Bringing diversity to the diamond

Bringing diversity to the diamond

By Jim McElhatton (File photo)

In a city where blacks and Hispanics account for nearly 40 percent of the population, minority representation on Alexandria baseball fields is severely lacking.

And it’s not a problem unique to the Port City. USA Today reported last year that blacks accounted for about 8 percent of players in Major League Baseball, which was down from 27 percent in 1975.

If the trend is to change, it will happen because of conversations like the one that took place in a local restaurant a few weeks ago between T.C. Williams baseball coach Jim Blair and Sterling Gilliam, president of the Alexandria Little League.

The pair met up as they do every month or so to talk baseball. Lately, they’ve been spending more and more time discussing the lack of diversity on city ball fields. Those conversations go far beyond sports and touch on social and demographic issues.

Blair and Gilliam didn’t have hard numbers at hand when they met. But they didn’t need them, either. Both say they can tell just by watching games that, taken together, players on the field don’t look enough like the city as a whole.

Neither one has all of the answers, but they say they’re trying.

The duo has reached out to nonprofit groups like Community Lodgings in Arlandria. The Little League has handed out scholarships to pay for uniforms and gear. And Blair and Gilliam have encouraged carpooling so that players whose parents can’t get out of work for a 5 p.m. practice can still get to the field on time.

“Last year, we gave out scholarships to the tune of about $3,000,” Gilliam said. “That’s a start, but it hasn’t changed the trajectory enough in our mind.”
Blair and Gilliam are not just looking for players, but they’re searching for ideas on how to reach them.

“For being a public high school, we’re not reaching out and grabbing the numbers we should,” Blair said. “There’s a disconnect. From our end, it could be that they’re just not aware of the opportunities. Maybe they’re coming from single-parent homes, where they don’t have a parent who’s available to drive the kids all over the place because the parent’s out working.”

Blair said that youth baseball is well represented in the neighborhoods around Simpson Field but struggles to attract players in more populated sections in the western and northern parts of the city.

Soccer, which has about 10 times as many players than Little League, is popular in both areas. Gilliam doesn’t view soccer as competition so much as he simply wants to get the word out about baseball in those neighborhoods, too.

Blair and Gilliam figure that even if they can reach just a few players here and there in Little League, then perhaps the players will take the field for T.C. years from now. Maybe they’ll play in college and beyond.

Blair views the Alexandria Little League as a sort of feeder system for his varsity program. He’s held clinics in wintertime along with coaches and players to teach younger athletes the fundamentals of the sport.

“T.C. isn’t taking full advantage of the potential here,” Blair said.

But the coach said his interest in getting more minorities involved goes far beyond building a successful varsity program.

“If we can set up a system where we can help these kids and find them some structure so they can come to baseball practice for a while and learn some of those life lessons, that makes it all worthwhile,” Blair said.

Even if the players never play for T.C., even if they just play a year or two in Little League, Blair and Gilliam said it’s still worth it. They believe baseball holds important lessons for young people.

For as much as a young person is part of a team, they are still all alone up at the plate. They succeed or fail alone. And even the very best in the sport fail most of the time. That’s something only baseball can teach, according to Blair and Gilliam.

“I’ve seen … players become more equipped to deal with the challenges of life and of adulthood courtesy of the game of baseball,” Gilliam said. “We just want to expand those opportunities.”