Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Posts Tagged ‘race

How one urban youth baseball league succeeds

with 10 comments

On the morning of the day he leaves to watch his son’s all-star team play in a Little League tournament game, Bill Haley is doing two things at the Jackie Robinson West field on the south side of Chicago. One is keeping watch while a crew films a commercial for Harris Bank. “You’d think they were making Star Wars,” Haley says. The other is talking to me on the phone about how a normal thing for him and his league — African-American kids playing baseball — seems so unusual to most everyone else.

“I can understand why it’s news, but I don’t think it’s news,” Haley said.

In this previous piece on Jackie Robinson West, I talked about the long-term decline in the percentage of African-Americans in Major League Baseball, from about 30 percent in the late 1970s to around 10 percent now. I talked about how that has become a symbol of many blacks’ overall disengagement from the game, compared with earlier generations. And how an all-black team making the Little League World Series in 1983, as Jackie Robinson West did, is not big news, but that team making the LLWS this year could be a very big deal, given Major League Baseball’s greater sensitivity and awareness to its dwindling African-American base.

object022Jackie Robinson West’s second straight appearance in the Great Lakes Region final in Indianapolis, the last stop before South Williamsport, Pa., is a very big deal to Haley, but not for the reasons listed above. It’s a big deal because it’s his league — and his 12-year-old son, Adam — playing a big series. Black has nothing to do with it. For that matter, Jackie Robinson West’s playoff road is gravy to the real goal of the league, the stated goal of most local leagues — “give kids something to do, and provide an outlet for the adults.”

What makes Jackie Robinson West succeed as a league is the same as what makes any league succeed, no matter the players’ race, ethnicity or income status.

“It’s a combination of factors,” said Haley, a dispatcher for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Our league has a strong tradition. The coaches were once players. It’s taken hold in the community. You pull kids from a limited area, so there’s a sense of community to start out with. Being state champions (the league has won two Illinois championships in a row) is incidental to what we’re trying to do.”

The key, Haley said, is not the children. “It’s the adults. Baseball is a family game. It starts with just a dad playing catch with his kids. You’ve got a dad who hits pop flies on a Sunday. That’s where the connection comes in.

“That’s how it started for me.”

No surprise, because Haley’s father, Joseph, founded the Jackie Robinson West league in 1971. There was some sociological significance to that as well. In 1960, the Washington Heights neighborhood on Chicago’s south side was 88 percent white. Thanks to a decade of blockbusting, white flight and black emigration from other parts of the city and the South (Joseph Haley was from Louisiana), by 1970 the neighborhood was 75 percent black. (My suburb, Oak Lawn, had its big population boom in the 1960s thanks to white people fleeing Washington Heights and other south side areas that, as Chicago residents still diplomatically put it, were “changing.”) By putting the league together, Joseph Haley, who died four years ago, created a center for the mass of new arrivals in Washington Heights, not only a place to play baseball, but also a place for adults to meet and greet.

Like many neighborhoods and suburbs on Chicago’s south side, a lot of the people who now live in Washington Heights are people who grew up in Washington Heights. (My Oak Lawn is that way — my wife and I moved all over the country and ended up a mile from her childhood home. Like south siders say, they always come back.) Washington Heights is nearly 100 percent black. However, not all urban neighborhoods are created unequal. Washington Heights is a stable, working- to middle-class area where the likes of a Bill Haley are around and available.

It’s not just that there are fathers around. It’s that whole families and neighbors are invested in the league and its success. Washington Heights is not unique in Chicago — there are baseball leagues in neighborhoods on all sides of the area served by Jackie Robinson West. For any youth league of any kind in any area to survive and thrive, you need adults who are invested (hopefully in a productive way) in their children’s lives. You also need people who respect the league and its traditions. That’s easier to do when you have people like Haley, who played, and then coached (so does his brother). Haley’s 16-year-old daughter, once a Jackie Robinson West cheerleader, helps to coach the newest generation. The league has annual reunions of past players.

That’s not to say Washington Heights and all the kids at Jackie Robinson West are all about baseball. “What people don’t realize is the tremendous amount of energy and time that goes into basketball,” Haley said. “I can’t tell you how many kids we lose to basketball.” That’s become particularly acute since a few years back, thanks to the success of a recent graduate of the nearby high school, Simeon — the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose.

However, “we’re not in competition with basketball,” Haley said. The success of the older kids does help generate excitement in baseball, to be sure. “We’ve got a whole park of 7- to 10-year-olds watching these guys like they’re Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Milton Bradley.”

Some might read Haley’s naming of those three players as a way of holding up black role models in baseball (with Lee and Bradley among the relatively rare African-Americans in the majors). I tend to think of it as Haley not being a true south sider by rooting for the stinkin’ Cubs. Hey, if we want to talk African-American baseball role models, how about 2005 World Series MVP Jermaine Dye, or DeWayne Wise, who made the greatest catch ever to save a perfect game? Oh, did I mention I’m a White Sox fan by marriage?

