Lorenzo Wright stood in line at Wendy’s wearing a College of Charleston baseball uniform, and he stood out. Not so much for ordering fast food an hour before a Cougars home game against mighty South Carolina, but as a black player in contrast to a pair of hungry white teammates and most of amateur baseball in South Carolina.
In a state with the fifth largest black population by percentage, blacks seem left out of an immensely popular sport showcased again this weekend with national telecasts of the NCAA Tournament’s Columbia Regional featuring South Carolina and Clemson.
In-state rivals Clemson and South Carolina met last June in two thrilling NCAA Regional playoff games won by the Gamecocks.
But watching the national TV coverage or from the sold-out stands at Carolina Stadium, it looked like a 1950s throwback game. No minority players saw action for either side.
South Carolina won the College World Series in 2010 and 2011 with perhaps the most beloved sports teams in Palmetto State history. But with Jackie Bradley Jr. as the lone black player, they didn’t reflect the Palmetto State.
Beneath the college level, most top-level high school teams and elite travel teams in the state have few black players.
It’s a national issue.
Only 5 percent of NCAA college baseball players are black, at least partly because each NCAA program must spread 11.7 scholarships among 35 players.
“If I’m a two-sport athlete in high school and I know I can get a full ride in football or basketball, or a 30 or 40 percent scholarship in baseball, it can be tough to pick baseball,” College of Charleston baseball coach Monte Lee said. “It can be tough on any family or a kid from any background.”
There are zero black Division I baseball coaches. The racial gap is a growing concern in professional baseball too. Only 8.5 percent of Major League players are U.S.-born blacks, down from a high of 19 percent in 1986.
In South Carolina, fever-pitch interest and predominantly white participants are paradoxical rites of spring. Most of the historically black colleges and universities in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference have baseball teams, but not S.C. State.
Money and time commitments tied to elite youth baseball combined with low scholarship allotments as compared to football and basketball are seen as the main reasons why there are so few black players.
“The scholarship opportunities figure in a little bit as you get older but not as a youngster,” said Ray Tanner, who took over as South Carolina’s athletic director last summer after leading the Gamecocks’ baseball team to three straight College World Series finals appearances. “Sometimes it’s hard to define. Maybe it’s the exposure. Kids grow up knowing football comes first in popularity.”
Lorenzo Wright is an exception. His mother necessarily immersed herself in the time and money demands of travel leagues.
He was the star last spring as Ashley Ridge High School in Summerville won the 2012 Class 4A state championship, and now he’s in a College of Charleston uniform hoping for a college path to professional baseball.
It happens every summer. C of C’s Lee and other college baseball coaches must juggle economics, math and baseball skills to make difficult decisions.
How to divide the NCAA-allotted 11.7 scholarships within a 35-player roster?
NCAA Division I college football programs are allowed 85 scholarships for a typical 100-player roster, and men’s basketball programs get 13 scholarships for a 15-player roster.
Baseball is a “non-revenue sport.” Players must scramble for other scholarships, grants or loans.
“You have to be able to compensate with some academic money,” said Jasha Balcom, a 30-year-old Duluth, Ga., resident who signed with the College of Charleston out of high school and later transferred to Georgia. “A lot of coaches may love you as a player, but they will cancel you out if you don’t have the grades. And we know some of our African-American kids are behind in many schools.”
The oft-repeated 11.7 is one of the most infamous figures in college sports.
It’s a shrewd cost-saving measure tied to the federally mandated Title IX balance of men’s and women’s athletic scholarships, or an over-emphasis on football, depending on your point of view.
It’s harder to attract black baseball players to college teams when big bonuses are offered to top baseball prospects drafted by Major League teams out of high school.
“I long have thought 11.7 is the biggest culprit,” Baseball America Managing Editor John Manuel said. “Baseball isn’t a full-scholarship sport, and so much of the culture pushes players toward football and basketball.”
