In January 2005, during his freshman year at Vanderbilt, David Price decided to drop out of school, quit baseball and work at McDonald's. He picked his preferred location, near his home in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He told his father, Bonnie, about his plan. Then he informed Vandy coach Tim Corbin of his intention in a tearful meeting in the Commodores' locker room. Sure, Price was a 6'6" lefthanded pitcher who could throw upward of 90 miles per hour and seven months earlier had been drafted in the 19th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. But he had also just been shelled in a preseason intrasquad game, clearly a call to the Golden Arches. "It was definitely kind of out there," Corbin recalls, "but I couldn't laugh because he was so serious." ¬∂ Baseball has lost countless African-American athletes to basketball and the lure of the McDonald's All-American team, but not necessarily to McDonald's itself. Corbin needed an hour to convince Price that his future was in fastballs, not fast food. "He had to survive that moment to show he could survive as a pitcher," Corbin says. It was a crucial step, not only for Price but also for baseball in the black community. Today Price is the best African-American pitching prospect since Dwight Gooden, in an organization that has built around African-American players like no other current franchise.
Last season 8.2% of major league baseball players were black, the lowest figure in more than two decades. If there is hope for a renaissance anywhere, it is in Tampa Bay, an area steeped in African-American baseball history, with a big league team that is adding to the tradition. When the Rays summon Price from the minors, which is a virtual inevitability, they will be gearing up for the franchise's first meaningful stretch drive. As an ancillary benefit they will also be reminding inner-city Tampa that there is still at least one place for African-American ballplayers of any position.
The Rays have had the first pick in each of the last two amateur drafts, a testament to their recent futility. This year they selected high school shortstop Tim Beckham. Last year they chose Price. In 2003, when they also had the first pick, they tabbed outfielder Delmon Young. In 2002 they picked second and snagged B.J. Upton, then a shortstop and now their centerfielder. In 2001 they went third and took righthanded pitcher Dewon Brazelton. Those players do not have much in common, other than that they are all African-American in an era when African-Americans have been disappearing from the nation's diamonds.
"In this day and age that list is pretty unbelievable," says Rays outfielder Cliff Floyd. "As an African-American player it's a joy to see. Getting African-American kids back in baseball is a huge issue, and I'm proud to be part of a team that is doing something about it. They are obviously looking for talent—talent and nothing else."
Talent, regardless of color, does not always pan out. Brazelton, 8--25 in parts of five seasons, was out of the game before his 28th birthday. Elijah Dukes, another African-American player drafted high by the Rays, could not stay off the police blotter and was dealt last winter, to Washington. Still, among the first six hitters in the Rays batting order, three are African-American—Carl Crawford, Upton and Floyd. When Price arrives, he will join Edwin Jackson in the rotation, making the Rays the only team in the majors with two African-American starting pitchers. (The Angels and the Brewers have the most African-American players, with six each.)
Price is currently pitching for the Double A Montgomery Biscuits, and while McMuffins to Biscuits may sound like a lateral move, he has made huge strides since January '05. He throws a 97-mph fastball, complemented by an 89-mph slider that looks like a fastball until it takes a last-second right turn. In his first professional season Price was 8--0 with a 2.01 ERA at week's end, having started the year with Class A Vero Beach before his promotion to Montgomery in late June.
That has put added pressure on Tampa Bay's front office, which so far has pulled off the sweetest story in baseball this year. But in order to accomplish the unfathomable and make the playoffs this season, they probably need to bring up the Biscuit while he's hot (sidebar, next page). "It's what I think about every day, every time I step on the field," says Price, who'll turn 23 later this month. "What's going on in Tampa Bay is something you have to want to be a part of."
If Major League Baseball is serious about developing and promoting black players, it only makes sense that Tampa would have a central role. A onetime cradle of African-American baseball, it has one local Little League district (Belmont Heights) with alumni that include current and former African-American major leaguers Gooden, Dukes, Gary Sheffield, Derek Bell, Carl Everett and Floyd Youmans. Not surprisingly, between 1973 and '82, a golden age for African-American baseball players, Belmont Heights sent five teams to the Little League World Series.
But today, at the field on 22nd Street, many of the league's trophies are missing. "It looks like someone has helped themselves to a little bit of our history," says Artis Gambrell Jr., the Belmont Heights league president, scanning the mantel behind his desk. Gambrell started playing at Belmont Heights in 1975, when 27% of major leaguers were African-American, an alltime high. Back then the Little League had 26 teams spread over four age divisions. There was a public address announcer calling games, family businesses lining up to offer sponsorships and players flocking to the ballpark every Tuesday night to learn who had won the batter of the week award. The winner was awarded a box of Now and Later candies.
The P.A. announcer, Grover Stevens, developed his own catchphrase—"Well hit ball ... Buffalo!"—triggered by all the home runs that flew over the leftfield fence and onto Buffalo Avenue. The most powerful hitters, like Sheffield, could clear Buffalo entirely and hit EM Roofing across the street, beating up the roofer's roof. Eventually, however, the roofer moved and Stevens died and Buffalo Avenue was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. This season the Belmont Heights Little League only filled 14 teams in its four upper divisions. Players, instead of local businesses, paid for uniforms.
It is easy to look at the evidence, from Little League to the majors, and deduce that African-American kids everywhere have forsaken baseball for football and basketball. But in Tampa the case is more nuanced. The talent level there, while not what it used to be, is striking nonetheless. Despite the dearth of teams, sponsors and trophies in Belmont Heights, you can still bet a box of Now and Laters that this area will crank out a couple of the best African-American baseball prospects every year.