[youtubevid id=”7OH_AspRMog”]

But I digress.

Speaking of major leaguers, Haley isn’t sure about the various MLB initiatives to goose African-American participation and big-league representation.

The success of “our league is simple. The commitment of the adults in the community. They believe this is important for the kids to have. Without that, if it’s not organically grown, [a league or initiative] is just a good idea. Time well tell whether they have any success. Though I’m always concerned when the forces behind something like this is not at the ground level.”

In its first game in Indianapolis Thursday night, Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West beat Columbus, Ind.’s Bartholomew County 4-2 in the Architecture Bowl. It has round-robin play this week before the championship round. If Jackie Robinson West keeps winning, you’re likely to hear more about how something so ordinary to Haley seems so extraordinary to others. The goal is no more high-minded than having a good baseball league that kids enjoy and parents support.

By the way, Harris Bank wasn’t filming a commercial at Jackie Robinson West as some sort of statement. It just liked the field.

Written by rkcookjr

August 7, 2009 at 6:23 pm

A white youth coach speaks on race, money and sports, and hopes he doesn't step in it

with 8 comments

Fellow True/Slant writer Bill Stephney and I were having a nice back-and-forth following my recent post about the Jackie Robinson West Little League team, a rare example of young, African-American baseball success (or even young, African-Americans merely playing baseball). He asked me a question I figured I would address in a post rather than a comment, just so it could be better highlighted.

What I’m also interested in is your own sports dad/sports journalist story in the ‘burbs. Are you also a Little League coach? If so, what makes the youth baseball program that kids in the suburbs experience successful, versus the hurdles now faced by kids in urban areas?

For full disclosure, I am now both a lacrosse dad (for a teen son…), and Little League traveling, all-star team dad (for a 10 year-old son…) — and we live in a predominantly-White, New Jersey suburb. I find the contrasts between suburban/urban environments just on this issue, incredibly fascinating.

To take the questions in order:

Are you a Little League coach?

I have coached various teams since my 12-year-old son, Bobby/Robert (depending on what he wants to be called that day) started playing basketball in second grade. (He’s going into seventh grade now.) I’ve coached him multiple times in basketball, including last year, when I assisted my brother-in-law on a seventh- and eighth-grade coed team my son was placed on when sixth-graders were drafted to fill out the rosters. I coached my 10-year-old daughter, Grace, in softball her first year, managed her team her second, managed her fall ball team following that, and then got out of the way when she moved up and beyond my realm of softball understanding. Instead, this year I switched to managing my 6-year-old son Ryan’s T-ball team. My kids have played other sports, but I’ve stayed out of coaching them because I wouldn’t know what I was talking about, at least not as much as the coaches who were there.

n1152725890_39676_54501Me, coaching with Serious Coach Face.

If so, what makes the youth baseball program that kids in the suburbs experience successful, versus the hurdles now faced by kids in urban areas?

It might not be as simple as breaking it down city and suburbs, just because it can depend on the neighborhood or the suburb. I coach in Oak Lawn and Alsip, Ill., which are inner-ring suburbs of Chicago (you might have heard of Alsip because of the ghastly doings at Burr Oak Cemetery). The dominant culture is white Catholic working class, rather than the wealthier realm of the outer or more chichi burbs. The area has its professionals and middle managers, but you’re going to find a lot of union affiliation. The area also has a growing Arabic and Latino population, and a small African-American population. Another oddity (to me) of the area: it’s still a entry point for immigrants, so it’s not unusual to find people who were born in Ireland, Greece, Poland, Palestine, Jordan or Lithuania. But because people here tend to be from here (like my wife), someone from Indiana, only 15 miles away, or even the northern suburbs is more of a foreigner.

Anyway, it would be easy to say money is a big difference-maker, and it is. But it’s also about the local sporting culture and traditions. There’s a strong Catholic tradition of sport as a way to stay healthy and Godly (like the vast programs at Notre Dame), so a kid who isn’t playing sports is a rarity. There’s also a strong Catholic tradition of not divorcing, so that tends to keep a lot of fathers around to participate in coaching and encouraging their kids in sport (though many mothers, do, too).

Bill Stephney, in his comments to me and elsewhere, makes a strong case that a big factor in declining African-American representation in major-league baseball is the unmarried birth rate in black communities rising above 50 percent in the mid-1980s, thus taking away a father’s influence especially necessary in baseball. While C.C. Sabathia and Dontrelle Willis came from broken homes, their dads were around for at least a short time. Jermaine Dye (Giants fan) and Jimmy Rollins (Athletics fan) grew up regularly going to games with their fathers on opposite sides of the San Francisco Bay. Ryan Howard’s father is a successful IBM executive who has kept a rock-solid home, and who can sell commitment by talking about the time he was in the same Birmingham jail in 1963 for the same reason as Martin Luther King Jr. when King wrote “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.” Plus, you have major-leaguers’ kids — Ken Griffey Jr., Jerry Hairston Jr., Gary Matthews Jr. These days you don’t see, in baseball, some of the tough and harrowing stories of African-Americans growing up that you do in the NBA or NFL.