The percentage of black players in NCAA Division I baseball has gradually dropped, from 6.9 percent in 2002 to 5.0 percent in 2012.
With college baseball serving as a primary feeder system for Major League baseball, no wonder there are fewer U.S.-born blacks in the big leagues.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in April presided over a newly formed, 17-member diversity task force appointed to seek ways to enhance black participation.
Specialization is partly to blame.
“It’s one of the biggest problems we have in sports,” said Lee, 36. “By the time kids are 10, our society has ingrained in them that they have to pick one sport and focus strictly on that one sport.
“I can remember in high school, you narrowed it to two sports instead of three. And it was a big sacrifice to give up the third.”
It’s hard to blame kids for leaning toward football or basketball, both of which trounce baseball in television exposure and ratings.
The Palmetto State was glued to ESPN for a pair of sticky summer nights in 2010 and 2011.
Unfortunately for college baseball, not many other viewers watched South Carolina’s two College World Series championship series runs. Average Neilsen television ratings: 1.2 vs. UCLA in 2010 (meaning 1.2 percent of American households watched), 1.7 vs. Florida in 2011.
Only two football bowl games last winter had worse ratings: Fight Hunger Bowl (0.7 for Arizona State-Navy on ESPN2) and Heart of Dallas Bowl (0.5 for Oklahoma State-Purdue on ESPNU).
The Notre Dame-Alabama BCS Championship Game had a 15.1 rating.
CBS got a 16.1 rating for the Louisville-Michigan NCAA basketball title game in April. March Madness averaged 6.7 over four networks.
Lorenzo Wright is aware that his favorite sport isn’t the coolest. He picked baseball for a more personal reason.
“My brother liked it,” he said of Levi Wright Jr., who plays baseball at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. “He taught me to play as a young kid. I’ve loved it ever since.”
Lorenzo Wright grew up playing Wiffle ball in his yard. He got serious about baseball in the eighth grade, and his mother, Lorine, and father, Levi Sr., bought in, literally.
“My mom was always behind me whenever I needed anything to do with baseball,” Wright said. “If I needed to talk to someone older to help me get better, she would find someone for me to talk to.”
He knows he’s an exception.
“There aren’t many black college baseball players because it’s not a sport introduced in majority black areas,” Wright said. “Probably because they don’t have anybody to teach them the right way to play.”
There is no one teaching baseball at S.C. State. The most prominent historically black college in South Carolina dropped baseball in 1994, citing athletic department debt.
Most other Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools, including Savannah State, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central, Bethune Cookman, Florida A&M and Norfolk State, have teams. So do smaller historically black colleges in South Carolina, including Claflin, Voorhees, Benedict and Morris. Typically, baseball rosters at these schools are racially mixed.
“You definitely want to see more black players in baseball, especially me as someone who plays baseball,” said Julius McDougal, a Michigan native who was a senior right fielder at Claflin in 2012.
“Most black kids just prefer basketball or football, but I think the RBI (Rebuilding Baseball in Inner Cities) program and other things are helping. I was in an RBI program in the Detroit area, so I know steps are being taken. It just might be a slow process.”
Slight progress is noticeable this season.
Since their all-white clashes last June, Clemson added freshman leadoff hitter Maleeke Gibson and first baseman D.J. Reader.
South Carolina added outfielders Shon Carson, outfielder/infielder Ahmad Christian and pitcher Kwinton Smith.
Reader, Carson and Christian are two-sport athletes on football scholarships.
The Citadel, a relative leader in baseball diversity over the years, has two black players. The College of Charleston has six.
“We’re doing something to attract African-American kids to our program,” Lee said. “We’re recruiting them.”
Maybe it’s time for college baseball to follow Selig’s lead and launch its own committee dedicated to getting more black kids into the sport.
“I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t know if anyone can give you the answer,” Tanner said. “But I wish black players were more prevalent. There’s certainly room.”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff