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03/29/07 10:00 AM ET

Indians embrace Civil Rights Game

Inaugural exhibition against Cardinals set for Saturday

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Josh Barfield grew up around baseball. His father, Jesse, played 12 seasons for the Blue Jays and Yankees, so the game essentially was thrust upon him.

Had that not been the case, though, it's altogether possible Barfield would not be suiting up for the Indians in Saturday's Civil Rights Game against the Cardinals at AutoZone Park in Memphis.

Rather, Barfield might have been one of the many young African-Americans who shun a game that was instrumental in opening the door for black athletes to reach the limelight of the professional sporting ranks.

When Barfield thinks about this possibility and this trend, it upsets him.

"It's kind of sad," he said. "This is the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. And not just him, but also guys like Don Newcombe and Larry Doby ... they opened the door and gave us this opportunity. For it to not be taken advantage of is disappointing."

Through the Civil Rights Game, Major League Baseball is seeking not only to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the landmark debuts of Robinson and Doby, but also to curb that disappointment. One goal of the game is to spark more interest in the sport in the black community.

The game, scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. ET, will be aired by ESPN and MLB.TV. A two-hour pregame show on MLB.TV will begin at 3:30.

As far as African-American Major Leaguers like the Tribe's Barfield and C.C. Sabathia are concerned, that interest is at a disturbing low.

In 2005, only 8.5 percent of big leaguers were African-American, according to the most recent statistical data compiled by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. That's the lowest percentage since the report was first put together in the mid-1980s.

The trend at the Major League level stems, of course, from the lowest ranks of the game. The black kids in Sabathia's old neighborhood in Vallejo, Calif., for example, know next to nothing about the sport that has made him a star.

"I go home to my hometown and kids are like, 'What's baseball?'" Sabathia said. "They have no enthusiasm for it."

Generating that enthusiasm is a challenge, as Sabathia has discovered. He sponsors the North Vallejo Little League, but participation has dipped from roughly 350 players when Sabathia was a kid to 175 today.

"They see LeBron [James] coming out of high school [and into the NBA] at 18 years old and getting millions of dollars, and they think that's a quick way to make money," Sabathia said. "But I'm the same way. I got drafted out of high school at 17, but kids don't know the story, because the baseball draft is not as big and is not on TV."

Sabathia, for one, hopes the game is successful in spreading the gospel of baseball to those who haven't yet latched onto it, despite baseball's efforts through the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program and the recent opening of the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif.

"The media that will come from [the game] helps," Sabathia said. "And guys speaking out -- guys need to say [the trend] is not OK. Less than 10 percent [of Major League players are] African-American. That's a problem."

Sabathia said he wants to talk to the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis and the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins, who also are from the Bay Area, about organizing travel teams of black players to face each other.

But the Indians' ace knows even that is not enough.

"It's a bigger issue than just my hometown," he said. "It's the whole country. I don't know what Major League Baseball could do, but something has to be done."

For one game, at least, the league is putting a spotlight on the issue. The Indians were selected to participate in the event because of their special place in the history of the game's integration. They made Doby the first black player in the American League in 1947 and Frank Robinson the first black manager in 1975.

Can one game call enough attention to a problem to cure it? Probably not. But Barfield and Sabathia both said the Civil Rights Game is, at the least, a step in the right direction.

"I'm honored to be a part of it," Barfield said. "We have to do a job of carrying the torch and doing what we can to spark interest."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.