After a year of intensive study by the On-Field Diversity Task Force appointed by Commissioner Bud Selig, Major League Baseball announced three preliminary priorities Wednesday that will kick off a comprehensive long-term action plan.
The overall focus of MLB's new plan will be to address the talent pipeline that impacts the diversity of on-field personnel, with a special emphasis on African-Americans. The announcement comes just days before the annual April 15 celebration of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947.
The first of three broad initiatives now underway includes expanding baseball's existing programs, such as the Jr. RBI Program (Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities), the Urban Youth Academies and various grassroots programs across the nation.
Second is implementing programs which will have the goal of improving the quality of coaching as a way to attract the best athletes, including new initiatives and mobile coaching tools that are currently in development.
Finally, MLB will direct marketing in urban communities through a variety of methods, including raising the profile of current and former big leaguers. They will engage communities in various ways, including serving as coaches, program leaders and inspirational role models.
As part of the long-term plan, it was announced that former White Sox and Mets manager Jerry Manuel will take on an expanded role in the task force. He will serve as the day-to-day leader of the initiative under the direction of chairman Dave Dombrowski, who is the president, CEO and general manager of the Tigers.
"This is something that's dear to my heart," Manuel said. "My father played in the Negro Leagues, so baseball was really part of my culture growing up, and we're missing that.
"You have to applaud Commissioner Selig for taking on such a complex task. To put this task force together and identify different things and why and go forward from there, it's exciting."
The committee has attempted to determine the root causes that have led to the declining numbers of African-Americans in baseball in recent decades. According to MLB, using a collection of data compiled by clubs from Opening Day this year, the percentage of players on 25-man rosters that identified themselves as African-American or black was approximately 8.13 percent.
Some initial findings of the committee include:
The expense of equipment and travel and the lack of availability of youth baseball in many urban areas, insufficient exposure to leagues that teach baseball fundamentals, a lack of urban training facilities, the growing influence of for-profit camps and showcases that limits exposure for African-American players, a shortage of active scouts and experienced coaches in population areas that are largely African-American and the fact that talented African-American athletes have chosen to pursue other sports, in part because fewer college baseball scholarships are available.
Manuel is fired up about the challenge before him.
"It has become very, very expensive," he said. "I did not realize. I grew up with wooden bats, and we'd tape them up, nail them together, all that kind of stuff. Now, an aluminum bat can cost you over $300. And the other thing is that they change the specs, so if you've got one for $300, you might not be able to use it in a certain tournament. You've got to use another one that costs $400.
"It's different now. The grandeur of high school football, the year-round [playing] of basketball, those have had an effect on our game, there's no doubt about it. The diversity task force went into every nook and cranny to try to figure out why. Why?
"Some of it was coaching. Some of it is transportation to the different events. Our African-American demographic now, we are 72 percent single-family homes. Seventy-two percent! That's a tough one to swallow. But if we can somehow add a component of transportation to what we already have, add a component of mentoring, add a component of education, then we'll be doing what we need to do to get our game back to where in our culture it's as transcendent as it used to be."
The Jr. RBI Program expansion will include a five-year outreach to markets where they're currently not playing divisions while offering additional opportunities to existing leagues. The program, created in 2009, is offered to youngsters from 5 to 12 years old, and it's a complement to the RBI Program -- MLB's youth initiative designed to provide opportunities for kids up to 18 to play baseball and softball, along with encouraging academic achievement and imparting the value of teamwork and other important life lessons.
More than a million children have participated in RBI since 1989.
MLB Urban Youth Academies provide free, year-round baseball and softball instruction, as well as education opportunities in several other baseball-related concentrations, including umpiring, groundskeeping, broadcasting, journalism and public relations. After-school tutoring is also available.
There are active academies in operation in Compton, Calif., Houston and New Orleans, with three more in development in Cincinnati, Hialeah, Fla., and Philadelphia. More than 10,000 young people have been served since 2006.
It's important to Manuel to help baseball become an important part of the African-American community again.
"I refuse to let us remain disconnected," he said. "And I really believe there are enough groups out there that are trying. Grassroots. Trying to get it back.
"And now we have a task force that can come in and kind of monitor and direct different things. We can say, 'Hey, this is not working. This looks like a better path to go.' We can ask questions. It's been a tremendous education for me. I never realized all these things were a part of the situation. But there are, believe me, there are enough African-Americans playing the game now. We just have to connect them to the right road to go down and then keep them going down that road."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.