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2009 Major League Baseball amateur draft: Tampa Bay area and national baseball diamonds lack one color

TAMPA — Baseball has taken Mychal Givens across the country, from national high school all-star games at Dodger Stadium and Wrigley Field to a spot on the U.S. junior national team. Last summer, Givens won the Jackie Robinson Award, given to the nation's top senior-to-be high school player.

But one thing he can't help notice, from his nationwide travels to his Plant High team, is dugouts aren't diverse.

Givens, a pitcher/shortstop, was Plant's only African-American.

Givens, the 46th-best prospect in the country, according to Baseball America, could make it three straight years that the first bay area high school player chosen in Major League Baseball's draft is African-American.

That trend, however, is not the norm.

"I just stuck with it," Givens said. "I have a passion for baseball. Now some of my friends that I played Little League ball with … wish they had stayed with baseball."

In 2008, African-Americans in the majors increased for the first time since 1995. But they still accounted for just 10.2 percent (121 of 1,533), according to the most recent Racial and Gender Report Card released in April by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at UCF.

The same study revealed the number of African-American college players stands at 6 percent.

•••

Before every game, Brandon High first baseman Roderick Shoulders makes it a point to glance into the opposing dugout for a familiar face.

"You look over," said Shoulders, one of the top rising seniors in Hillsborough County, "and it's always mostly white."

In recent years, more emphasis has been placed on showcase events, AAU and club baseball, premier events that some say are too expensive for African-Americans.

"There's a ton of talent there that never gets seen," said Middleton coach Vernon Slater, who was drafted out of Brandon High in 1988 then out of Polk Community College two years later. "Besides my team (at Middleton), you're lucky to see more than one or two black kids on any team."

In the past two years, three of Slater's players, all African-American, have been drafted. But even he admits each received more attention from AAU ball and showcases.

"There are a lot of black kids that never get a shot," Slater said. "Club ball has taken over."

For Middleton's Corey Thomas, who was drafted in the 13th round by the Orioles last season, attention didn't pick up until he joined former major-leaguer Chet Lemon's travel team the summer before his junior year.

Still, AAU ball is expensive. Costs for summer leagues can run into the thousands, and Slater said that shuts the door on many promising players.

"A lot of kids can't afford it," he said.

•••

Reggie Williams, a former major-leaguer with the Angels and Dodgers, saw the disparity when he was in the minor leagues. Even at that level, African-American players lagged behind.

"I watched guys like Ken Griffey Jr. come up, and they were so polished," Williams said. "But that was rare."

Williams believes high school coaches fail some by not turning talent into ability.

"Not enough time is put into teaching them," said Williams, who now runs the Dawg Pound baseball academy in Tampa for players 10-18, the majority of whom are African-American. "They go into the ninth grade, and no one wants to invest in them.

"That's when you have a kid that hits homers but strikes out a lot; who has a good arm but can't throw; who is fast but can't run the bases."

Williams' son, Reggie Jr., likely will get drafted Tuesday. Baseball America recently said he had the best speed in the draft. He didn't play high school baseball until his senior year at Brooks-DeBartolo. But from age 14, he played on his father's under-18 teams.

Shoulders, who will spend the summer playing club ball and participating in showcases, said kids have to make a choice at a young age whether baseball is worth specializing in.

"I played football until I was 10," Shoulders said. "But it got really busy, and you have to pick one or the other."

Others simply never pick up the game. Sometimes, football and basketball are just more attractive.

"I wish I played baseball," said Tarean Austin, a standout on Hillsborough High's football and basketball teams. "If you're good, that's where the money is at right out of high school. But it just never piqued my interest. I think a lot of people just think baseball is boring."

•••

Much of Tampa's baseball tradition is rooted at the Belmont Heights Little League fields in East Tampa. It's where Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield and Carl Everett started their careers.

In the 1980s, Belmont Heights fielded six senior level teams (14- to 15-year-olds). Now it doesn't have enough players for two.

"There's a huge drop-off when you hit age 13," Belmont Heights president Artis Gambrell said. "The AAU teams come in and offer all these promises. We can't compete with what they offer, all the facilities."

Givens' mother, Monica, said her son's West Tampa Little League teams were diverse, but she noticed his friends starting to branch out in middle school to football, a cheaper option.

•••

Last year, Sickles' Kenny Wilson, an African-American, was the first bay area high school player taken, 63rd overall by the Blue Jays. In 2007, it was Hills­borough's Michael Burgess, another African-American, 49th by the Blue Jays.

Across the bay in Pinellas County, high-profile African-American players are rare.

The last one from Pinellas drafted was Northside Christian's Lastings Milledge, a first-round selection of the Mets in 2003. And Milledge didn't even live in St. Petersburg, driving from Bradenton to attend Northside then transferring to Bradenton Lakewood Ranch for his senior year.

The only other African-American player from Pinellas to be drafted in the past 10 years was Pinellas Park's Alex Leflore, a Reds sixth-rounder in 1999.

"I've often thought about why there are so few players, and it's tough to figure out," Dunedin High coach Tom Hilbert said. "I know when we have tryouts, we don't even have one African-American player who shows up."

In Pasco County, former Pasco High standout Dominic Brown — who moved to Georgia for his senior year — passed up a football scholarship to Miami to sign with the Phillies, who selected him in the 20th round in 2006. He is now among the organization's top prospects, playing with their Florida State League team in Clearwater.

Even as Givens traveled across the nation for all-star games last summer, he noticed the number of white and Hispanic players dwarfed African-Americans.

"You really need to love this game like he does and really not care that there's not that many people of your skin color," Monica Givens said.

"I think it's become the norm, and maybe a part of it is peer pressure."

Times staff writers Bob Putnam and Joey Knight contributed to this report. Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

What: The 2009 MLB Draft

When: Tuesday through Thursday

The skinny: The first round will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday and well be broadcast live on the MLB Network. Teams will have four minutes between selections. The remaining of the first day of the draft - first sandwich round, second round, third round and second sandwich round - will be broadcast on live video stream on MLB.com. The draft resumes Wednesday at noon with rounds 4-30 and then conclude with rounds 31-50 beginning Thursday at 11:30 a.m.

2009 Major League Baseball amateur draft: Tampa Bay area and national baseball diamonds lack one color 06/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 11:36pm]
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