The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport reports the total number of players of color in Major League Baseball on Opening Day this season rose to an all-time high of 42 percent, but African-Americans comprised only 7.7 percent of MLB players, lagging far behind pro football and basketball. African-Americans make up more than two-thirds of the players in both the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.
"If you went to the hood right now, you could ask them 'Who is the best basketball player in the world?' They'll be able to give you a debate, either Kobe [Bryant] or LeBron [James] or [Kevin Durant]," Johnson said recently. "It's the same way with football. They all know the stars with football. … You could ask who is the best baseball player in the world and get 'I don't know. I don't really watch baseball.' "
Getting more African-Americans to watch — and play — baseball is part of the job for former Angels general manager Tony Reagins, who now serves as Senior Vice President of Youth Programs for MLB. Reagins was in town earlier this month as part of a youth "Play Ball" event and to announce that MLB and the Bees will start the Salt Lake Bees Baseball Academy in the fall of 2018.
"There's a couple of things we're trying to address," Reagins said. "One is getting kids playing the game across the board, wherever you come from, whatever background, whatever community you live in, just playing the game. What that does is give us a base that's broad.
"Then we've really focused on diversity, getting African-Americans playing the game, developing development programs so that not only do they play, but we get them playing the game the right way. Hopefully, what happens is that leads to being drafted, going to college and playing pro ball."
Johnson recalls being asked about the lack of African-Americans in baseball by a reporter while playing for Florida State University at the College World Series in 2010. The topic remains relevant seven years later.
"I just think there's not enough kids that get introduced to the sport," Johnson said. "They might get introduced and be like, 'This is more boring than football or basketball' and that's OK, too. It's just if they get the chance to be introduced to it, I think a lot more kids in general would want to play the sport."
The possibility of an immediate big payday remains a massive advantage tilting toward the NBA and NFL when it comes to enticing young, talented athletes. Even the top baseball players tend to take years in the minors before their first MLB appearance.
"[Los Angeles Lakers rookie Brandon Ingram] is 19 in the NBA, and I'm 26 and I'm still in the minor leagues," said Johnson, who grew up playing basketball and baseball in Tampa, Fla. "And that has to do with performance and that has to do with a lot of different things, but at the same time I think they see the chance where, 'Man, I'm 19, I'm 20, I'm 21 years old and I can already be providing for my family.' "
There are some who choose to pursue baseball over other sports, regardless. That includes Young and Middleton.
Young grew up around baseball as the son of the major league player by the same name, but was not exclusively a baseball player. Young also played basketball, and had been a slot receiver and a defensive back in high school before signing a letter of intent with Villanova.
His father's experience as a college football player at Rutgers University before playing baseball helped shape Young Jr.'s decision to pursue baseball.
"He sat me down and said 'Unless you fully love football, I wouldn't recommend going the football route unless you fully love it because you're body is going to get beat up and in order to keep going taking that kind of pain day-in and day-out, you need to fully love it,' " Young said. "He didn't discourage me one way or another. He just said, 'If you tell me you fully love it, then go for it. If not, then go where your true heart and your love is.' I told him, my true love is baseball.