Dario Otero Jr., affectionately known as DJ, credits Jackie Robinson for making history as the first black American to play in Major League Baseball.
The 13-year-old DJ said Robinson proved that black players can excel in professional baseball. But 75 years after the league desegregated, DJ said he was the only black baseball player on his youth travel team.
DJ’s father, Dario Otero Sr., said that reality hits the hardest during auditions and games.
“He knows he’s the only one out there,” Otero said. “Anything he does, any way he’s looked at, sticks out like a sore thumb … He’s known for being the only player in our area who’s black.”
DJ, who lives in Rosemont, Minnesota, said he would like to see more black youth in his age group play baseball. DJ said being the only black player on his team makes him worry about the future.
And he is not alone.
The recent news that no black player born in the United States has made the World Series for the first time since 1950 highlights what advocates for racial equality in sports say is MLB’s decades-long struggle with diversity.
This comes after a May report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that there is now a lower percentage of black MLB players than in the past three decades. Black players now make up about 7 percent of major league baseball teams, compared to 18 percent of the league’s black players in 1991.
Before Game 1 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, the Astros and Philadelphia Phillies announced their 26-man rosters for the World Series last week, and neither team has a single U.S.-born black player on the roster. Astros outfielder Michael Brantley, a black player, was likely on the roster but suffered a shoulder injury early in the season. Meanwhile, the Phillies did not have a black player on their Opening Day roster this year for the first time since 1959. Roman Quinn, who is black, was a backup with the Phillies this season but was released after playing in 23 games.
Richard Lapchick, director of the institute and author of the report, Race and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball, said MLB has made progress in attracting black players, but the data shows more needs to be done.
“Baseball has actually gone to great lengths to increase the number of black players because, frankly, it’s an embarrassment to them,” Lapchick said.
Lapchick introduced the league for making history this year. Four of MLB’s top five picks this year were black, and all participated in the MLB Dream Series, which was designed to increase black presence on the field.
Tony Riggins, MLB’s chief diversity officer, told CNN that the key is getting players from the youth leagues to college, where they can be seen by scouts and further develop their skills.
Riggins said the number of blacks participating in college baseball is about 5 percent. He said while he understands the importance of getting black players into professional baseball, he feels “it’s just as important to get black players into college.”
“It didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to change overnight,” Riggins said.
While no African-American players will be born in the United States, there will be black players in the Fall Classic, including Afro-Cuban slugger Jordan Alvarez of the Astros. Players from eight different countries are participating in the World Championships this year.
Still, observers say the lack of U.S.-born players on this year’s roster suggests more needs to be done to increase the pipeline for African-American players. And despite MLB’s efforts, many fans and league watchers are still frustrated that black American players are underrepresented, said Phil Dixon, a baseball historian and co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
“If I had to grade Major League Baseball, I’d give them an F,” Dixon said.
His museum continues to receive millions of dollars in grants from MLB, but Dixon believes there is too much investment in the past and not enough in the future.
“Since we started the museum, the number of black players has been declining,” Dixon said. “They put their money in history, but their commitment to today’s youth is woefully lacking.”
Otero, DJ’s father, said young black men need to learn the history of baseball and get more guidance on how to get involved.
I just want to … cheer on Little League [and] “Major league baseball teams should look at the history of their community and see how you bring in young athletes,” Otero told CNN.
Otero said some black families also struggle to afford to play baseball, and there is not enough investment to repair baseball fields in black neighborhoods.
“It’s expensive,” Otero said. $300 gloves, $300 bats that you have to replace every year.
Baseball fields are not common in urban areas, Lapchick told CNN.
Otero, who previously coached baseball in urban areas, said the fields in black and brown communities are not maintained as well as those in white suburbs.
“It’s not that much fun,” Otero said, adding that a rock could fly up and hit a player in the face because of the awful condition of the field.
Experts say more needs to be done to break down baseball’s racial barriers.
“I think there could be more investment in these programs, and I think municipalities across the country should work with Major League Baseball to make those programs as strong as they can be and really support our youth,” said author Jesse Hagopian. ” who writes about black representation in sports.
Hagopian said if MLB builds more fields in black and brown communities, it will revive interest and recruiting in those communities.
Riggins said MLB shares Hagopian’s concerns. Riggins said the league is working with local leaders to improve field conditions in several cities and provide financial aid to youth players to help pay for participation in youth leagues.
“We’re providing equipment, we’re providing scholarships, we’re providing financial aid so that we can balance the scale … to get more kids the opportunities that those who already have resources,” he said. .
Lack of investment and high game costs are not the only problem.
According to Dixon, Ebony magazine and other black media used to advertise and list all black professional baseball players in the 1960s and 1970s, but no longer do.
“There is blame at every level,” Dixon said.
Black kids are less likely to choose baseball when they don’t celebrate themselves in the sport, Lapchick said.
Barry Bonds was considered one of the most popular black baseball players in the early 2000s, but his achievements were overshadowed by his reported steroid use and subsequent media criticism. Lapchick said this led to black athletes moving away from baseball and more toward basketball and football.
So if you’re a young black kid and you see the best black baseball player being criticized all the time, and you look at the NBA and you see great athletes in the news and in the community — the same thing in the NFL — you probably chose baseball. You won’t,” Lapchick explained.
Despite the racial disparity in baseball, DJ said he hopes to one day make it to the MLB as a starting pitcher.
“I have a big arm,” said DJ. An arm that may one day be part of the next generation of major league superstars.