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Baseball's Demographic Shifts Bring Cultural Complexities

Cuban player Yasiel Puig has often been criticized for lacking discipline and for his "energetic" approach to the game. His fascinating journey to the U.S. was recently chronicled by LA Magazine and ESPN. (Getty Images)

This week, baseball fans celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, 67 years after Robinson became the first black player to partake in a Major League Baseball game. Coincidentally (or not), the racial, ethnic and cultural dynamics of the sport today are the topics of much discussion in this week's news.

Decline In Percentage Of Black Players

According to an article published this week by the Pew Research Center, the proportion of black baseball players in the Major Leagues has steadily declined in recent years. Jean Manuel Krogstad writes:

The share of black MLB players reached a high of 18.7 percent in 1981, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. In 2014, 8.3percent of players on opening day rosters were black. Before the most recent decade's decline, the last time baseball had such a small share of black players was 1958.

Michael Brendan Dougherty recently speculated at The Week that this phenomenon was partially caused by teams pushing to move their stadiums to the suburbs — and away from black people.

ESPN writer Howard Bryant posed another possible explanation. He says the increasing focus on sports stats and analytics is also keeping blacks out of the loop:

I told [Former Oakland A's general manager, and sports-analytics pioneer Billy Beane] that I did not believe he was a racist, but the end result of the way baseball teams were increasingly being built — targeting college players over high school prospects when two percent of college players are African-American, relying heavily on Latin American players, and reducing the emphasis on the stolen base in a power era — would yield fewer black players.

According to Pew, as the share of blacks has declined, whites are taking up a larger slice of the MLB pool — even though they are actually becoming a smaller share of the country's population.

Hispanics, on the other hand, are largely over-represented in baseball — in 2012, they accounted for nearly 27 percent of all baseball players while composing only 17 percent of the country's population. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, that same year nearly 85 percent of all Hispanic players were natives of either a foreign country or a U.S. territory such as Puerto Rico.

"This Team Has Too Many Latinos On It To Win"

Baseball clubhouses might be diversified — but they aren't necessarily integrated. In a column published this week, retired MLB pitcher Dirk Hayhurst wrote about a sharp divide that separates many dressing rooms into two factions: Latino players vs. everyone else.

Part of the divide, says Hayhurst, is discrimination. Racist humor, according to Hayhurst, is ever-present in baseball clubhouses — but he claims there are also race-specific notions that create bias among the agents and managers that oversee teams. Hayhurst writes about the comments made by a Tampa Blue Jays scout while he was covering the team just last year:

"This team has too many Latinos on it to win," mused the old scout beside me. "Get too many of them together on a club and they take over. The club divides, has no sense of itself. They might not be terrible. I mean, them boys can play, but they ain't gonna win no championship. They're too emotional to go the distance."

But he says part of the divide is cultural — and can arise early on in a player's development. He writes that American players are taught certain on-field etiquette rules from an early age — to stay cool after they hit home-runs and abstain from talking to members of the opposite team. Latino players, Hayhurst writes, are often perceived as "flashier."

Adrian Burgos, Jr., a history professor and author of Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball, recently told my colleague Shereen Marisol Meraji that in a Latin country like Cuba, players are focused on entertaining crowds. "They want to make the crowd be loud, so they play up the highs and the lows, Burgos said. "But those behaviors that work in Cuba become the basis of how they get chastised in the American press; they're 'too loud, too celebratory.'"

But according to Hayhurst, it's not just the press picking on Hispanics. He says many up-and-coming white players aren't too amused by those attitudes either.

And for many freshly drafted whites, selfish and worried about who deserves to go forward, the thinking is that these new Latin teammates—the ones that can't speak the language, write a check or read a physical evaluation form, but can effortlessly showboat on the ball field—don't deserve it.

Yasiel Puig's Journey And Transatlantic Human Trafficking

Burgos made his comments in the context of a profile of Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who's one of the hottest (and most controversial) names in baseball. But according to a new report, less than two years ago, Puig was being held hostage in Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun, accompanied by "a boxer, a pinup girl, and a Santeria priest, the latter of whom blessed their expedition with a splash of rum and a sprinkle of chicken blood."

The story of Puig's journey from his native Cuba to the U.S. via Mexico was chronicled in the last issue of Los Angeles Magazine, and it has been the object of much discussion. Through an investigation that took him from the Caribbean island to Miami, Fla., writer Jesse Katz was able to shed light not only on the circumstances around Puig's upbringing but also on the human-trafficking business that has brought many other MLB players across the ocean.

From turning smugglers in to Cuban authorities, to having his escape attempts thwarted at least four times and eventually being held hostage in Mexico, Puig had to stick his hands in many strange affairs before returning to the glove and bat at Dodger Stadium.

A new story published by ESPN on Thursday offers a step-by-step account of Puig's gripping expedition.

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