In the SEC West, a widening gap among races in football, basketball and baseball

Plenty will be discussed this week at the Southeastern Conference’s spring meetings in Destin, Florida.

Thousands of articles, newscasts, radio interviews and blog posts will flow from the conference’s well-tanned powers-that-be, covering hot topics such as the SEC’s own distribution channel, its role in a proposed national football tourney and – gasp! – the possibility the Razorbacks will soon sport black uniforms on the gridiron.

One thing that won’t be discussed, however, is color beneath the uniforms.

Today’s African-Americans are playing less baseball than previous generations, and this is most visible through the increasing scarcity of blacks in Major League Baseball and power conferences like the SEC. Much has already been made about the MLB stats: In 1975, African-Americans comprised 27% of Major League Baseball rosters. That’s dropped to eight percent.

Less attention, however, has been paid to SEC baseball. The conference wasn’t thoroughly integrated until the 1970s, and black participation was never as prevalent on its baseball teams as  in the pros. Still, African-Americans’ contributions were significant (Arkansas, for instance, had five black starters on its 1985 World Series team).

In the last 25 years, though, more and more blacks have chosen full football and basketball scholarships rather than accept the partial scholarships NCAA baseball programs must disperse. This is one reason for a widening disparity in participation among races in the major sports.

Naturally, I’m most interested in Arkansas, so I looked at its division –   the SEC West. In 2010, the SEC West had 186 student-athletes in baseball. Six (3.2%) were black, according to the NCAA. Meanwhile, in this division blacks made up 72% of the football rosters and 80% of the basketball rosters.

Some people may ask: “Why does this matter? Why stir the pot by bringing up race?”

I would answer these numbers are important because if baseball is supposed to represent most Americans and our  culture, then it should not be a sport leaving out entire demographics. “If baseball is going to be seen as the national pastime, you would hope it would reflect the diversity of the country,”  Richard Lapchik, director of Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, told the Associated Press in 2005.

It wasn’t always this way. I explore the many reasons for the decline of the black baseball player in the SEC, with a focus on Arkansas, in this Sunday’s Perspective section [update: June 10] of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

$150,000 Campaign to Renovate Lamar Porter Field Coming Soon

The central Little Rock community plays a large role in maintaining in Arkansas’ oldest operating ballpark Lamar Porter Field, which annually costs between $15,000 and $18,000. Boys and Girls Club employees meet many of the day-in, day-out needs. Little Rock Catholic High and Episcopal Collegiate School each pay $2,500 a spring to the use the field for high school baseball season. Friends of Lamar Porter Field, an organization formed by people who grew up playing on the field, or had parents who did, donates about $5,000 a year, says Jay Rogers, one of the field’s trustees.

There have been recent improvements to Lamar Porter – an electronic scoreboard, a leveled field and a new outfield fence – but a thorough renovation of its structure awaits. The trustees have hired an architectural firm to study ways to improve the the National Registry of Historic Places site, especially improving drainage and renovating the 75-year-old dugouts. After that study, a fundraising campaign will start. The goal is about $150,000.

Despite baseball’s waning popularity, Rogers believes there are still plenty neighborhood kids who want to play it. “What you have to have is a nice facility to attract them.”

Originally published as a sidebar to this Sync magazine article 

When Arkansans Put Bread Loaves Atop Radios & Other Baseball Recollections

Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson (left) last visited his childhood ballpark in 2006. The Lamar Porter Field he knew now serves a different demographic through the Little Rock RBI program.
Courtesy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

For the most part, the bustle is gone.

It’s gone, with Winkler’s Drive-In, the carhops, jukeboxes and the pinball machines, too.

If it’s bustle you want, just walk a block south to Interstate 630. Thousands of cars, streaming west to a hundred separate communities. Sixty years ago, nobody was in that much of a hurry. The place to be was right here.

On the corner of Little Rock’s Seventh and Johnson streets is a 75-year-old ballpark, a monument to a golden past and cradle for a tenuous future.

Whole summers unspooled for the children and teens playing baseball in the confines of Lamar Porter Field. Their friends, neighbors and families filled its grandstands and played on the concrete ping-pong tables and in horseshoe pits of a nearby playground. Interest in youth league baseball was so high that even players as young as eight years old had their exploits covered in a daily newspaper, which ran scores and highlights of each Little League game.

