Keynan Middleton used to skip baseball games to play AAU basketball. Eric Young Jr. signed a Division I-AA football scholarship out of high school. Sherman Johnson dreamed of following his father's footsteps and playing college basketball.
Each of the three was on the roster when the Salt Lake Bees started the 2017 season in April. Each has since moved on — Young Jr. and Middleton earned promotions to the Los Angeles Angels, Johnson was recently sent to the Angles' Double-A affiliate in Mobile, Ala.
Their departures leave the Bees in the same situation as many other MLB or minor-league teams: with scarcely few African-Americans on the roster.
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.
"The sexy pick is football because it is more attractive to the eyes on the outside looking in, but as far as day-in and day-out work, I love playing baseball."
Young, now in his 14th season of professional baseball at age 32, has no doubt he wouldn't have enjoyed anything near the longevity had he stayed with football.
Middleton, a 23-year-old Oregon native who stands 6-foot-2 with an athletic and wiry frame, used to skip youth baseball games in the spring to play AAU basketball.
"I was pretty much just a basketball player growing up, I mean, it was the only sport I really loved," Middleton said. "Then baseball just got pushed aside. Football was my next best sport growing up. It was probably — when I started caring about it — my high school pitching coach was like, 'Would you pitch in college if they wanted you to?' I was like, if it's going to pay for school, I guess, yeah."
After a couple high-scoring performances as a senior in the state basketball tournament, the basketball coach from Lane Community College reached out to Middleton. Not long after that, the Lane CC baseball coach contacted him. Middleton went to the campus, threw for the baseball staff, and signed a half-and-half scholarship to play basketball and baseball.
As a freshman at Lane CC, he started to garner interest from professional baseball scouts. But at that point, he still planned to become the featured offensive player on the basketball team as a sophomore and then go on to play at Washington State.
"The whole thing me and my adviser were talking about throughout the draft was just that I never put a dollar amount on what it would take to get me signed," Middleton said. "I was just like, here, I'm 19 years old. I played basketball and baseball, basketball being my number one sport. I had my whole school paid for right now. You've got to give me something that's going to make me want to walk away from all that."
The Angels drafted him in the third round of the 2013 MLB draft — and gave Middleton enough to walk away from all that. He spent his first three seasons in the minors as a starter, but he enjoyed remarkable success since transitioning into a relief pitcher last season. In his first 26 appearances since being promoted to the Angels this season, he was 2-0 record with a 3.13 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 23 innings.
"I just didn't see my future in baseball," Middleton said. "I didn't see it. I had a plan in basketball. I didn't have a plan in baseball. It just happened."
'It's going to take some time'
Whether or not the programs started by MLB and its affiliates lead to increased numbers of African-Americans in professional baseball will take years to determine.
From 2012 through 2016, African-Americans comprised 20 percent of the first round picks in the MLB draft. Reagins believes that's an important number because the development of a major leaguer typically takes up to six years, and the higher a players gets drafted affords him more time to develop.
"This is not something that happens overnight," Reagins said. "It's going to take some time, but we've just got to keep building it brick by brick and creating opportunities for kids to play, whether it by in our RBI [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities] leagues or the youth academies or specific development programs."
USA Baseball, the MLB Players Association and MLB have also partnered to form the Elite Development Invitational during which 200 players from ages 12-17 receive coaching in Vero Beach, Fla. The event is run like a spring training with individual work, situational drills, games and talks about the industry from current and former players as well as executives. MLB launched its "Dream Series" event this year, a four-day development camp aimed at minority pitchers and catchers. It's part of MLB's Breakthrough Series, a set of free programs that include training from professional players and coaches.
"Even our RBI leagues, if you can't afford to play then you play for free," Reagins said. "Our academies — which we'll have probably 12 academies in the next 12 to 18 months — if you can't afford to attend, then you can come for free. We're really trying to take the cost element out of it as it relates to our development programs."
Dominic Smith, 22, spent a large chunk of his formative years at the MLB-sponsored Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Smith is now with the New York Mets' Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s, and ranked among the top 65 prospects in the minors by Baseball America.
Smith started going to the academy when he was 12 years old, when it was a summer camp program. It gradually grew into a program where coaches would pick him up from home in the morning, and drop him off at home at night.
By the time he got to high school, the academy had an SAT Prep course and tutoring programs. The academy picked up the tab for equipment and uniforms when Smith and his friends traveled to Florida to play in the RBI World Series.
"A lot of families can't afford that type of stuff," Smith said. "That's where they step in. They give them a place to play. They give them great coaches, guys who've played the game at the highest level. On top of that, they give them opportunities."
Smith developed into the No. 11 overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft. Fellow academy product and close friend J.P. Crawford was selected five picks later by the Philadelphia Phillies, and now is ranked among the top 20 prospects in the minors. More recently, the Compton academy has produced the fourth overall pick in 2015 in Dillon Tate by the Texas Rangers, and this year's No. 2 pick of the Cincinnati Reds, Sports Illustrated cover subject Hunter Greene.
"I do know a bunch of my buddies who got drafted out of L.A. who are coming up through the system," Smith said. "A bunch of my buddies who got drafted out of Georgia [are coming up], Texas, a bunch of places. There's going to be a new wave of young African-Americans coming up through the system. I'm pretty excited about that, seeing more of those guys in the system and throughout the league. I think in the next few years you'll see a little bit of change in that number in the big leagues."