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updated 4/14/2005 6:16:18 PM ET 2005-04-14T22:16:18

With the passion of a preacher, Keith Stubbs is on a mission to save the soul of a sport by spreading the gospel of baseball in a place it once flourished — America's inner cities.

"When you look at the College World Series, you may see one African-American kid," says Stubbs, who works with the Batter Up Foundation. "So they don't see kids, people on TV, that they can relate to."

As the Washington Nationals took to the field Thursday night, they played in a city where nearly six in 10 people are African-American. And they played in a neighborhood where that percentage is even greater. But if you look around, few fans are African-American, and the same is true of the players.

In the NBA, 78 percent of the players are African-American. In the NFL, it's 64 percent. In Major League Baseball, however, just 9 percent of the players are non-Hispanic American blacks.

There are two teams that have no African-American players on their active rosters: The Baltimore Orioles and the Houston Astros.

Around Washington, basketball is king.

"My favorite sport is basketball because I'm really good at it," one kid told us. "And I can shoot the ball so it can go in."

So how is it that a sport that produced stars like Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson and Hank Aaron now sees its support dwindling among African-Americans?

Researchers say Latin America's passion for baseball hurt it in U.S. cities.

"The message was that baseball was developing talent outside of the United States," says Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida. "I think that message is hopefully going to change and might draw more African-American kids back into the game."

Washington Nationals' manager Frank Robinson remembers a time when players used to be the sport's primary ambassadors.

"You know, you used to go back to the place where you were born and raised, [to] put in time with the kids in the neighborhood, and you just don't see that anymore," says Robinson.

Baseball officials insist they're rallying. 120,000 kids now play ball thanks to the league's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. But the sport still faces an uncertain future.

"It's been a struggle. It's been a big struggle," says Stubbs. "I feel like we are turning a corner now again with a big league team being here."

Unless it turns that corner soon, baseball could face a future where African-American fans and players will truly become a thing of the past.

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