This was the age of Little League coach Benny Craig, the part-time Arkansas Travelers sportscaster who played an ongoing prank on his listeners. Craig concocted commentary on Travelers’ away games by mixing bare-bones information received from teletypes with his own imagination to fill in the rest. His commentary lagged about two innings behind the teletypes, and he used that lag time to plug his broadcast sponsor Colonial Bread, recalled Norris Guinn and Willis Callaway in “Lamar Porter Field and Memories of Sports in Little Rock During the 1950’s.” Most listeners didn’t know Craig could look ahead to see when the Travelers would score, so when he told them to put a loaf of Colonial Bread on their radio to help the Travelers score – making the bread seem like a good luck charm – the company’s bottom line was helped.

Whether for radio or TV, Craig always ended his broadcasts the same way: “Remember, it never takes an extra cent to be a good sport.” He would then wink and say “Good night.”

Continue reading When Arkansans Put Bread Loaves Atop Radios & Other Baseball Recollections

Ruminations on Joe Johnson and Failure

Little Rock native Joe Johnson isn’t quite the superstar we wanted him to be.

For these last few painful springs, I wanted Joe Johnson to be Michael Jordan.

At times, it seemed like he was off to a pretty good start – better than most of us. The man has started in an All-Star game.  He has thrown up multiple 30 point+ games in the playoffs, and even cracked the 25 ppg average in 2007.  He’d steadily improved in each of the six seasons before that.

All Joe had to do was keep improving, just a little bit per year, and by now he would have even eclipsed M.J.

But Joe didn’t keep improving. In fact, his production has just as steadily tailed off in the last five years. And while he’s still been good enough to be a six-time All-Star, he’s also been widely disparaged for not playing like a 12-time All-NBAer.

This was never more evident than on Thursday night in Boston.  All Joe had to do was channel a little M.J., and the Hawks would be on their way back to Atlanta for Game 7 with all the momentum in the world on their side. A win there and the next opponent, Philadelphia, would present the Johnson-era Hawk’s best opportunity yet to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

For the most part, Joe spread the ball around in the close-fought fourth quarter. He allowed young guns Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague to take the lion’s share of the shots that brought the Hawks back. Still, Joe had his chances. He missed a six-foot hook shot with 6:18 left; with a minute left, the Hawks clinging to a one-point lead, he crossed up seven-footer Ryan Hollins and fired up the kind of long jumper with which M.J. made a living plunging through the heart of opponents. It clanged off the back of the rim.

Joe had another chance to get his superstar on with a little more than nine seconds to go,  his team down 81-79. From the wing, he crossed up Paul Pierce and sort of blew by him. But there wasn’t much separation. And as Johnson tried to explode to the basket,  to flush the ball home or at least draw a foul,  he simply could not get his Jumpman sneakers high enough off the ground.

Pierce swatted the ball out of bounds, and Joe wouldn’t have another chance to redeem himself as the last few seconds of the Hawks’ season ticked away.

It kills me that my high school classmate can’t help get his Hawks over the hump, that his legacy is slowly becoming defined by coming up short. That he’ll soon be 31 years old, and if hasn’t been M.J. for a spring by now, he probably never will.

But, really, none of us get to taste what it’s like to be the best in the world at what we do. We may try our very best for years, but at some point reality swallows up that dream and leaves us with an irksome, possibly painful, realization that our future is limited. Granted – none of us will be paid like a Joe Johnson relative to our chosen profession. But deep down inside, we know he represents the absolute ceiling on the kind of success we can realistically aspire to.

There shouldn’t be shame in failing to channel Jordan. In fact, I now realize that shouldn’t even be the goal. If it’s a title Joe wants, then it’s the right mix of teammates he needs. As he figures out where and how he wants his career to end, he should aim to be the next Paul Pierce.

Look out Jim Brown, an Arkansan is fast on your heels

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There are a few names that bestow greatness simply by affiliation. In non-profit work, it’s “Nobel.” In acting, we have “Brando,” and in boxing, “Ali.” For running backs, though, no name quite conjures images of glory like Jim Brown, the iconic Cleveland Brown who after eight seasons retired in 1965 as the NFL record holder for both single-season rushing and career rushing (12,312 yards), as well as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126), and all-purpose yards (15,549).

