By Michael Kinney
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Antoine Lester Sr. grew up playing baseball. From the age of 9 until his stint with the Little Rock Braves, the Arkansas native had a bat and ball in his hands.
Back then, Lester said the game was full of great African-American athletes. More than two decades later, he looks around the landscape and sees the numbers dwindling down more and more. During last weeks Heartland Classic, he counted four total black players in seven teams from around the country. That included his son, Antoine Lester II.
“When I was coming up playing, that’s all that played the game,” Lester Sr. said. “Now it’s few and far now. It does disappoint me because I know there are more out here that love the game than that’s playing the game. I hate it. We can play the game. I just wish there were more African-Americans playing the game.”
The lack off black players in baseball has been an issue in the professional ranks for several years. According to the league, only 8.3 percent of players on 2014 opening day rosters identified themselves as African-American or black.
But according to some players, that is not the case in youth baseball where they believe black players are making a resurgence.
“I see it more and more every year,” Team Arkansas’ Danny Mitchell said. “I’m loving it. It’s good to see a brother playing baseball because you used to never see them. Most of the time they are good. So I’m glad to see them coming into it more and more.”
However, once kids get to the high school ranks, they start picking which sports they want to focus on. At that time, baseball starts to take a backseat to football and basketball.
“I have a friend who plays football,” Lester Jr. said. “He said the reason he doesn’t like to play baseball is because you can’t go pro. They always think about going pro, then think about education. I think more blacks is good. It would show we can do the same thing as others.”
Brady Acker is one of those athletes who played all three sports. But the Maryland native settled on baseball and is heading to George Mason to continue playing the sport.
“You just have to be an athlete to play this sport,” Acker said. “I practice every day. I played basketball and did the same thing. People think it’s not for black people. But if you look MLB, we are playing as well as any other race out there. It’s kind of cool to represent the black population in something like this.”
However, the numbers are hard to overlook. More full scholarships are given out in football and basketball. Those sports also offer a quicker road to the pros than baseball, which has a tradition of players proving themselves in the minor leagues first.
Yet, none of that has kept Lester Jr. from wanting to play baseball for a living.
“I wasn’t too good starting off,” Lester Jr. said. “I had to work at it. It takes time. Played football and basketball. I love baseball the most. You can play it longer.”
The black players who competed in the Heartland Classic acknowledge there is a stereotype that baseball is not for them. It’s one that has found a home in white and black communities. But it’s not one they plan to take in lying down.
“I’ve been playing baseball since I was three or four,” Mitchell said. “So I’ve always loved it. When People say that it’s not a black person’s sport, they’re just giving me more motivation to play my hardest.”
As disappointed as Lester Sr. is, he’s optimistic black kids will one day realize they are missing out on a great game and those numbers will soon starting going up.
Acker says he has seen small changes already, even at a summer baseball tournament like the Heartland.
“It’s kind of interesting,’ Acker said. “Even last year, I think I was the only one from Maryland and there may have two or three others on other teams. So it’s kind of neat seeing us get into this sport. It’s a sport I love and I like seeing other people like me out here playing this sport.”
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