Royce Lewis, Hunter Greene going 1-2 in the draft could help sell MLB to black youth

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
California high school shortstop Royce Lewis was selected with the top overall pick in the 2017 MLB draft. (Getty Images)

Years will pass before Major League Baseball knows whether the tens of millions of dollars it spends to entice black youth to play its game will have made any sort of tangible difference. When a problem as pervasive as this exists, it demands action. Baseball, of course, is a game of slow burns, where change takes place over a decade, not per annum.

Nothing exemplifies that better than the amateur draft, from which even the finest players spend years in the minor leagues until deemed ready. At the same time, the draft can give a decent-enough sense of trends that may soon hit the major leagues, and in that regard, Monday night can’t be seen as anything other than promising.

With the first overall pick, the Minnesota Twins took Royce Lewis, a California shortstop whose father is black. With the second overall pick, the Cincinnati Reds chose Hunter Greene, a California right-hander – and Sports Illustrated cover boy, whose parents are both black. Another black prospect, Jo Adell, went to the Los Angeles Angels with the 10th pick, and two more, outfielders Jeren Kendall (Dodgers) and Bubba Thompson (Rangers), were first-round choices — two-thirds of whom, historically, eventually make the major leagues.

Considering over the last five years that more than 20 percent of first-round picks had been black, this shouldn’t have been too big a surprise. To see Lewis and Greene go Nos. 1 and 2, though – to see it happen for only the fourth time in history, after 1980 (Darryl Strawberry and Garry Harris), 1991 (Brien Taylor and Mike Kelly) and 2003 (Delmon Young and Rickie Weeks) — reminds anyone skeptical of baseball’s ability to enthrall young blacks that despite its average demographic of Social Security-aged white male, the sport can be every bit as absorbing as its rivals that steal away young talent.

This is why it’s fair to classify it as a problem. Anyone who believes it isn’t must believe similarly that decades of waning interest from any race, ethnicity or faith wouldn’t qualify as one, either. The standard line of thinking from such troglodytes — You don’t see me complaining about the lack of white players in the NBA — entirely misses the point. It’s not fundamentally about the lack of black players in baseball. It’s that so many aren’t interested in playing in the first place.

The issue is perhaps as much sociological as it is racial. The number of usable baseball diamonds in majority-black communities has dwindled in recent decades. The skyrocketing cost of equipment — the best bats easily cross the $300 threshold — renders the game a complete nonstarter in poor communities black and white. Baseball’s greatest strongholds today are upper-middle-class suburbs, not the urban areas of its peak.

With the second overall pick, the Cincinnati Reds chose Hunter Greene, a California right-hander. (AP Images)

Over the last 20 years, MLB concentrated its growth on economics and revenue, on driving a $1.2 billion-a-year business into a $10 billion-a-year behemoth. Rich men got even richer. The unintended consequence was that a population so important to MLB’s place in history as a socially vital operation was left wildly underserved. The fact that less than 8 percent of major league players today are black, down from the high of around 20 percent three decades ago, reflects this dereliction of duty.

And, yes, that’s what it is. Even if football is the modern champion, MLB takes seriously its designation as the national pastime. A certain responsibility comes with that. The percentages do not need to be proportionate to those of society, but they demand to be more representative, particularly when incredible athletes like Lewis and Greene remind what baseball is capable of producing.

Lewis was something of a surprise as the first overall pick. The Twins did offer Louisville first baseman/pitcher Brendan McKay more than $6 million, only to see him turn it down and get more than $7 million from Tampa Bay with the fourth pick. Nevertheless, Minnesota’s draft room was agog at the prospect of the 18-year-old Lewis, who will stay at shortstop but may eventually bring his dynamism to center field.

Cincinnati beamed after getting Greene. He was the single-best talent in the draft, a two-way player like McKay except with a 102-mph fastball. The Reds will slot him at pitcher exclusively and hope he fulfills not just their dreams but those of MLB, who see Greene as the most marketable amateur to come along in the game since the Nationals chose Bryce Harper in 2010.

Greene attended MLB’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California, when he was 7 years old. Even if the academies are expensive to run, MLB’s growth surely could support one in every city, not just the handful available across the country. Compound those with the Dream Series and Breakthrough Series and Elite Development Invitational and the Prospect Development Pipeline — all events that showcase young minority players — and MLB is trying to piece together a traditional scouting mold that long ago broke.

Maybe this works. Maybe Lewis and Greene become the rule instead of the exception. Maybe kids see them or Aaron Judge or Mookie Betts or George Springer or Giancarlo Stanton or Eric Thames or Khris Davis or Andrew McCutchen or Chris Archer or Marcus Stroman and understands baseball can be a place for a black man in 2017. It may be uncomfortable at times – it may even be hostile, as Adam Jones and others have seen in such unfortunate ways – but the attention being paid today seems far less like lip service than in recent years.

Maybe, too, it’s just a blip, something that happened in the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s as well, something that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting had the Twins offered McKay another million bucks. If that’s what it takes, though, MLB is thrilled at Minnesota’s calculus.

This isn’t about shunting aside the prevailing narrative that baseball is inhospitable to blacks. It’s about believing there is hope, that Royce Lewis and Hunter Greene do represent something different, that baseball’s reputation in communities far and wide will be that of inclusivity.

Making baseball cool to everyone again is a daunting task. It’s also one worth every last penny spent.

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