Belmont Heights Little League feeds into two predominantly African-American high schools, Hillsborough and Middleton, located a mile apart. The team at Hillsborough, the alma mater of Sheffield, Gooden, Everett and Dukes, may no longer look like a major league All-Star squad, but last year the Nationals took Hillsborough outfielder Michael Burgess with the 49th pick in the draft. Next year Terriers' coach Kenny White expects outfielder Dave Richardson and catcher Marlon Mitchell to both be early draft choices. Middleton High, meanwhile, had pitcher Nevin Griffith drafted by the White Sox with the 89th pick last year, and this year third baseman Corey Thomas was drafted in the 13th round by the Orioles and first baseman Jamie Mallard was taken in the 17th round by the Angels.
"I hear a lot about how African-American kids don't play baseball anymore," says White. "But in Tampa they are still playing. I think kids here look at all the African-American players who have come out of this city—and now all the African-American players who are being taken by the Rays—and they see that it's still attainable, that baseball is still an option."
When team president Matt Silverman and executive VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman took over the Rays in 2005, one of their first moves was to fund the renovation of the Little League fields at Campbell Park in St. Petersburg. Since then, they have also helped restore the fields of the West Tampa Bay Little League and made plans to renovate fields for the Azalea Little League and South Brandon Little League. They understand the area's rich baseball tradition, but at the same time they are not trying to make any grand social statements with their recent draft picks.
"Ultimately, talent is king," says Friedman. "Picking as high as we did in the draft the last two years, I'm not sure that there are many teams who wouldn't have done the same thing we did. But it works out well because there is a great heritage of baseball in this area generally, but especially in the African-American community. More than anything, it's just a great coincidence."
African-American players have heard the opposite for years, that it is just a coincidence when the same teams come out of spring training every season with one or no black players. "I grew up in Houston, and I don't remember the Astros having any African-American players besides Derek Bell," says Crawford, a second-round pick of the Rays in 1999. "I didn't really mind because I loved the Astros no matter what. But a lot of my friends, who were really good players, would complain. They would be like, 'Why should I care about that team? Why should I care about baseball?' And they stopped playing. It matters where you live. You have to be able to turn on the TV and see players who look like you."
Three miles down 22nd Street from Belmont Heights Little League is another inner-city complex, North Seminole Little League, where frequent late-day thundershowers turn the infield dirt to mud. On a steaming Saturday morning in late July, 32 teens—27 of them African-American—gathered at North Seminole for a scrimmage. One of them, 18-year-old Jayson Williams, was throwing fastballs at 90 miles per hour, and when he really felt good about one, he chirped "Good night!" as it crossed home plate. Williams is a born pitcher, his frame long and wiry, his first cousin none other than Dwight Gooden. He has worked out for the Orioles and plans to play for Hillsborough Community College in the fall. Problem is, while Williams likes pitching just fine, he loves the outfield. "It's because of Carl Crawford," Williams says. "He's got the Rays about to make the playoffs. He's my inspiration."
Fortunately Williams has a coach to make sure he gets on the mound, where he belongs. Kenny Norman played nine years of professional baseball, advancing as far as Double A with the Minnesota Twins. Now 38, Norman believes he knows why African-American players have fallen behind in recent years. "In a city like Tampa, with all the great baseball tradition, it's not that the kids don't have the desire," Norman says. "It's just that they don't have the opportunity."
So last year Norman founded his own AAU program, Team Xtreme. Dues are $375 for six months, and if somebody is short, Norman usually makes up the difference. On some nights Norman and his wife, Beth, have as many as five players sleeping on floors and couches in their three-bedroom apartment. Norman goes to work from 1 a.m. to 11 a.m. as a Coca-Cola inventory clerk, then heads to the Seminole Little League Field and rakes the mud.
His pitchers include Demetrius Morrow, Jamarcus Gray and Kenny (Wood) George, all of whom are of high school age, all of whom are already throwing in the mid- to high 80s. As the pitchers take turns debating what constitutes a balk, the fathers huddle behind home plate discussing another young African-American hurler, who could be both a role model for their sons and a difference-maker in the AL East race. "David Price!" shouts one of the fathers. "Get ready for the AL surprise!"
Whether or not Price secures a playoff spot for Tampa Bay, he will make an impact in other ways. At Vanderbilt he set up a program with the Nashville chapter of RBI—Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities—that allowed underprivileged kids to attend Commodores games for free. And he began a postgame tradition he has brought to the pros. After his team wins a game that he started, he stands outside the clubhouse, congratulating everyone on their way inside, making sure to enter last. Brad Matthews, a Rays scout, wrote in his first report about Price in October 2006, "This guy could be the face of our organization."
It's a line that gets thrown around often, but not so often about African-American players. Last February, as Price headed out for his first spring training workout with the Rays, he sent Matthews this text message: "I want to thank you for having the confidence to take me with the first pick. I won't let you down." In Price's spring training debut, against the Yankees at Legends Field in Tampa, he struck out the side. Then he received a standing ovation at the Yankees' home field.
Rays executives do not want to rush Price to the majors and risk stunting his development, but players and fans are getting antsy. Before a recent game against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field, Crawford entertained his teammates with a slow-motion impersonation of Price's delivery, pausing at the exact point that Price releases his slider. The implication was obvious: If Price could handle the Yankees so easily in the spring, who's to say he can't handle the Yankees and the Red Sox in the late summer?
Price is in a unique position, just one year out of college, still hanging out in the minors, about to walk into this wholly unexpected showdown—David versus Two Goliaths. It would be dramatic if he were white, Latino or Asian. But it is particularly meaningful that he is a potential African-American superstar, at a time when baseball is desperate to convince the kids of Belmont Heights to keep swinging for the rooftops.