April 2, 2007 — -- On this opening day of the Major League baseball season, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield reflects on the near collapse African-American participation in the sport he loves.
"When I grew up in the '50s and '60s in St. Paul, Minn., we were fortunate enough to have a playground half a block away," Winfield told ABC News. "Baseball used to be everywhere -- it was plentiful. It didn't cost money to play. You could go to the local park and recreational department and play. I remember parents used to say, 'Go out and play. Come back when it's dark.'"
A 12-time All-Star Game outfield selection and a 1992 World Series champion, Winfield has dedicated most of his life to America's national pastime. But a lot of things have changed since Winfield was drafted in 1973.
Baseball is no longer the sport of choice for America's children. Gone are the days of sandlot pickup games and summer afternoons filled with playing catch and home run derbies. Kids -- especially in urban areas -- today dream of dunking like Shaquille O'Neal, throwing the winning touchdown like Donovan McNabb, and signing a multimillion dollar deal at the age of 19 like 2003's No.1 NBA draft pick LeBron James.
Baseball is a game of statistics, and the figures on African-American participation have taken a startling turn over the past 30 years. In 1974, the year after Winfield was drafted, 27 percent of Major League baseball's athletes were of African-American descent. After years of steady decline, the figure fell to 9 percent last season.
In the National Football League, more than two-thirds of the players are black. African-Americans comprise more than three-quarters of the National Basketball Association.
Winfield, who batted .283 in 22 Major League seasons, attributes the dwindling number of blacks in baseball to "myriad factors," including lack of field space in urban areas, the availability of local leagues, the cost of equipment and improper instruction.
"There are a lot of socio-economic factors," said Winfield. "Society has changed. There used to be open spaces, and people said, 'Hey, let's play, let's go outside.' Stick ball, stoop ball, home run derby -- in the urban areas, you rarely see that anymore. There are very few spaces that developers haven't taken advantage of and, on the other end, other sports -- specifically basketball and football -- have [attracted] the great athletes in urban areas."
Winfield is the first to admit he hasn't got any instant solutions to the problem. "It's not one thing that will turn this around," he said. "It's not one person. It's not one organization. It's not one city. But we can. I want to preserve and continue to strengthen the game of baseball."
Change must occur throughout the country's baseball community -- from the box seats to the bleachers, he said. Like all transformations, the seeds of change must be planted by those at the top and tended by those at the grass roots level.
"Major League players can work more closely together. We can market the game better at the top," explained Winfield. "But at the bottom, each and every community -- and it's not just for African-Americans -- [must] make it available. Parents, go out and play catch with your kids. Teach them some of the games that really helped you enjoy and embrace the game at a young age. All of these things are … where kids learn to love the game."
Winfield's love of the game is as rock solid as ever. Baseball, he said, is synonymous with American values and culture. "Why should people care about baseball?" he asked. "Baseball teaches a lot of life lessons, perhaps more than any other sport. For an individual overcoming obstacles, team work, hard work, repetition."
Winfield hopes more people will refuse to simply stand by and watch as African-American participation in his beloved game shrinks to zero.
"I was just concerned about African-American deterioration or decline or participation in the sport. That was really only one of the things that motivated me to stand up and talk and try to motivate people to do something," he said. "It's not just up to me or Major League baseball. It's up to each individual who would like baseball to be part of their life."