However, I wonder, though, if over time there hasn’t been a shift, subtle or not-so-subtle, to the idea of “white” sports and “black” sports. After all, it’s not all about fatherhood or growing up with a few bucks in your pocket, or else you wouldn’t see as many Latino players in baseball. Yes, major-league teams spend a lot of money to scout and develop talent in the Caribbean, but the culture itself draws kids toward baseball.

Take a look at the public high school that serves me, Richards, better known as Dwyane Wade’s alma mater. Looking at the lily-white baseball team, you’d never know the school was 30 percent African-American. Looking at the basketball team, you’d never know the school was 70 percent white. I can see parents already calculating where their kids’ best shot is for success, and I know there are white parents who believe (though they might not say it) that they don’t think their kids will make it basketball once they start having to compete with black players. I should note that my high school draws from more white areas like mine, and a few inner-ring suburbs that are mostly African-American and poor, like Robbins, which produced Wade.

Look at a case like the Detroit Tigers’, Curtis Granderson, another south Chicago suburbanite. He came from a two-parent household, including a father who coached his Little League teams. But even Granderson himself was thinking basketball for most of his youth, and he went to Illinois-Chicago on the promise he could walk on that team while he still played baseball. Did Granderson, and do other African-American kids, internalize the idea of baseball being a white sport? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. (Speaking for all of white people, I know there are some who have interalizing basketball as a black sport. But as I mentioned, I’m from Indiana, so I’ve internalized it as a Hoosier sport.) That’s something I’ll ask Bill Haley at Jackie Robinson West about.

By the way two other things on race and sport in my little neck of the woods:

— People tend to think of bowling as a white sport, like the TBS people who have filled my local lane with ads for the redneck “Bill Engvall Show.” But when I’m there for my 6-year-old son Ryan’s leagues, an overwhelming number of youth bowlers are black. If there’s a sport that’s eventually going to have a change in racial hue in the next 20 years, it’ll be pro bowling.

— There’s a beauty and scariness in watching young children on a team address race and ethnicity. In one of my earlier T-ball practices, I heard Ryan speaking loudly about it with three kids. “No, no!” he yelled. “Trevor isn’t Arabic. His dad is black and his mom is white.” Given the usual racial sensitivies of the Chicago area, I rushed over to make sure there was nothing untoward going on, and that I wasn’t going to become the Racist Manager with the Racist Son. But Ryan explained what that was all about. It seemed two Arabic teammates (whom Ryan knew from school) were thinking that Trevor, because of his similar skin hue, must be Arabic as well, and Ryan just wanted to get everybody’s facts straight. Yes, we all can get along.

Written by rkcookjr

August 4, 2009 at 7:55 pm

Posted in parenting, Sports

Tagged with , , ,

The Asian persuasion

with one comment

Jeff of 8 Asians learned a lot during his sons’ youth basketball seasons — in part, things he didn’t know about sports, basketball and his fellow Asian-Americans. I know in my basketball experience, I’ve learned things I didn’t know about my fellow Caucasians. In particular the old ones — I know now that if there’s one on the court, he can play, or else he wouldn’t bother to run with the young ‘uns.

Among Jeff’s lessons:

Lesson 1: There are tall Asian-Americans out there

Number One Son’s 6th grade basketball team had a non-league game scheduled against “School T”. Both teams were mostly Asian-American, but School T’s Indian and Chinese kids were taller than our Filipino kids. The real shock came when my sons’ schools’ 7th grade team played School T’s 7th grade team. While both teams were mostly Asian, their 7th graders towered over our 7th graders, with a Chinese forward and an Indian forward who were each close to 6 feet tall. … One thing, though, is that when there is a tall Chinese kid, he gets referred to as “Yao Ming.” “Yao Ming just got the rebound!” Annoying.

Caucasian version: for years, any white player who did anything as fancy as throw a behind-the-back pass was “The Professor,” the white guy on the And One Mixtape tour. And that came from other white guys. Also, any good passer was “John Stockton,” if you catch my drift.

2646675204_b921c11c54I don’t care your culture: this pass in Taiwan’s Super Basketball League performed anywhere says “fuck you, punk.” (Shot by Badger23, pulled from Flickr.)

Lesson 5: Asian-American parents are starting to treat athletic experience as something you can buy, just like tutoring sessions

As Asian-American parents become aware that colleges and selective high schools are not going to admit their kids if they stick only to academics and perhaps music, I see more and more Asian-American parents making their kids do sports.

Fellow white people: They have discovered our dirty secret. My god, now how are we going to get Kaitlyn into Harvard?