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Pirates' McCutchen: Baseball Is Dying In Economically Challenged Communities

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Baseball is back. In the major league season opener last night, the St. Louis Cardinals shut out the Chicago Cubs 3-0. The return of baseball gives fans reason to celebrate, including our own David Greene. This morning, David takes us to a story of concern, though, about the state of the national pastime.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's a story that's told by the man starring in this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: He just swung on a drill - deep to left field. Way back, Ludwick is back at the wall. Clear the deck, cannonball coming. He's done it again. Andrew McCutchen has given the Pirates the lead in the 11th inning...

GREENE: Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates' center fielder, is one of baseball's biggest stars. And he succeeded despite growing up working-class poor in central Florida. But he's worried that stories like his are disappearing from the game he loves, which for him made watching this moment all the more poignant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Back to the pitch for double play ball - Jackson. It's over. Chicago wins the United States championship.

GREENE: Last summer, Jackie Robinson West, a team of young African-Americans from Chicago's South Side, won the U.S. Little League title.

ANDREW MCCUTCHEN: You see those kids having fun, and that's what the game's all about, regardless of how old you are. You know, it wasn't - Jackie Robinson West made the last stop - it was really cool just to be able to see that.

GREENE: But then months later, that title was stripped away over the use of players from outside the team's district. Andrew McCutchen felt the need to speak out.

MCCUTCHEN: These are kids, you know, and to have that taken away is sad for them, but, you know, these kids are going to have to live with that for the rest of their lives. And at the same time, there's a bigger picture behind these things. There's a bigger story.

GREENE: That bigger story is just how difficult it's become for neighborhoods like Chicago's South Side to find players. In an article titled "Left Out" in The Players' Tribune magazine, Andrew McCutchen describes how baseball is dying in economically challenged communities across the country and also how different that is from when he was starting out 20 years ago.

MCCUTCHEN: It used to be pretty easy for me as a kid growing up when it came to playing. If I didn't have a bat, I used someone else's. If I didn't have a glove, someone had an extra one. If I didn't have cleats, I'd just borrow some from somebody. You know - and I'm not saying that that doesn't go on still, but I believe it's a little more uncommon. You know, when - back when Jackie Robinson and those guys played, they just left their glove on the field for the next person to come pick up and use. Now for us in MLB, that would be pretty uncommon. That'd be pretty different if we were to do that same thing. It'd be like, well, why is he doing that? Can't he get his own? So what I'm saying is it has changed in that sense. And things are more expensive. Gloves are more expensive. Bats are more expensive. You know, the price of things are more. It's just more difficult. Poverty is growing, you know? And so it's getting tougher. And I just think it's kind of the world we live in now. And you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else.

GREENE: You pointed out in your story that you and Josh Harrison, your Pirates teammate, are the only two African-Americans playing on the team as of last year. What does that tell us?

MCCUTCHEN: It tells us that the numbers aren't very high for African-Americans in the game of baseball, but that's nothing new. You know, that's just something that we all know. The numbers do continue to decline. And how do we change that? You know, it's - we have some things at hand. We got the players union, the MLB, the owners of MLB, we're all working together to try and just get the game out, not to just African-Americans but just kids in general - inner-city kids - just getting the sport out. I believe that the sport is diminishing into a sport that's not as exciting now.

You know, it's just kind of difficult getting that out there when, you know, you could basically put some pavement down and put a couple hoops up and you got a basketball going, and you can shoot basketball. And all you need is a basketball. And most of the time you don't even need that, just play on a team with somebody else. Basketball's everywhere. Football's everywhere, you know. And they're really getting their name out when it comes to those sports. Baseball, we're just kind of - we're baseball. We're America's pastime. So it's just getting the name out to show people that the game is exciting and it is a lot of fun and that you can play it. And, you know, I think that's just something that we need to do.

GREENE: McCutchen thinks that one solution is baseball academies, like in the Dominican Republic and also Puerto Rico.

MCCUTCHEN: They can sign these kids at a very young age for not a whole lot of money, with the promise of basically taking care of them with food, clothes, shelter and being able to just say, you know, get signed at this academy and have the opportunity to be a big leaguer one day.

GREENE: What does it mean for baseball, the sport, if fewer and fewer kids from the inner city, as you described it, you know, fewer dream of playing?

MCCUTCHEN: For baseball, it could really hurt the sport because it is a game that is really fun, but if that's not getting out and more kids are going leaning towards other sports, then, you know, baseball's on the back burner, and they could be - we could be losing America's pastime.

MONTAGNE: That's Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates talking to our David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.