Hunter on a mission to revive interest
Angels outfielder leading peers in targeting black community
Torii Hunter is passionate about bringing young African-Americans back to baseball, and he's leading a movement of peers to reinvest the black community in a game once deeply ingrained in its culture.
A seven-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder with the Twins, about to embark on a new journey with the Angels, Hunter devotes time, energy and money to the task, spreading his gospel: Baseball is a wonderful life, if you give it a chance.
"I talk to kids in the neighborhood," Hunter said, "and they'll say, 'Baseball's a white sport. I'm into the NBA.' I ask them if they know about Jackie Robinson, and they say, 'Yeah, heard of him.' 'What about Hank Aaron?' They'll get this look and say, 'Who's he?'
"Man, that kills me. Our kids have lost touch with our history, our heritage. They don't know we had our own league, the Negro League, with all those great players. Something's got to be done. You have to start somewhere -- reach one kid, two kids. All you can do is your part. That's something I would love for the players to do. This is definitely a big issue."
Hunter touched about 150 young lives in 2007 when, with the generous support of his Major League peers, he sponsored a tournament bringing together 14 teams from inner cities in Williamsport, Pa., the site of the Little League World Series.
"It was in June, so I couldn't go," Hunter said. "Dusty Baker went on my behalf, talking to the kids, taking care of them. He told me how deep it was seeing what it meant to them. One kid was crying when it was over -- he didn't want to go home.
"I talked to the players, and each pitched in $10,000 to $15,000. We came up with $150,000 to $200,000 to take care of everything -- the flights, rooms, everything. They came from the Bronx, Virginia, Texas, Florida ... all over the country. They played ball, but they also swam together, played pool, hiked together. Something like that can change a kid's life."
A day before Thanksgiving, Hunter, 32, signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Angels. He is raising three children of his own with his wife, Katrina, but he feels compelled to share his time and good fortune with others -- in part because of an experience that changed his life.
He was 13 when his Babe Ruth League team in Pine Bluff, Ark., won a local championship and earned a trip to New Mexico for a regional tournament.
"It was my first time leaving home," he said. "I stayed with a family, and things were different. We went to a park, went hiking, flew a plane over the mountains. When I came home, I knew there was something out there. I was determined to work on my grades, leave my environment someday.
"That trip changed my views on life -- and sports. I did it through baseball. If that hadn't happened, it would have been football for me."
The noted team player sees this as a brotherhood mission.
"I don't want it to be the Torii Hunter Project," he said. "I want it to be us, a group of us, doing what we can to get these kids playing the game again, going out in the community and inspiring kids. They need to know what baseball has to offer."
At a November meeting in New York that brought together a number of black Major Leaguers, Craig Monroe -- a former Tigers outfielder now with the Twins -- felt a common bond and purpose forming.
"We all got together to talk about how we can get kids to play and get black kids interested in baseball," Monroe said. "That's what we have to do.
"We're not robots, and in baseball sometimes, they try to make you that way. You can't get excited, you can't pump your fist. All of a sudden, the young African-Americans say that the game is boring. Or that it's a white sport.
"It's not a white sport. It's baseball, the greatest sport out there. But they don't understand that, because we're not putting it out there enough and not seeing enough African-Americans playing."
Indians southpaw C.C. Sabathia, the American League Cy Young Award winner in 2007, is among those onboard, doing his part.
Sabathia sponsors the North Vallejo (Calif.) Little League, providing equipment and making his presence felt among 175 kids from his hometown.
"I try to do a lot with the league and with the rec centers," Sabathia said. "I want to show them. I came from there. These are the fields I played on. There is a way out, and it could be baseball."
Sabathia, 27, tries to dispute the popular notion that the NBA and NFL are more economically viable for young African-American athletes, mainly because they offer earlier access to making it at a young age.
"Black kids see LeBron [James] coming out of high school and getting his millions," he said. "So they see basketball and football as the quickest way out. But they don't realize I got to the big leagues when I was only 20."
Edwin Jackson of the Rays, another of the game's few black pitchers, hopes to make an impact beyond the mound.
"In the black schools, football and basketball are getting more attention than baseball," Jackson said. "We need to expose it within the community, talk about it more. It starts in the household, where most parents are talking about basketball and football to their young black children."
Garret Anderson fell in love with the game at Van Ness Recreation Center in the heart of Los Angeles.
An all-around athlete at Kennedy High School in Granada Hills -- a gifted quarterback and a basketball player seemingly destined for Fresno State -- Anderson chose baseball, signing out of high school as an outfielder with the Angels. The rest is in the Angels' record book.
"In the early '80s, the park [bordered by Slauson Avenue and West 54th Street] had three diamonds, and they were busy all day," Anderson recalled. "My dad played there, and I played Little League there. Now you can't get a game there. Nothing's happening.
"For some reason, Pop Warner football thrives in the inner cities -- and they need more equipment than in baseball. You just don't see kids playing baseball like you do in more affluent places, like in Orange County. They have waiting lists for Little League there.
"You have to catch 'em young, get them interested when they're little. If you don't, they're playing football and basketball. Baseball is a very technical sport; it takes a lot of time. In football and basketball, you can just use your athletic ability."
Growing up, Baker, now manager of the Reds, recalls playing baseball all day long on open fields in Riverside, Calif.
