This isn’t the baseball I grew up watching
As the number of black players has declined, so has the art of the steal
The declining number of African-American players in baseball hasn’t merely changed the demographics of the sport, it’s changed the way the game is played. It’s not just black baseball players who are missed, it’s black-style baseball: stolen bases and over-the-wall catches.
That’s the brand of baseball I grew up on in the 1980s. That’s when Rickey Henderson terrified pitchers every time he reached first base. It’s when the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals won the National League pennant with 314 stolen bases and only 87 home runs, a ratio you’ll never see again. And not coincidentally, it was the peak of African-American participation in major league baseball, a three-year stretch when 18 percent of the players were black.
Now the percentage of African-American players in the big leagues is 7 percent, the lowest it’s been since the 1950s. And teams average half a stolen base per game, numbers similar to the early 1970s.
“I think that there’s less African-American players, and as a result there’s less stolen bases,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “You look back at guys who were my heroes: Rickey Henderson, Kenny Lofton, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Lou Brock. All these guys who really had foot speed and could impact games. I played with Juan Pierre, who was a great base stealer. There’s just less African-American players. The athletes that are able to do that, they’re unfortunately less and less.”
Roberts’ own transition from player to manager helps illustrate the story. In 2006, when Roberts was playing for the San Diego Padres, he stole 49 bases. In 2016, in Roberts’ first year managing the Dodgers, his entire team stole 45 bases.
Data-driven teams also discourage running, with the metrics saying that the risk of an out generally doesn’t justify the reward of the extra base. The new math is that the payoff of a home run is worth the chance of a strikeout. In Tom Verducci’s lament about the current all-or-nothing state of baseball in Sports Illustrated, he noted, “Today the game is on track for 4,444 more strikeouts and homers than it saw in 2014.”
So much for running. The movement is down to a trot around the bases or a walk back to a dugout. Mostly it’s a lot of standing and swinging. It’s becoming more like golf than baseball.
“Now there’s so many home runs hit that guys aren’t taking as many chances,” Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost said. “They’d rather just kind of stay back and hope for the home run.”
Yost’s team tried to bring the fun back. In 2015, the Royals ran their way to the World Series championship, highlighted by Jarrod Dyson stealing third base and doing the Yung Joc dance while his team was down by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning — clearly one of the swaggiest moments ever in baseball.
“We weren’t a big home-run-hitting team, so we had to try find other ways to manufacture runs and getting guys into scoring position,” Yost said.
Yost likes to quote former manager Jimy Williams’ line that to be a base stealer you’ve got to have a little larceny in you. Larceny. What a great word. You take out base stealing and you take out words like that. Plus you lose some of the essence of the game itself.
“It’s baseball,” Yost finally said, with a bit of exasperation. “Stealing bases, trying to steal bases … it’s baseball.”
For Roberts, a single stolen base was the defining moment of his playing career. He turned the 2004 American League Championship Series around and initiated a seismic shift in baseball history by stealing second base in the ninth inning of Game 4 when the Boston Red Sox were on the verge of getting swept by the New York Yankees.
Maybe the need to do anything to win in October will bring out more stolen bases when the playoffs arrive. Maybe.
“I think that, still, in the postseason, to have that guy who can steal a base in these close ballgames, it’s going to still have proven value,” Dave Roberts said. “But over the course of 162 games … teams don’t make it as important.
“Every out, every base is more magnified when you’re playing in the postseason. When you’re running into elite pitchers where you can’t sit back and slug … that [base-stealing] component plays even bigger.”
Until then, all we can do is watch and encourage Billy Hamilton, the Cincinnati Reds center fielder. His game is built on speed.
“I don’t think I had a choice,” Hamilton said. “I’m a little guy that doesn’t hit for power.”
He’s playing black baseball.
“I feel like there should be more African-Americans in the game,” Hamilton said. “It’s not just because we’re all fast. For me, I do crazy things on the basepath, like you see in the movies, like in the Jackie Robinson movie. That’s the type of stuff we do. If we have more African-Americans in the game, it would be great for us.”
It would be great for the game. More running, less standing and swinging.