Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The Denver Post and was shared via AP StoryShare.
Preston Askew stood at second base during a high school tournament game in Las Vegas, dusting off his pants after swiping the bag, when he heard the opposing player.
He couldn't have just said that -- could he?
"He called me the N-word right at second base," Askew recalled of the incident a few years ago.
The outfielder for Aurora's Overland High School, who is Black, had been laughing at some of the back-and-forth chippiness going on in the tense game. But after the racial epithet, Askew's entire demeanor flipped.
"At that point, it's not funny no more," he said.
As Major League Baseball this week honors the legacy of the late Hank Aaron during the All-Star Game festivities in Denver, Colorado's Black baseball players and coaches say the battle for inclusivity is still being waged in a sport that's trying desperately to increase its diversity.
Forty-five years after Aaron played his final game, American-born Black athletes account for less than 8% of MLB players, while Colorado's youth numbers remain low, coaches and players say.
It's the high costs to play on competitive club teams, cultural barriers and the loss of community-driven city leagues such as the Police Activities League that have kept more Black players in Colorado from playing America's pastime.
"This is still a sport that's very prejudiced," said Eric Askew, Preston's father and head baseball coach at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora.
Stories of prejudice
The story of being a Black baseball player in Colorado is a story of side comments and backhanded compliments, a story of outright bigotry and subtle barbs.
"Black people don't play baseball," Ron Harris, a former George Washington High School standout, remembers being told. "Yeah, we actually do."
When Eric Askew was just a child, he recalled his older brother once telling him to count the number of Black players on the field at a minor league baseball game.
"We're the only Blacks that you see," Askew remembers his brother saying.
Growing up in Denver's Globeville and Park Hill neighborhoods, Askew loved baseball. But he ended up dropping the sport to focus on football and basketball "as an avenue to be around more Black athletes and feel acceptable."
Black players in Colorado often look around and don't see another player on the field who looks like them. And when they do step across the lines, they are forced to battle stereotypes on top of fastballs.
As a catcher, Harris recalls people telling him to "get back in the outfield" or "you don't know how to throw."
"I had to constantly prove that I belong," he said.
Everyone expected Preston Askew to bunt or steal just based on the color of his skin, he said. They were shocked when he told them he didn't also play running back.
"I always heard things like, 'He's fast, but what did you expect?'" said Askew, who graduated from Overland in 2017.
Going on the road, especially to more rural communities, could be an uncomfortable experience for Black players.
"You could just see the way that people are looking at you when you warm up or when you get out of the car," the younger Askew said.
When the opposing player taunted him with the racist slur in Las Vegas, Askew shot back and the umpire ejected them both.
"Some things, like outbursts, we don't have the privilege of doing," he said about Black players. "When I get thrown out, it's like, 'He's angry; he has a bad attitude; he has a bad temper.'"
When a white player does the same thing, Askew said, the reaction is more like, "Oh, everybody has their days."
Major League Baseball is well aware of the sport's lack of Black players -- from the pros down to the youth level -- and is hoping to ramp up diversity through its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, a free summer league in Denver and other cities across the country.
The All-Star Game's move to Denver also brought with it extra funding that will go toward greatly expanding the RBI program here.
It's been a dream for David Beckel, who runs the program through the Colorado Rockies, to double the league in size by 2025, going from 800-plus kids to more than 1,600. Now he has the money to do it.
MLB's legacy grant will not only increase the number of teams throughout metro Denver, Beckel said, it will also allow RBI to revive its select All-Star team, which went away in 2008. That team used to compete in RBI tournaments against other cities, allowing some kids to step on an airplane for the first time in their lives.
MLB officials say RBI leagues around the country produce alumni who later make it to the pros, and the league is seeing encouraging signs on diversity from recent drafts.
Between 2012 and 2020, Black players accounted for 51 out of 289 first-round selections -- 17.6% -- in the MLB draft, the league says.
In the 2020 draft, nine of the first 73 selections -- 12.3% -- were Black players, per league data.
