The little neighborhood diamond is unlined and overgrown. The infield grass nibbles at the edges of the base paths. A large dirt pile looms dangerously down the third base line.
Nestled between dilapidated homes and windowless warehouses, this Philadelphia field is a world away from the baseball palaces that now dot the major league landscape but are at the very heart of the game's effort to rebuild its image among blacks and other urban minorities.
Jerry Boligitz, 36, director of the fledgling Grays Ferry Rookie League, sits on a splintered bench watching a game between teams of 8-to-12-year-olds, most of them black. Their stances are awkward, their swings flailing. On the bench, he reminds his young sluggers how to stand at the plate.
"These kids, they've never picked up a bat," he sighed.
His league, its history measured in games, not seasons, is one program fostered by Major League Baseball to boost the game's popularity in cities. And without it and others like it, there is concern blacks could largely disappear from the game.
"African American players seem to be dwindling in numbers," said Phillies center fielder Doug Glanville, one of two black players on the Phillies' active roster. "You hate to see any segment that was such a prevalent force previously, I won't say disappear, but headed that direction."
Ten percent of major league players in 2001-02 were black, down from 17 percent in 1989, according to the 2003 Racial and Gender Report Card from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, well below the peak figure of 24 percent about 25 years ago.
For this reason, Major League Baseball and its teams have poured millions of dollars into programs such as Rookie League; a $3 million Youth Baseball Academy under construction in Compton, Calif.; and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), the league's flagship urban baseball program.
"One of the main goals is to attract minorities, and that can be of any color, to the game on and off the field," said Tom Brasuell, the league's vice president of community relations. "We also certainly want to get them into the ballparks."
Diversity is a "business imperative" that first caught the attention of the NBA and is now acknowledged by other sports and is important to baseball's long-term health, said Richard Lapchick, the report card's author.
"They're trying to use RBI and this academy in Compton to market to communities of color and I think for the business of baseball they need to have black fans," he said.
But even the programs initiated by Major League Baseball that once targeted largely black areas are experiencing a shift in participation, Brasuell said.
"As recently as four years ago the number of black players in RBI was 61 percent, that's now down to about 50 or 55, and Latino players make up more of those numbers," he said.
The New York RBI program is heavily Puerto Rican, Brasuell said. Boston's features many Dominican players. Cubans comprise a large part of the Miami program, while Houston and Los Angeles have seen many Mexican players enter their programs.
"There may have been a bend toward areas that were heavily African-American, but that's changing," Brasuell said.
The rising popularity of basketball -- 78 percent of NBA players are black -- has been cited as a major factor in that change.
"It seems like a lot of young kids coming up want to be LeBron James," said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who returns to his native Alameda, Calif., to tutor young players from his old neighborhood. "It looks like it's an easier road because it's a more glamorous road."
Roger Gordon, a former collegiate baseball player and a longtime youth coach, has seen his mostly black recreation center teams in southwest Philadelphia dwindle from 27 to 10 in the last decade. All his best athletes play basketball and football.
He recalled Maurice Stovall, once a promising baseball player but now a wide receiver at Notre Dame.
"A Catholic [high] school snapped him up to play football," he said. "And that was the end of him as a baseball player."
Meanwhile, the influx of Latin American talent has changed the face of professional baseball over the last 15 years. Latino players now make up 28 percent of major leaguers, up from 13 percent in 1989.
Baseball's popularity in Latin America and the low cost of developing players there has provided a fertile feeder system for Major League Baseball, Brasuell said.
In the Dominican Republic, for example, "what it costs to develop a number of players could pay just one [major league] signing bonus," he said.
But the league continues to make efforts to reach out to the black community.
The annual league-wide celebration of Jackie Robinson Day, which started this year, and increased acknowledgment of the contribution of the Negro Leagues are among the initiatives to encourage interest among blacks, Brasuell said.
Even promotions as simple as games in which teams wear the now-fashionable retro jerseys can aid baseball's cause, he said.
"If it takes a throwback to get them on the field, that's fine," Brasuell said. "Once they're in, it's hard not to like the game."