“The Atlanta Braves should sign free agent starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia because he™s a great pitcher,” proposes Dugout Central‘s Kenny Doyle, “and because he™s black.” There goes what little was left of Kris Benson’s bargaining power, ladies and gentlemen (link culled from Repoz and Baseball Think Factory).
Sabathia would give Atlanta the first long-term, larger than life African American baseball talent in over a decade. The economic and marketing impact of that should not be underestimated. Atlanta is a city that is 56% black within the city limits and 31% black within the metro area. The Michael Vick experience with the NFL™s Atlanta Falcons showed the importance of having a black superstar in Atlanta. The Georgia Dome was sold out for five years when Vick was a starter after years of television blackouts due to a lack of home attendance.
It™s no coincidence that the Braves were never more popular and financially competitive than between 1991 and 1997, when they had strong African American talent and personalities like Fred McGriff, David Justice, Marquis Grissom, Ron Gant, Terry Pendleton, Deion Sanders, Otis Nixon, Jermaine Dye and Kenny Lofton. For some reason or reasons, which we can only speculate upon here, these players were never replaced with other African American stars.
Gary Sheffield was briefly a Brave earlier this decade. Sheffield, however, was always seen as nothing more than a hired gun who would leave as soon as he could for the highest bidder. Folks therefore didn™t buy into Sheffield as much as they otherwise may have. And since Sheffield left five years ago, they haven™t had any African American players of note. Folks aren™t knocking down the gates to witness the likes of Willie Harris, Brandon Jones, Charles Thomas, DeWayne Wise, a washed up Brian Jordan or Daryle Ward.
The sad end of the Vick experience laid bare for all to see how delicately Atlanta teams must treat the departure of popular black stars for fear of alienating the African American community and causing revenue, attendance and fan base erosion. Many believe the Braves haven™t fully recovered financially since the trade of the beloved David Justice during 1996. At the time of that trade, the Braves had the highest payroll in the entire major leagues. It seems negligent for a team in a largely African American town not to have an African American star or two, doesn™t it?
Let’s not forget the Braves’ salad days also coincided with a whiter-than-Skrewdriver starting rotation of Avery, Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine. There’s all sorts of reasons for fan base erosion, and while there might be a racial component, higher ticket prices at a new ballpark could well be a factor, along with, y’know, failing to contend of late. If Sabathia can do for the Braves what he did for the Brewers last season, Atlanta stands to sell tickets to persons of all colors. If CC comes back to earth in a non-contract year, however, it’s hard to imagine African Americans or any other segment of the local population being more enthused about the Braves than they are already.