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Bisons polish diamonds in the rough

Kevin Licker, baseball coach for the Emerson School of Hospitality, performed an uncommonly hospitable act last year. While coaching third base during a game, Licker took time to explain the concept of a forceout to the opposing third baseman.

"I was blown away," said Licker, who took over when Emerson restored its baseball program last year after a five-year hiatus. "I couldn't believe kids could get to this level and not know baseball. I had kids try out this year who didn't know which hand to put the glove on."

It's no revelation. The quality of baseball in the Buffalo schools has been in decline for years. Fifteen years ago, I did a column on the subject in which a city coach talked about meager resources and kids who didn't own gloves.

But finally, well-meaning people are ready to put a hand in. After months of planning with city superintendent James A. Williams and Director of Athletics Dave Thomas, the Buffalo Bisons announced Monday they are adopting the city's baseball league.

The Bisons didn't put a number on it, but their commitment will be significant and, presumably, long-lasting. They will pay for assistant coaches and equipment. They'll make Dunn Tire Park available for player development. They hired former Canisius High coach Paul Smaldone as high school coordinator.

The Bisons will also be partners with New Era Cap (which will provide caps) in the renovation of Johnny B. Wiley as the flagship field for the city league.

Bisons owners Bob and Mindy Rich said they want Buffalo to have the best high school program in the Northeast, one that produces college scholarships. It's an ambitious goal. Thomas, who has been working in city sports for 41 years, couldn't recall the last city baseball player to earn a scholarship.

We're not alone. Baseball has been declining for years in America's urban areas, particularly among blacks. Last week, Major League Baseball celebrated the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. Sadly, it became a forum on the staggering decline of African-Americans in the sport. The percentage of blacks in the big leagues, which peaked at close to 30 percent a few decades ago, is now down to 8.4 percent.

"The inner-city children tend to go toward basketball and football," Thomas said. "We've got to get them back playing baseball. But it won't happen overnight."

It would be naive to think otherwise. Kids often join city teams as seniors, having never played organized baseball. As any reading teacher would tell you, if a kid doesn't learn the fundamentals at a young age, he'll suffer for it later.

"We need to start them early," said Superintendent Williams, who says there's a crying need for Little League programs in the city's black neighborhoods. "That's where you learn the fundamentals. I need to look at our elementary schools and try to get coaches and equipment to support them, too."

Mindy Rich knows these things take time, too. Back in 1990, the Bisons took part in the Rookie League program, an attempt by Major League Baseball to get city kids reacquainted with baseball. Apparently, that effort did little to rekindle interest in baseball among black kids in the country, or in Buffalo.

Maybe the timing is right now for baseball to finally experience a revival.

"There's virtue in not giving up, in trying new ways to approach it," Mindy Rich said. "If we get them young, they might be inspired to stay with the program a little bit longer. This gives them a goal. It's a showcase, an opportunity."

The Bisons and the city schools are ready to work hand in glove. As the coaches would attest, it's a start.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

Story and photo on Page D1

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