Each summer, the P.R.O. Youth Foundation fills a bus with high school baseball players to trek from Tampa to Atlanta.
It’s not a space where players goof off or sleep, like some high school field trips. It’s a learning experience for the foundation’s players, many of whom are African American. They watch documentaries and movies like the Jackie Robinson biopic “42,” and take turns asking coaches questions about what a future in baseball looks like.
“All of the players were in the same mindset of how much can we learn, how much can we grow through this experience,” said Cameron Scott, who once played for the P.R.O. Youth Foundation. “We took the time to ask (the coaches), ‘When it’s time to go to the draft, what’s it like getting an advisor? What are teams looking for?’”
The bus ride ends at the Mentoring Viable Prospects (MVP) Tournament in Atlanta, taking the team straight to the fields to compete against other teams made up primarily of Black athletes. The trip also typically features a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, a Braves game and a dinner with a keynote, baseball-related speaker.
The P.R.O. Youth Foundation is one of several organizations in the Tampa Bay area seeking to make baseball a more inclusive space.
These efforts come amid a large-scale decline in African-American MLB players. Just 6.2% of players on 2023 opening-day rosters were African American –– down from 7.2% in 2022, according to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sport. These racial disparities start when players take up T-ball, then trickle down to the diversity of the sport as a whole.
Financial, societal barriers
Jarrod Cande, a pitcher in the Rockies organization, had a difficult time getting new baseball equipment growing up because of his family’s financial situation.
“I had to make a glove last a year,” Cande said. “I had to make a bat last or borrow someone else’s bat.”
Cande, who played at Hillsborough High, views the steep price of baseball as one barrier for young African-American players. Required equipment such as gloves, bats, practice apparel and cleats combined can cost more than $200. Playing on the club circuit — from tournament fees to hotel rooms to uniform pricing — can come in anywhere between $1,500-$3,000. Private lessons can be expensive as well, costing around $75 an hour.
Sports like basketball, track and football are popular alternatives to baseball partly due to less required equipment and their fast-paced nature. Some high schools also have a stronger legacy in basketball and football that attracts students to those sports.
Stereotypes about what sports African Americans “should” play may contribute to the lack of interest in baseball as well. Boca Ciega High’s Michael Miller, who has coached at the school for three years, said he heard about negative attitudes toward African-American students playing baseball earlier in his tenure.
“A young man on my team confided in me that other students cornered him when they found out he was on the baseball team — other African-American students –– and they had told him, ‘Don’t you know that Black people don’t play baseball in Pinellas County?’ ” Miller said.
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Creating inclusive spaces
After 17 years of running Burg Baseball, founder Charles Castle III knows his practice routine like the back of his hand. He likes to play popular music on the radio, feeling that it gives his athletes a spark. He moves from drill to drill quickly, ensuring there’s “constant movement.”
“We want to take the staleness out of the game with just keeping them moving, active and excited,” Castle said.
Castle founded Burg Baseball in 2007 to provide a less expensive, more exciting alternative to other baseball leagues in St. Petersburg. Playing for the organization costs nothing if a player’s parents volunteer during tournaments or as a coach. Castle also brings a bag of bats and gloves to practice, ensuring all players have the required gear.
The organization serves around 80-100 players from ages 3-18 in the fall and 120-140 in the spring. Around 60-70% of participants are African American –– though Burg Baseball was not founded with the explicit goal of drawing more African-American children to the sport.
The organization’s coaching staff is primarily African American, but Burg Baseball vice president Cliff Williams said it has become more diverse in recent years. He appreciates having coaches and players of many different races, feeling it’s one way to eliminate prejudice.
“I’m a firm believer that that kills racism, when you get these young kids who don’t see all these differences (and) their teammates are a rainbow of people,” Williams said.
The Rays also have supported initiatives to make baseball more accessible and diverse. In previous seasons, Burg Baseball volunteers worked a concessions stand at Tropicana Field, where 10% of proceeds went back to the organization.
The Rays provide free tickets to another local team, the Tampa RBI Rays, as part of Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiative. The RBI program seeks to increase diversity, support academic success and make playing baseball and softball less expensive.
For RBI coach Mark Whiten, attending Rays games is a teaching opportunity. He talks to the kids during the game, telling them to watch out for strategy, like how infielders approach a shallow pop fly and how outfielders back up the bases.
“It’s good for them to see the game in person and what the person does in their position — opposed to (me) going, ‘You’ve got to be doing this,’” Whiten said.
Beyond the RBI program, MLB also encourages diversity in the sport through events like the Hank Aaron Invitational Game. Held each summer at Truist Park in Atlanta, the game is an invite-only event for the country’s top African-American players.
P.R.O. Youth Foundation player Trey Lawrence, 17, has competed in the Hank Aaron game for two straight years. Participating has been an encouraging reminder that the sport is growing among young African-American players, he said.
“Being able to be under the bright lights and go back to the hotel and look at the video and see the highlights, it was surreal,” Lawrence said.
One of Lawrence’s favorite moments at the July 2023 event? Saying hi to Ken Griffey Jr., who was attending as the MLB-MLB Players Association Youth Development Foundation ambassador.
A future beyond the diamond
Chip Lawrence founded the P.R.O. Youth Foundation to provide players of color more exposure in the recruitment process while cutting down travel ball fees. Playing for one of the foundation’s travel teams costs approximately $400, and the organization provides scholarships for those with financial need.
Although the primary goal is getting players into college, Chip Lawrence also uses the program as a way to expand players’ horizons in the sport.
“All of us have dreams of getting to the big leagues as a player,” said Chip Lawrence, who also works as a special assistant to scouting for the Brewers. “At one time I did, but I was fortunate enough to get into scouting. … It’s still rewarding. You’re still around baseball, and we try to make sure they’re aware of those opportunities.”
The mentality has trickled down to former players. Scott was injured during his college career and realized playing baseball wasn’t in his future. So, he reached out to Chip Lawrence and others in the baseball world to figure out his next steps.
“What we learned from Chip and other scouts and executives … that really catapulted me to go on and continue networking and go to winter meetings and get an internship and grind through it,” Scott said.
He now works as a senior coordinator for development with Major League Baseball, helping organize events for top baseball players as young as 13, and sees Chip Lawrence through his work each summer.
Boca Ciega’s Miller also feels the variety of opportunities to play and work in baseball are an important recruiting factor for the sport. He feels this should be better communicated to young players, in addition to fostering a love of the game from a young age.
Positivity on the local level
Burg Baseball’s Castle keeps a card on his desk from a recent alum of the program.
“Thank you for all the love and support of the past 13 years,” the player wrote. “I’m forever grateful for the way you molded me into the man I am today.”
It’s not just about baseball for Castle and many other area coaches.
Local programs emphasize giving back. Each winter, the RBI Rays run a toy drive for kids in local Head Start programs. PYF also runs a toy drive, and alumni — like the Rockies’ Cande — come back to help.
It’s about hard work, too. When Miller started at Boca Ciega, he wanted to make it clear that all players get a fair shot — but it’s those who work the hardest that tend to make the team. His varsity team last year featured five African-American players — a “very large increase” from previous seasons, he said.
Cande saw the value of hard work when he played for PYF, looking to Chip Lawrence and other African-American leaders in the baseball world.
As he competes for the Rockies’ High-A affiliate in Spokane, Washington, Cande looks to become part of the next generation of African-American trailblazers in baseball. He’s heard stories about politics and racism in the sport, but knows it’s possible to overcome. After all, Chip Lawrence and other executives have done so.
“(Success) is reachable,” Cande said. “It’s not completely out of the question.”