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02/06/12 11:51 AM EST

Rays take Robinson's message to heart

ST. PETERSBURG -- Jackie Robinson would be proud of the way the Rays do business.

Since Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, progress has been made to the point where the color of a player's skin no longer matters.

The Rays have personified that ideal in the way they have used their top picks in the First-Year Player Draft.

In 2001, Tampa Bay had the third pick of the Draft and selected right-hander Dewon Brazelton. The next year, the Rays selected B.J. Upton with the second overall pick. When the organization had the No. 1 pick in 2003, '07 and '08, it selected outfielder Delmon Young, left-hander David Price and shortstop Tim Beckham. In 2009, the club used its top pick to select infielder/outfielder LeVon Washington, who didn't sign with the team. All of those players are African-American.

"We're proud to have African-American players who are role models for the entire community, and proud of our efforts in renovating baseball fields throughout Tampa Bay so that even more kids can get into our game," said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "What's great about baseball is that for many decades now, it has been a meritocracy. Skin color doesn't matter; how you act and how you perform do."

When the Rays reached the 2008 World Series, the Major Leagues experienced a season in which 10.2 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters were African-American. According to an article written by Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, that represented the first season there had been an increase over the previous season in the number of African-Americans in Major League Baseball since 1995.

That season also saw a significant number of African-Americans in the Fall Classic between the Rays and Phillies. Prominent among them were Carl Crawford, Price, Upton, Cliff Floyd and Edwin Jackson of Tampa Bay, and Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins of Philadelphia.

"[The number of African-Americans was] definitely something I noticed when we played the Phillies," Price said.

Friedman added: "The number of outstanding African-American players in the World Series in 2008 is a wonderful testament to how far this sport has come since 1947, but it was not the main story. The focus was on two teams trying to win a championship, and that kind of equality is the best example for baseball to set."

Unfortunately, only 8.5 percent of total players on the 2011 Opening Day rosters were African-American, which stands as a decrease from 10 percent the previous season.

"I feel like it's tough for African-Americans to get involved in baseball," Price said. "It's not something they can go out and play by themselves, but they can in basketball and football and everything else. I know a lot of people are trying to reach out to the inner cities through programs like RBI, and hopefully it will turn around. I really don't have an answer for it."

The Rays understand the importance of attracting African-American athletes to the national pastime.

"The more talented athletes who choose to focus on baseball, whatever their background, the better off the game as a whole will be," Friedman said. "To get young people involved in this sport, it helps to have both people you can look up to and places to play."

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