Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Colorblind

Ever talk with a poker player at the end of a session where he's gone from being stuck $1000 to just $50 down? He'll probably be ecstatic about the recovery. Meanwhile, a player who won $1000 and lost most of it back will probably grumble about not quitting sooner. If you had to guess who was ahead and who behind for the night, you wouldn't know it from their moods.

How about a baseball team that's playoff-bound but has lost its last six games? Everyone immediately begins asking what's wrong with them, as if they have severe problems that need to be fixed immediately or the team is doomed. Meanwhile, a below-.500 team that's on a winning streak often looks indestructible.

It's just a fact of life that people are obsessed with how things have gone lately, which often clouds their judgment about how much progress has really been made. It's hard to realize in the middle of a losing streak, but the real barometer of your achievement is its absolute size, not how you got there.

I think about this with regard to MLB's push to get more African-Americans in the game. Right now, the percentage of Blacks among USA-born baseball players is basically the same as that of the overall US population (12%). If this percentage had made a slow push in the 60 years since Jackie Robinson's debut, gaining a little at a time until now, the NAACP would probably be pleased with the overall results, though justifiably mad that it took so long to get there. Instead, they're upset. While the participation of Asians and Hispanics in MLB has risen in the past thirty years, African-Americans have come down from a peak of nearly 30% of MLB's players to under 10%. In a sense, Blacks--like the 2006 Tigers--have had a very good season but have ended it on a big cold streak.

We all remember the '06 Tigers, right? They were left for dead in the playoffs after closing the season 19-31, even though they still had one of MLB's best records for the season. Eight games later, they had blasted the competition and won the AL Pennant. Everyone focused on 19-31 and forgot about 95-67.

If the percentage of Blacks in MLB is consistent with the national population, then that's not the problem, even if that number has come down from its peak. On the other hand, it certainly is true that inner-city children have less exposure to baseball than rich suburbanites. If the real issue is equal opportunity, then MLB should focus on providing opportunities to the less fortunate regardless of skin tone, instead of letting color and recent performance blind them.

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