ST. PETERSBURG — The "42" is affixed to a billboard beyond the fences at Tropicana Field. Amid the visual clutter of scoreboards and advertisements, the homage to Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball's color barrier 61 years ago, is often lost. Lost like baseball has become to the current generation of African-American young people.
African-Americans made up just 8.2 percent of the major-league player pool last year, the most recent figure available, and the lowest in 20 years. Commissioner Bud Selig says he doesn't know why the number has fallen so low. One chronicler of diversity in sports cites a lack of African-American role models in the sport. Others say football and basketball have become more appealing to boys in terms of money and fame potential.
But perhaps there is hope. This World Series between the Rays and the Phillies could go far in regenerating interest in the game in African-American youngsters.
A fifth of the Rays' playoff roster is African-American: Cliff Floyd, Carl Crawford, Edwin Jackson, B.J. Upton and David Price. Two Rays coaches are African-American, Steve Henderson and George Hendrick.
"We've started something, and hopefully it will grow, but we definitely need to get our African-Americans kids involved," Floyd, 35, said.
Among the Phillies' stars are the past two National League MVPs, African-Americans Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.
"To see it on the big stage, on the World Series stage, it definitely gives kids something to shoot for and lets them see someone else out there who looks like them and lets them know it's possible to play in the World Series one day," Crawford, 27, said.
Price is a national star of the moment after his save in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against Boston. Howard is among the most ubiquitous players in the league because of his Subway commercial.
"It's one of the most pleasant aspects of this, for me," Selig said. "We lost a generation. I've talked a million times to people over the last 30 years to why. Nobody knows. I've had 100 conversations on this subject. Nobody seems to know.
"But here all of a sudden, you got Ryan Howard, B.J. Upton and Jimmy Rollins, and on and on and on. Watching David Price in the eighth or ninth inning. … But it's great. Do I believe it's helpful? You bet I do.
"Hopefully, people will be watching," Selig said. "Hopefully, young African-Americans will be watching. And here they're going to see all these players. You bet, it means a lot to me."
Seventeen percent of baseball players were African-American when MLB celebrated the 50th anniversary of Robinson's accomplishment, according to the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.
Still, this year the institute gave MLB its first A-minus rating for race in the 20-year history of its Racial and Gender Report Card for the sport. The grade was based largely on baseball beginning the season with eight non-white managers, the highest since there were 10 in 2002, and a high of three non-white general managers.
Institute founder and director Richard Lapchick, Ph.D., said in his 2008 report card release, "It is ironic that as the role of people of color dramatically increases regarding who runs the game, African-American players continue to decrease."
In a phone interview he said: "What's happening in St. Petersburg is very important. This World Series will start to change things, with so many African-American players, particularly on the Rays.
"If you're a young African-American child trying to decide what sport to play, the most prominent African-American (baseball) player for the last decade has been Barry Bonds, who has been vilified by the media. The young kids have not had a role model they can look to, and the prominence of this World Series helps to cure one of those problems."
Lapchick said that although programs such as the MLB-administered Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities program should have long-term impact, it will likely skip the generation of current teenagers.
Said Kenny Wilson, a former Sickles High outfielder who was drafted in the second round by the Blue Jays this year, "I don't think the numbers will ever be where they should be (for participation), but it shows it's improving.
"And it shows that black players can play on that kind of stage in the World Series."
Howard, who led the majors in home runs this season, said he hoped having Africa-American stars in the World Series would encourage greater participation, but he wasn't sure if an event on television would be enough.
"You would hope so," Howard, 28, said. "But it's really going to be about who is watching the games, hearing it, playing.
"We're here playing, so you hope that it will reach communities where (African-American) kids are watching and they will begin to dream to one day be in our spot."
Times staff writers Eduardo A. Encina and Marc Topkin contributed to this report.