Pirates insider: For black MLB players, increasing numbers might be all relative

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen greets infielder Josh Harrison at spring training Wednesday Feb. 13, 2013, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen greets infielder Josh Harrison at spring training Wednesday Feb. 13, 2013, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Rob Biertempfel
| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 10:54 p.m.

For Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison, it came down to family.

They both began playing baseball at a young age, and it was the first sport they played. They excelled at other sports in high school — football, basketball, track — but when it came time to start a career, baseball was their choice.

Family played a big role in their decision.

“It was really my dad,” McCutchen said. “He was a huge part of me being what I want to be. Baseball is something I wanted to do. He asked me if I wanted to play; he didn't force me to do it. And we stuck with it.”

Harrison's older brother, Vince, played five seasons in the minor leagues. In the winter, he took Harrison along to the batting cages for workouts.

“He kept me on top of the program,” Harrison said. “Baseball was the first sport I learned to play. It runs in my family. It just felt right.”

African-Americans such as McCutchen and Harrison made up 7.7 percent of players on Opening Day rosters this year. That's not much of a drop from last year's 8 percent.

But it is a significant shortfall compared to 1975, when 27 percent of major leaguers were black. According to data compiled by USA Today, the percentage of African-American players is at its lowest ebb since 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last big league club to desegregate when they added infielder Pumpsie Green.

Two weeks ago, commissioner Bud Selig created an On-Field Diversity Task Force to study how to reverse the trend. The 17-member group includes several front-office executives, a college athletic director, a college coach and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

If those folks want to come up with a formula to steer more African-American kids toward baseball, they would do well to talk with guys like McCutchen and Harrison about the role of the family.

McCutchen's father, Lorenzo, gave up an opportunity to play college football so he could stay home and help raise his son. From youth leagues to minor league ball to now, McCutchen always has been able to look to his dad for advice and encouragement.

“Look at the way the world is now compared to 30 years ago,” McCutchen said. “Things are different. A lot of things have changed — family-wise, money-wise. It's a little tougher than it was before. We know the statistics about African-American families. We're kind of close to the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to poverty and all those things. There are a lot of single-parent families. You really have to make a huge sacrifice as a parent to help your kid play baseball.”

McCutchen is not a parent, but he's been doing what he can to encourage kids to play ball. He's participated in MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program.

Last year, McCutchen also worked with baseball players at Oliver and Perry high schools as their schools merged.

“We all are role models, regardless of what race we are,” McCutchen said. “We want to attract all races to play the game: black, white, Latino. Every kid always has a favorite player. If I happen to be that player, that's great. I look at it as you have to play the game and show you love it. A lot of kids — black, white or Latin — they can catch on to that.”

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