Pine Bluff is one of the cities being considered for a franchise in a new professional baseball league geared toward African-American players.
Representatives of the National Urban Professional Baseball League will hold tryouts at Pine Bluff Regional Park on May 31 and June 1, according to Michael Mayden, a former professional scout who is helping to organize the league.
The tryouts are open to players 17 and older, and while the league is targeted at African-American players, players of any race may try out. Each team would carry 24 players. Pay would be “in line with minor league and independent ball,” Mayden said.
Players chosen will take part in an eight-week fall league in Arizona. The new league would start in April 2018. It will have four teams to start off with. Organizers have identified Jackson, Miss., Millington, Tenn. and DeSoto, Tex. as sites for three of the franchises.
“[Pine Bluff] would fit perfectly between Tennessee and Texas, because it gives us a gap, distance-wise, to plug in between there,” Mayden said.
The four teams would each play 90-game seasons. Mayden said the league was looking at Taylor Field as the home venue for a potential team. Should Pine Bluff be chosen, it would host 45 home games.
Mayden said he has been in touch with various officials in Pine Bluff since October, but communication has been spotty recently. He said the league is looking to finalize its teams within the next week.
“The ball is pretty much in the Pine Bluff court if they want us to bring a professional team or not,” he said. “If Taylor Field will accommodate us, we’re more than willing to come. Provide us with the field, we’ll provide staff and lease agreement to rent it.”
Longtime Taylor Field caretaker Jim Hill said he couldn’t recall whether he had heard from anyone about the proposal.
“If he wanted to call me, I would listen about what he wanted to propose to do,” Hill said.
Taylor Field is the home field of the Pine Bluff High School baseball team. It also hosts amateur competitions such as Senior Babe Ruth, Junior Babe Ruth and American Legion. It last hosted minor league baseball in 1996 as home of the Pine Bluff Locomotives in the independent Big South League.
Cynthia Hines, City of Pine Bluff marketing and communications coordinator, said she also vaguely recalled the proposal for a new team.
“I remember there being a discussion about this, but I don’t know if the mayor had touched base or not [with the league organizers],” Hines said.
The National Urban Baseball League signed a lease for a city-owned and operated facility called USA Stadium in Millington, Tenn. last week in a ceremony with city officials. The stadium formerly housed the USA Baseball Olympic team.
Kate Armitage, communications director for the City of Millington, Tenn., described the city as “a baseball city.”
“What they are hoping to create and bring to the community is something that our community is very interested in pursuing,” Armitage said. “So we certainly welcome the opportunity to welcome them in to our community.”
Organizers plan to honor legends from Negro League Baseball by giving the teams names such as the Satchel Paige All-Stars and the Josh Gibson All-Stars.
“The goal of the league is to stir the interest of the game back up,” Mayden said. “While there’s been a decline [in African-American participation in baseball], if you look at African-American ballplayers, they’re not getting an opportunity.”
Mayden, who said he’s scouted for the New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals and Montreal Expos, believes colleges rarely take a chance on African-American players.
“If they’re playing, they’re the designated pinch runners, or on the bench,” he said. “Consequently they don’t feel like they have the opportunity, so there’s a lack of interest in the game.”
That lack of opportunity translates to the professional level, he said.
“You don’t see them drafted, don’t see them in the minors [and] don’t see them in the majors,” he said.
The percentage of African-Americans on Major League Baseball rosters has dropped from 19.5 percent in 1986 to 8.5 percent in 2013, according to MLB. Some have blamed a rise of popularity in basketball among young African-Americans, and reduced access to the game as the cost of participation in youth sports has increased.
In many cities as many as two-thirds of children do not have access to outdoor recreation spaces, according to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. African-American and Hispanic children are most affected by that dynamic.
Schools with the highest percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches also have lower youth sports participation rates, according to reports from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard University.
Youth participation in baseball has declined overall in recent years. The percentage of children between the ages of six and 12 who played baseball on a regular basis dropped from 16.5 in 2008 to 13.2 in 2015, according to a report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Fewer students are playing multiple sports than in the past, according to the report, while gym and physical education classes are less common at many schools.
Mayden said the league hopes to promote more diversity in the sport by giving an opportunity to overlooked players.
“Giving young players who have that ambition of playing professional baseball and for whatever reason have missed that opportunity,” he said. “Give them an introduction to that level, and showcase themselves, then move up from us to another level.”
The league would be supported through local and corporate sponsorship, as well as revenue from concession and gate sales. The league organizers have focused on smaller communities in an effort not to compete with Major League teams in cities such as Detroit and Chicago.
“We’re targeting African-American communities in African-American cities,” Mayden said. “When you look at the market for African-Americans, there’s an untapped market for professional sports. We turn over $1.2 trillion that’s not tapped in the black community. So if you give [African-Americans] something to embrace, they will come out and embrace it.”
Mayden appeared to be referring with the $1.2 trillion figure to a recent study out of the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, which found a growing economic influence from African-Americans.
The tryouts at the end of May coincide with proposed improvements to the ballfields at Pine Bluff Regional Park.
Thomas Peters, athletic director of the Pine Bluff Department of Parks and Recreation, asked the Public Works Committee recently for $8,200 to install safety netting and $9,240 to replace the infield dirt at the park’s four softball fields and one baseball field.
“It’s pretty much the same type of dirt that the major leagues use,” Peters said. “A lot of high schools use it. It helps with the rainouts, it soaks up a lot of rain.”
Peters said he hopes to complete the improvements before the organizers arrive for tryouts. He said a company in Alabama that sells the infield mix estimated that covering the infields of the five ballfields would require 168 tons of mix at a cost of $45 per ton. He said he is still seeking quotes from companies located closer to Pine Bluff to reduce transportation costs. He would like to transport the mix with city trucks to save money from using a contractor.