Taking Them Out to the Ballgame

With Baseball's Return to D.C., a Quest for Diversity

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008; Page PG16

Each time the Washington Nationals take the field at Nationals Park, their $611 million baseball stadium, they showcase one of the most diverse lineups in Major League Baseball. The Nationals are led by Manny Acta, their bilingual manager from the Dominican Republic who is in charge of a team that includes three black players and nine Latin-born players from Puerto Rico and countries such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico.

Although the Nationals' roster is diverse, it remains to be seen whether that diversity, combined with their state-of-the-art stadium, will be enough to attract young blacks and Latinos to the game in the District. Interest in the game among black youths is a topic of concern for MLB as more of that demographic seems to be interested in football and basketball. Gerald L. Early at Washington University in St. Louis, an expert on black culture, attributes this to the lack of availability of baseball in many black communities.

"The structures to learn baseball as a youth usually require that you have to go outside of your community," Early said of young African Americans.

Although the influx of Latinos from Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama and the Dominican Republic throughout MLB has given the game a strong Latin presence, the District's Latino population is primarily Central American. Census figures from 2000 showed Salvadorans to be the District's largest immigrant community at 104,960, and the Central American fan base ranks soccer above all else.

These two factors have not gone unnoticed in the Nationals' front office, where reaching out to black and Latino youths in the area is vital to the club.

"On April 7, we launched our Web site in Spanish," said Barbra Silva, director of community relations for the Washington Nationals. "So, in that regard, we are reaching out to the Latino community, but we acknowledge that there's also a challenge. One of the challenges, speaking from the Latino perspective, is that this area is predominately Central American, and Central Americans do not follow baseball as avidly as Caribbeans."

One way the Nationals plan to reach out to blacks and Latinos is by having specially themed days at Nationals Park.

The Nationals will host two nights dedicated to the D.C. area's Latino community this season. On July 12, the team will have a Hispanic heritage night. Roberto Clemente Day will be Sept. 3 at Nationals Park to pay tribute to the first Latino to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame and one of MLB's great humanitarians.

On May 3, the Nationals hosted a salute to the Negro leagues in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Each team wore Homestead Gray's uniforms, the legendary Negro league team that played its home games near Pittsburgh and in Washington. Between innings, the Nationals gave multiple video tributes to the Grays, and Negro league players such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.

That day brought back fond memories for Alphonzo Feemster, 72, a native of the District, who remembers watching the Grays and the Senators at Griffith Stadium as a child. Feemster has been to four Nationals games this year at Nationals Park, and represents a time when baseball was much more popular within the black community. Feemster credits Jackie Robinson's signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers as the moment when his generation became enamored with baseball.

"When Jackie was signed, that was the ultimate for most of my friends and myself," Feemster said. "We really seemed to fall in love with baseball even more. It's a fabulous sport. It builds character. It's just great. It broke my heart as I grew up. I saw more of the young crowd of kids turn away from the game. One thing I think that really hurt the black kids here in D.C. is that we lost three teams. And every time the kids would get revved up, the team would move. Then you had over a 30-year period before having a real pro baseball team here. I felt like every city in the world had a baseball team but us."

At Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest, one of the D.C. public schools closest to the Green Line, which runs straight through to the Navy Yard Station exit near the stadium, the students that make up the baseball and softball teams are a prime example of the young minority demographic the Nationals know they must attract.

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