"That's where you learned to love the game, just playing for the fun of it with your buddies, using your imagination," Baker said. "Today, parents don't feel they can let their kids play unsupervised all day in a park. It's a different world out there, and it's a shame. The kids are the ones who lose out. But that's the reality of it."
Another reality is that colleges are an untapped resource.
Of the estimated 10,000 NCAA Division I baseball players, only 4.8 percent are black, according to the latest (2005) study. That contrasts with about 25 percent competing in sports combined.
"For me, it's sad," Monroe said. "I think it has a lot to do with the systems. They don't have full scholarships or full rides in baseball.
"We all know that most of the better athletes that are African-American don't grow up in the greatest neighborhoods or they don't have the money to be able to even afford to play the game. We all know that baseball is a very expensive sport nowadays. I think that has a lot to do with it."
Baker traces a shift in scouting concentration from high schools to colleges to the advances in medical treatments and overall health awareness.
"Most of the college scholarships go to football and basketball, the revenue producers," Baker said. "You get noticed quicker in those sports, and that's something that appeals to kids. Most of the great young black talents are coming from high schools.
"The main reason the scouting moved from high schools to colleges, to me, is that with modern medicine, guys play much longer now. It used to be that only superstars played past 35, but look at how many guys are playing into their 40s now. So you can draft a college guy, get him to the Majors sooner and still have him for a long time."
There are exceptions.
Jermaine Curtis is carrying on Robinson's legacy at his alma mater, UCLA. A Dodgers fan growing up with seven siblings in Fontana, about an hour east of the West Los Angeles campus, Curtis is among the few African-Americans flourishing in big-time college baseball.
A junior third baseman, Curtis hit .329 as a sophomore and, in true Robinson fashion, raised his average to .429 in postseason play. Looking to test himself against the nation's best talent, Curtis excelled over the summer in the famed Cape Cod League.
Curtis disputes the common refrain that baseball is "too slow, too boring" for urban youths.
"That's not true at all," Curtis said. "The game is fast -- and it gets faster with each level as you move up. At times it seems so overwhelming, you have to concentrate on slowing the game down. Too boring? Heck, once the game starts, it feels like it's already the ninth inning, it's moving so fast.
"I don't know why more African-Americans aren't playing baseball. Here at UCLA, talking with other athletes, they're always telling me they wished they'd stayed with baseball. You have less of a chance of getting seriously hurt than in other sports, like football especially, and you can have a long career in baseball.
"I'm real happy with my decision to come to UCLA. Not many guys get a chance to say they're playing for Jackie Robinson's school, at Jackie Robinson Stadium."
The Bruins, ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, had hoped to have had two other African-Americans joining Curtis this season. Commitments were given by outfielder Jason Heyward (Henry County, Ga.) and middle infielder Ryan Dent (Long Beach, Calif.), but both signed contracts after being taken in the First-Year Player Draft -- Heyward by the Braves (first round, 14th overall), Dent by the Red Sox (compensation round, No. 62 overall).
Dent is a graduate of the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Four other academy alums were chosen in the Draft: Reggie Williams (fourth round, Twins), Marcus Crockett (ninth round, Marlins), Ray White (round 27, Marlins) and Marques Williams (round 43, Astros).
Crockett, White and Williams honed their skills in MLB's RBI (Revitalizing Baseball in Inner Cities) Program.
In addition to those five players, 42 draftees have participated in various Urban Youth Academy events and initiatives, such as the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy Showcase.
"Including this year's Draft, the RBI Program has produced over 170 draftees since its inception, and now we are seeing very promising signs from our Urban Youth Academy," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Major League Baseball's commitment to diversity, through RBI, the Urban Youth Academy and many other ventures, will remain a top priority."
Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson feels that it's essential for inner-city kids to develop name recognition and familiarity with current stars.
"Marketing-wise, we don't do a great job of [promoting players] nationally," said Granderson, who enjoyed a season for the ages in 2007, with 20 or more doubles, triples, homers and steals. "I think [MLB] does a great job of advertising regionally. But as soon as you branch out of there -- like with Jimmy Rollins and the 20-20-20-20 season like I had -- outside the East Coast, he's not well known.
"Ryan Howard was an MVP [in 2006], but he didn't get much recognition nationally until midseason , when he was on a Subway commercial.
"I don't know if it's a baseball thing, if it's a company thing. Companies are going to do what makes the money. That's what keeps them in business."
Monroe would love to see kids wanting to grow up and be like J-Roll or Prince (Fielder), not just LeBron and Kobe and LT.
"When you look at basketball, you see LeBron James, you see how they are living and all the things that basketball does for them," he said. "They are promoting them and showing them the 'good life.'
"That's what we are -- we are visual people. And when you see them on TV, you want to be like them."
Adding a modern beat to the game wouldn't hurt, Monroe added.
"When people talk about hip-hop music, it's like it's ghetto," he said. "But it's universal. Blacks, whites, everybody likes the music. If you watch football, like when I went to the Cowboys-Bears game in Chicago, before they kick the ball, they are playing Soulja Boy. If you try to do that in baseball, it's looked down upon.
"We've got to change the perception that because it's hip-hop music, it's not right for baseball."
Sabathia expressed the proactive theme resonating among players when he said, "We can all do more. Talking about the problem isn't going to solve it. It's time to do something."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.