If Jackie Robinson were alive today, would the trailblazer for African-Americans in professional baseball be pleased with what he sees?
Chances are, no.
Major League Baseball plans to study the participation decline of blacks in the sport, while opportunities for children continue to be hampered by urban blight.
"There are too many things working against inner city kids as far as baseball is concerned. Black, white, there's no difference," Chesterton coach Jack Campbell said. "You drive through neighborhoods, you see a basketball court. There's no place for kids to go out and play baseball."
Organizations like Gary Youth Baseball have made efforts to revitalize the game, but it continues to be an uphill struggle to compete with suburban leagues. That, in turn, carries over to the high school level, where the chasm is even wider.
"For one, we don’t have feeder programs like they do in other schools, especially here in Gary," West Side coach Malcolm Jordan said. "A lot of kids are more interested in basketball than they are in baseball, so there are not as many baseball players. In that respect, it’s harder to get the schools to invest in baseball programs."
The rapid rise of travel baseball also hampers kids who can't afford the substantial cost that comes with regular weekends out of town.
"They get on a basketball team and it's sponsored by Nike, Under Armour or Adidas, and it doesn't cost anything," Campbell said.
Jordan has experienced the color issue first-hand with his son Paco.
"Baseball seems to still be a good ol' boys network," he said. "My son and I traveled this winter to showcases across the country and we were the only blacks there. … Basketball has taken a lot of talent, especially AAU when there are kids that play all summer in basketball, they don’t play baseball. Kids have drifted away from baseball, and you have to have a special kind of player to play baseball.”
Mike Coles is one of those players. The Hammond product played at Purdue and with several independent league teams, including the RailCats. He's now an assistant coach at Bishop Noll.
"When I told them Hammond High had won a few sectionals, they were really surprised," Coles said. "When I was younger, there was always Little League, maybe three, four or five different Little Leagues and everybody knew where everybody was going to school. It’s not like that anymore. The talent will always be there, but it’s about having a coach in the high school to get something together with the Little Leagues. You need some kind of feeder system, like Crown Point or Valpo has. It’s there for somebody to do it. Who, I don’t know."
Unfortunately, for every nice complex like Kenny Lofton funded in Indiana Harbor, there are many facilities in disrepair with graffiti and broken glass in the dugout. I know. I sat in them when I coached my kids and we played at such places.
I also remember a sectional back in the 1980s at the Lake Station Senior League field, where Roosevelt hung with Andrean.
Sure seems like a pipe dream now. Then again, you could say the same thing about Robinson back in the day. It can happen. It's just not going to be easy. Significant change rarely is.