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Where are all the black baseball superstars?

baseball 600Jackie Robinson Day – celebrated this week – is the annual day when Major League Baseball celebrates the incredible change and integration Robinson helped usher into the sport, and society as a whole.

Robinson broke baseball's color barrier so that more African-American players would have the chance to play the "national pastime" at its highest level.
Sadly, 60-plus years later, potential black players aren't taking advantage of that opportunity.

Last month, the league released a report that said just 8.3 percent of players on 2014 opening day rosters identified themselves as black.

Twenty years ago, that number was more than double; nearly 20 percent of the league was black in 1986. The participation of black players reached its peak in 1975, when 27 percent of the players were African American.

We're going backwards. Now, black baseball diversity has returned to late-1950s levels.

The NFL and the NBA are clearly the leagues in which young black athletes want to play, as football and basketball feature over 60 and 70 percent black participation respectively.

Potential reasons have been well documented. There's the difficult barrier of entry, as the sport requires several players to play (while you can throw a football with one person, and shoot hoops by yourself).

And there's the cost of playing, as the sport requires more equipment and travel than most. And there's the lack of ballparks in inner cities, which is the biggest pool of potential black talent.

Still, those reasons don't explain why there's been such a steady, precipitous decline in the last two decades. Perhaps a better explanation for the lack of participation are the players – or lack thereof – that young black athletes idolize in the sport.

When was the last time there was a true black baseball superstar? Someone that had the same crossover appeal as someone like LeBron James does. Someone who had Nike gear kids could buy, commercials kids could watch, and qualities that make you gravitate towards watching (and wanting to be like) them.

Ken Griffey Jr. was the last major black baseball star who fit that criteria, and his peak was in the 1990s. You could, potentially, argue Barry Bonds as well, but with the steroid scandal and fallout, he may have done more to hurt young black player participation then help it. Derek Jeter carried the torch from Griffey, but didn't quite have the same appeal to inner-city kids that Griffey did, which could partly be attributed to the fact that Jeter was never a power hitter, and identifies as biracial.

The current notable black players – like Jeter, Ryan Howard, C.C. Sabathia, Jimmy Rollins, Curtis Granderson, and Torii Hunter – are all heading towards the end of their careers.

Younger, promising players like Andrew McCutchen, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward unfortunately don't have the charisma to have real influence. Prince Fielder has the famous name, and the talent, but also doesn't exactly look the part of a top-notch athlete kids could emulate.

Griffey had the million-dollar smile, the defensive theatrics, and home run power to make him a fan favorite. Baseball doesn't currently have a black athlete like that.

Basketball has LeBron James and Kevin Durant, football has Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton, and even golf has Tiger Woods. The bigger the star, the more effect he can have on kids in participating in a sport.

MLB has created a task force to try to curb the decline. Each year they hold a day to honor Jackie Robinson's legacy, and celebrate how far the sports has come.

Unfortunately none of these initiatives have had any real, lasting effect on black players participating in baseball.

Robinson certainly deserves the yearly praise he receives from this special day, and we all should remember the hardships and obstacles he overcame. ... But starting tomorrow, and throughout the other 364 days, baseball needs to find a way to increase the number of black players in the majors. Cultivating a new star might be the quickest way to accomplish that.

(Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace.)

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