"It's important to be able to see African Americans at the major league level," said Tony Reagins, one of only six Black general managers in MLB history and the league's chief baseball development officer. "A lot of great players were Black: Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Fred Robinson, Joe Morgan -- heroes to me as a youngster. We don't want that legacy to die."
Youth participation nationally, however, still has a ways to go.
Nationally, 11% of Black youth ages 6 to 12 participated in baseball in 2018, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That number fell to 9.2% among the 13 to 17 age group.
Meanwhile, just 6.1% of Black teens in that age bracket were "core" players -- as in they played baseball 13 or more times during the year, the association report stated.
How to increase diversity
Colorado players and coaches say the All-Star RBI team was a crucial carrot to dangle in front of talented young players, who weren't previously incentivized to play in the summer league due to perceived low competitiveness levels.
But in order to get more Black kids into baseball, they said, you have to start young. Really young.
"You gotta get them at age 5," Eric Askew said.
Unlike football and basketball, baseball is a game that needs years to develop specific skills, coaches say. Picking up the game in ninth grade is simply too late.
"When you get around a lot of kids who have played for a long time, and you don't really have the same (baseball) IQ as they have, you feel like you're not welcome," said Alphonso Campbell, head coach at Denver's Northfield High School. "That comes from having reps at an early age."
It's a misstep, Campbell and other coaches said, for RBI to only be offered to kids entering or already in high school. Some cities, on the other hand, offer the program to middle schoolers.
"Baseball is a really detailed sport you have to work at every single day," Campbell said. "You can’t just come in and score a touchdown."
Expanding RBI to include middle schoolers is "something we've talked about" and would love to do, Beckel said, but "right now our main focus is those high-school-age kids."
A key part of RBI -- as opposed to the growing number of club teams -- is that it's completely free.
But there's a pressure, coaches and players say, for kids to play on the competitive travel teams. And that can be enough to dissuade aspiring players to pick a different sport.
"It's ridiculously expensive," said JC Martinez, head coach at Denver's Manual High School. "And not even just travel teams -- there's side work, hitting clinics."
One parent recently told him they're paying $250 a month for a hitting clinic with a coach. A top-notch glove will run you $200 to $300, a good bat several hundred more. All told, families could be staring at $3,000 to play competitive baseball in Colorado.
"It's kind of a rich kid sport," said Ernesto Marquez, head coach at Denver's North High School.
Local players and coaches lament the folding in recent years of the Police Activities League, a neighborhood-based, affordable league where many Colorado players got their start. The key was that it allowed youth to stay within their communities so they could play with kids they grew up with.
Teams such as the Green Valley Giants and the Park Hill Pirates would boast diverse rosters. Now they're no more.
"It was a great foundation for a lot of kids to play sports," Preston Askew said. "When you play outside of town, playing on a lot of teams where a lot of people didn't look like them, in tournaments and leagues where people didn't look like them -- that's discouraging to some people."
A double-standard in recruiting
Eric Askew and Harris, who coach the Smoky Hill baseball team, at first felt a responsibility to get more Black kids onto the high school team.
The two counted three current players out of 60 on Smoky Hill's roster who are Black, and roughly 10 kids across eight schools in their prep league.
"As a Black coach, you look around and say, 'I wish there were more guys that look like me,' Askew said. "That’s a heavy burden to carry to get 10 guys that look like me."
But there's a double standard at play, he said, even as he acknowledged that it saddens him to see the lack of diversity on the diamond.
"White coaches don't get asked to get more white players on the field," he said.
Campbell, another Black coach, said he wants to serve as an example to Black teens, to show them that it's possible to have a career in baseball.
"Sometimes, though, it's tough mentally to stay the course," he said.
Eric Askew, clad in a black T-shirt that read "1619 our ancestors," believes it's an "unfair promise" to get more Black kids to play baseball, as much as he might want it.
"There’s an ignorance in the Black community that you're gonna be the next LeBron but not the next (Ken) Griffey,” he said.