Brown was real good, so good that no running back has yet eclipsed his production on a per-game basis. One Arkansan is getting close, though.

Little Rock native DeAngelo Williams is four carries away from joining Brown as the only running backs in history to average five yards a carry on at least 1,000 rushing attempts. This is impressive, especially given the fact that Williams has leapfrogged other likely candidates – guys like Emmett Smith, Barry Sanders and Bo Jackson (had he stayed healthy) – to achieve it.

Plenty fans around the nation will scoff at the idea of Williams achieving all-timer status at this point in his career, but if he can continue this level of production it will be difficult to discount his career body of work (although Carolina winning a Super Bowl would help more than anything).

It is not too early, however, to figure out where Williams ranks among the best Arkansas-born running backs to play in the NFL. Here is a list of Arkansas natives who have run for at least 1,500 yards. (n.b. after the player name below, I list a) city of birth b) pro team on which he had best years c) years in NFL d) career yards e) career rushing average per attempt f) career TDs

Priest Holmes (Fort Smith)* Kansas City; 1997-07; 8,172; 4.6; 86
DeAngelo Williams (L.R.)** Carolina; 2006-present; 5,047; 5.1; 38
Robert Mitchell (Hot Springs)*** Cleveland, 1958-68; 2,735; 5.3; 18
Darren McFadden (L.R.) Oakland; 2008-present; 2,627; 4.8; 16
Cleophus Miller (Gould) Cleveland; 1974-82; 2,492; 4.2; 16
Peyton Hillis (Conway) Cleveland; 2008-present; 2,161; 4.2; 20
Jerry Eckwood (Brinkley) Tampa Bay; 1979-81; 1,845; 3.6; 6
Tommy Watkins (W. Memphis) Detroit; 1961-68; 1,791; 3.8; 10
Elijah Pitts (Mayflower) Green Bay; 1961-71; 1,788; 3.5; 28
Jesse Clark (Thebes) Green Bay; 1983-90; 1,736; 4.2; 9

* Holmes moved to San Antonio, Texas, as a child
** Before middle school, Williams moved to Wynne
*** Mitchell had great years, but primarily as a receiver, in Washington

[all stats from nfl.com and databasefootball.com]

I admit: this is a pretty cursory way to rank the state’s best NFL RBs. Still, I chose the statistical categories I feel matter the most to most people.

So, what do you think? Should Holmes be knocked off because of his Texas upbringing? Do you think McFadden or Hillis will one day eclipse Williams as the state’s best?

(PS – It took nearly all my powers of self-control to not use the phrase “Ultimate Wynne-r” in the title of this post about DeAngelo)

How did Springdale soccer end up ranked as the nation’s 13th-best team?

Things are looking up, Arkansas prep soccer scene. But not THAT up. - courtesy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

At first glance, it seems awesome:  little ol’ Arkansas’ very own Springdale High boys soccer team is ranked as the 13th-best team in the nation. At second glance, it gets a little less awesome: at the top of the poll, you’ll find the ranking pertains only to “Spring Boys” and that the #1 ranked team is something called “Snohomish, Wash.”

What, exactly, is going on here?

Welcome to the unique world of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s rankings. This major national association divvies up the nation’s teams in a few ways – first, by season. Texas schools, for instance, play in the winter. Arkansas plays in the spring. Secondly, the NSCAA divides the nation into five regions:

Region I-South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia

Region II-Alabama and Georgia

Region III-Iowa, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming

Region IV-Arkansas and Oklahoma

Region V-Alaska, California, Washington

Schools are ranked within each of those regions primarily based on win-loss record. The NSCAA then stiches together its Top 20 poll almost purely based on rankings within the five regions. The first five spots of the Top 20 are reserved for the five No. 1 teams, each from a different region. Spots 6-10 in the Top 20 are reserved for the five No. 2 teams from each region, spots 11-15 for the No. 3s and so on.

Continue reading How did Springdale soccer end up ranked as the nation’s 13th-best team?