The Washington Nationals ownership decision could not come at a more seminal moment in the game. Jackie Robinson Day came and went without much nostalgia over the weekend, with baseball's guardians decrying the lack of African American players.
Richard Lapchick, the academic champion of equality in sports, will release his race and gender report card for baseball Thursday. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida will say that the league's central offices in New York have achieved 30 percent minority employment, while baseball's 30 teams range between 12 and 13 percent.
Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, who is expected to make a decision soon on the Nationals' new owners, has made it clear over the past week that homegrown, African American ownership is paramount. It's why the front-running ownership groups are scrambling to bring aboard minority partners, doing everything but holding up signs that read, "Wanted: Successful Black Man To Make Me Look Good."
Selig is saying that if the game is going to become important again to black America, why not plant that seed in the District? And if that hope grows, the commissioner could make the most defining statement of his tenure, much more important than any image rehab, steroid investigation destined to go nowhere.
Latino participation and passion have lapped African American interest and investment in baseball. It is a testament to the growing number of Latin American players, coaches and front office personnel -- as well as an indictment on black America's exclusion in baseball -- that the game's first minority owner was the Angels' Arturo Moreno.
A Major League Baseball ownership group has never had any significant African American investment. Ed Rigaud, the president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and a former Procter & Gamble vice president, almost persuaded a small group of minority businessmen, mainly African American, to come up with their share of $6.5 million to buy 4 percent of the Reds. But in the same millennium BET founder Bob Johnson became the majority owner of an NBA expansion team, the Charlotte Bobcats, 4 percent ownership did not come to pass in baseball.
Economic empowerment was supposed to be the last color barrier broken in major professional sports. After all these years, the grand old game's wall is barely penetrable.
"When he's had the opportunity to step in matters of race and diversity, Selig has," Lapchick said in a telephone interview yesterday. He mentioned how the commissioner named Frank Robinson the manager and Omar Minaya the game's first Latino general manager when baseball's 29 other teams took over the struggling Nationals franchise when it was based in Montreal. "But there is a long way to go," Lapchick added. "A long way. Without a doubt, this is a great opportunity to bring back African Americans as fans and players."
Selig is indeed serious about the issue. On Dec. 13, he welcomed a group of men wanting to purchase the Nationals into his Milwaukee office. They included Jeff Smulyan, the Indianapolis media mogul, and three prominent African Americans -- Eric H. Holder Jr., Rodney Hunt and Alfred C. Liggins III.
"Mr. Commissioner, this is your chance to make history," Holder, a Washington corporate attorney and former deputy U.S. attorney general, said he told Selig. "And I think that's what you can do with us."
Selig intimated to the group that he wanted part of his legacy to be seen as reconnecting black America with the game. It's why he had Jackie Robinson's number retired in every ballpark. It's why the winner in the $450 million, buy-the-Nationals campaign has to include more than just rich, old white faces. The better to work with a diverse, if glacially moving, D.C. Council.
"I don't think the commissioner was saying that because we were there that day," Holder said. "I know he wants to leave that as part of his legacy."
Let's be blunt: Baseball returning to the District was the brainstorm of white people for white people. That's not an indictment; it just is. Walking through every level of RFK Stadium at the home opener last Tuesday, the obvious was at hand. Beyond the vendors and clean-up crew, diversity about died at Gate A. It's not a news flash, but black fans simply don't go to games much.
On the cab ride to RFK Stadium last week, an old head from the Capitol Hill neighborhood of the 1940s took a passenger on a tour of his childhood as much as he drove him to the ballgame. The driver, who happened to be black, spoke of these great sandlot games played in Lincoln Park between him and his friends. "That's the corner right there where I would scalp tickets to the football games," he said. "Joe Gibbs sure made me some money. Yep."
Because he wore a Nationals cap, he was asked whether he liked Frank Robinson's club beating the Mets that afternoon.
"Oh, this," he said, clutching the bill. "I don't really know anything about the Nationals. I just wear the cap. Customers love it."
"When you look back and understand the connection between baseball and the African American race, it's a shame to see where the game is now," Holder said. "Basketball is the sport in our community now. Why? There's a lot of reasons, but kids haven't been exposed to baseball.
"This might be idealistic, but if it's the second inning of a Nationals game, why not fill up the stands with young people from the neighborhood who want to go? I mean, I grew up going to see the Dodgers play," Holder said. "My father would tell me: 'This is Jackie. This is Roy Campanella. This is Don Newcombe.' Those people were gods to me. That kind of connection can exist again, and I think we can start that revival here in D.C."
If Selig makes good on his pledge, it's not a pipe dream. If Selig makes good on his pledge, he brings baseball back to the future.