Baseball’s genius plan for youth outreach is 51-year-old Ken Griffey Jr.

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Dennis Young, New York Daily News
·2 min read
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MLB is enlisting Ken Griffey Jr. to heal its biggest self-inflicted wound: the fact that the game gets older and whiter every year.

Griffey’s stated task is “youth baseball development, particularly regarding improving diversity at amateur levels;” in other words, getting young and non-white people to play or even just watch the game. It says something grim about baseball’s extreme problems with youth and diversity that Griffey, who retired in 2010, has a reasonable case as the last cross-cultural American star. Griffey, 51, is old enough that his son has already started and finished an NFL career; Trey Griffey has been out of the league since 2017.

The baseball press has largely drooled over the move. Jayson Stark, the dean of that corps, wrote that “Who on the planet is a better choice to be the poster boy for a Baseball Is Cool campaign than Griffey, a guy who led his league in Cool Factor for like 20 years?”

Like a lot of people my age and older, I have strong memories of Griffey being the coolest man who has ever lived. But I’m 31 and work at a newspaper. People who were born the year Griffey retired are in virtual middle school now; if you were born the last year that Griffey was a productive superstar, you’re old enough to drink.

It’s a good sign that Griffey signed on to work with the league. He was never shy about refusing to work for organizations that he thought were stodgy or racist. In a 2020 documentary, he explained his years-long hatred of the Yankees was started when he was kicked out of the dugout as a child — his father was on the team — only to see a white player’s child taking groundballs in the infield on his way out.

Baseball’s failure with Black Americans starts young and has trickled up. The share of Black MLB players has dropped from nearly 20% in the 1980s to below 10% today, a trend that at least partially correlates with American youth baseball growing increasingly expensive and dropping in popularity among all races.

The fact that baseball has not produced anyone more suitable for the role than Griffey — or at least has not acknowledged anyone since him —says everything you need to know about its failures on these fronts. He was a beloved whippersnapper to people who are now old enough to be baffled by the youths. Only there are no more youths in baseball coming up to baffle them.