens roster void of African-Americans

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Toledo hitting coach Leon Durham says young blacks are being steered to sports other than baseball, especially football and basketball. Toledo hitting coach Leon Durham says young blacks are being steered to sports other than baseball, especially football and basketball.
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Leon "Bull" Durham said he noticed it during spring training.

To see an African-American in a Mud Hens uniform this year, the team's hitting coach has to look in the mirror. The 2008 Hens are void of an African-American player.

"It doesn't bother me," Durham said.

Last night the Hens defeated the Durham Bulls 9-2 on the 40th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. There was only one black player on either team - Bulls reliever Calvin Medlock.

Durham said he didn't have a problem with the lack of black players on the field last night or the continuing trend in Major League Baseball of a declining black presence in the game.

He said if African-American children don't want to play baseball, parents shouldn't force them.

"You can't force this game on guys," said Durham, who is in his eighth season as the Hens' hitting coach and played nine years in the major leagues. "It's not like anyone's being black-balled, and it's not just a white man's game. It's just that the kids are being steered in other directions."

According to a 2006 study by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 8.4 percent of players in Major League Baseball that year were African-Americans. It was the lowest percentage since the study was initiated in the 1980s.

Durham relief pitcher Calvin Medlock, far right, chats with teammates during their game last night against the Mud Hens. Medlock is the only African-American player on the Bulls' roster. Durham relief pitcher Calvin Medlock, far right, chats with teammates during their game last night against the Mud Hens. Medlock is the only African-American player on the Bulls' roster.
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By contrast, Latinos made up 29.4 percent of major leaguers, while whites made up 59.5 percent.

Hens manager Larry Parrish said baseball's history goes in cycles, and this is the time when more and more Latinos are breaking into the majors. Asians, who made up 2.4 percent of major leaguers in 2006, also are increasing their presence.

Parrish and Durham both said it seems more African-American children are playing football and basketball growing up, which is why there are fewer of them making it in baseball.

Parrish said that he doesn't pay attention to the racial makeup of his team.

"If you would've asked me if we had any [African-American] players I wouldn't know," Parrish said. "I don't look at it like that. I look at it like, which guys do I have who can play?"

The Hens' parent club, the Detroit Tigers, currently has five black players, including former Hens Marcus Thames and Curtis Granderson.

The Tampa Bay Rays, who are the Bulls' parent club, have five African-Americans. Medlock, the Rays' lone black player in Triple-A, said the reason more black players don't reach the majors is there aren't enough black minor-league coaches to give them direction.

Medlock said he benefited from playing for former manager Alonzo Powell in Single-A Dayton (Cincinnati Reds) in 2004, who encouraged him to adopt an offseason program that kept Medlock's focus on baseball.

"If younger guys don't have that kind influence, they can lose focus," Medlock said. "I had some friends who tended to do other things during the offseason. When spring training rolled around and they weren't ready, come cut time those were the guys who tended to get [cut]."

Durham, 50, said he agreed with Medlock that it was important for young black players to have role models and positive influences, but he also said each individual is responsible for his own career.

Durham said he was thankful that race has not interfered with his career as a player or coach.

"It's a joy and a thrill for me as a black man to do what I do for a living, to have people of all races look up to me for who I am and what I've accomplished," Durham said.

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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