Love of the game shining in fewer black athletes

USC's DeAngelo Mack is one of only a handful of black baseball players in the SEC.
USC's DeAngelo Mack is one of only a handful of black baseball players in the SEC.

Baseball was DeAngelo Mack's sport while growing up in West Columbia.

That didn't make him unusual.

As friends turned to other sports, Mack stayed with baseball. And it carried him all the way to a roster spot with a major college team.

That made him unusual.

There are few black baseball players in the SEC and ACC -- 30 in 2007 -- and Mack was one of three on South Carolina's team.

Such a small number serves as another sign of the dwindling popularity of baseball in the black community. And that makes for an increasingly lonely existence for black players.

Mack doesn't see it that way.

"It's not really as bad as you would think," he said. "I guess it kind of feels good in a way, because not many people do it, and you can kind of set an example. Some people may say it's a white sport. But it's not like that. I guess it's not a cool sport."

While few blacks are playing in the SEC and ACC -- the 30 players accounted for 3.6 percent of the total number of players in those leagues -- those who are have excelled.

Vanderbilt's David Price was the SEC's Pitcher of the Year and the first pick in June's major league draft. USC's Travis Jones was a first-team All-SEC second baseman.

Florida State's Tony Thomas Jr. was the ACC Player of the Year and won the league's batting title. Clemson's Marquez Smith was a first-team All-ACC third baseman.

That seems to mirror the major leagues, in which the overall percentage of black players has dropped, but young black stars, such as Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder and Carl Crawford are emerging.

Price, whose mother is white, echoed Mack on the drop in participation among blacks in baseball.

"It's just not deemed to be a very cool sport in the African-American community, and I think that's about all it is," he said. "There's basketball and football, and I guess those, being contact sports, are deemed a little cooler. It's kind of a boring game. It is boring; anybody will tell you baseball is pretty boring. Unless you grew up with the game, you're gonna get bored out there."

As few players as there are in baseball, there are fewer coaches.

In April, then-USC third-base coach Jim Toman was ejected from a game, and Mack finished the game coaching first base. That was the only time a non-white coach appeared on the field during an ACC or SEC game this season.

There were no black head or assistant coaches in the ACC and SEC. Tony Gwynn, who soon will enter the Baseball Hall of Fame, is the only black coach at a non-traditionally black Division I school, San Diego State.

"It's dire," said Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches Association. "But (it is so) along with participation, (which) is dire. Those numbers aren't there. And I think there has been a gradual decline in participation in baseball itself. If we look at Major League Baseball, the numbers have declined. So I think it's an issue which I think is a lot more far-reaching."

The lack of black coaches in college football, and to a certain extent basketball, has received plenty of attention. So why not baseball?

"It comes up," Keith said. "It hasn't been a hot topic because the press doesn't make it a hot topic."

Jones and Mack offer different stories on how they ended up playing.

Jones focused more on football growing up in Stone Mountain, Ga. After high school, he was told he had a better chance playing baseball in college.

"That's not normally the case," USC baseball coach Ray Tanner said. "I just think it's the scholarship opportunities are greater in those two sports (football and basketball). If you made me give you an answer (for the drop in black players), that's the one I'd give you: full scholarships in basketball and football versus partial in baseball."

Then there is Mack. He also played football, at Airport High School, but quit when it got in the way of his first love: baseball.

Friends would wonder why he was playing such a "boring" sport. Mack, putting himself in the position of a fan, said he understood that viewpoint, but what was most important was his own.

"You've just got to love it to play it," he said.