Astros' diversity increases since 2005

KISSIMMEE, FL Less then three years later, the makeup of the Astros has changed drastically. Not only could Houston have as many as four black players on its team this season, it has also added several high-profile Hispanic players including Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada and Japanese star Kazuo Matsui.

"We look different, we're diverse, if you think about it," said Cecil Cooper, Houston's first black manager. "It's a pretty significant step. I don't think it was consciously done for that purpose, it was done because they were guys that were right for our team and we went for it."

Most of the changes have come since the end of last season. Houston did not have any black players on its roster full time last year. Left-hander Stephen Randolph was called up from the minors for very limited work because of injuries to other pitchers.

Cooper, who is in his first full season as manager of the Astros, is quick to point out that he'd never pick players based on the color of their skin. He did admit that it would have been strange for him to manage a team with no black players.

"That would look a little different," he said.

The Astros had six Hispanic players on that World Series roster, and one in the starting lineup.

They've long had a strong presence in Latin America. The Astros were the first team to have a baseball academy in Venezuela which opened in 1989 and are looking to upgrade their academy in the Dominican Republic.

Despite this, there was a perception around the league that the Astros didn't want minority players.

Lee, who is from Panama and joined the team in November of 2006, ran into that mind-set when he tried to recruit Hispanic players to play for the Astros at last year's All-Star game.

"It seemed like the Astros had the reputation that they don't carry that many Latinos or black players," Lee said. "Everybody I asked was saying: 'I don't know if they want me here.'"

Count first-year Astros right-hander Shawn Chacon as a player who felt that way. Chacon's mother is Hispanic and his father is black.

"If you would have asked me two, three years ago if I'd play for the Astros if I had a choice, I would have said most likely not," he said. "Simply because of the dynamic of the team.

"As far as being comfortable and as few African Americans as there are in the league anyway, to be on a team and have none it's pretty tough to want to come play for a team like that."

Along with Chacon, the Astros added black players Michael Bourn, Reggie Abercrombie and Wesley Wright this year.

No one in the Astros organization will acknowledge the change is anything other than a positive byproduct of trying to build the most talented team possible.

"I don't view the world that way," first-year Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "I think it just kind of happened. It doesn't matter to me. All I see is talent. I'm not even wired to think of things that way."

However, everyone agrees the declining numbers of black players in the majors is a huge problem. In 1975, the percentage of black players in the major leagues was 27 percent. Last season it fell to about eight percent.

A way to reverse this downturn is to get more young, black children interested in the sport. In a city as large and diverse as Houston, it couldn't hurt to have a team that more accurately reflects the population.

According to the 2000 Census, 25 percent of Houston's residents are black and more than 37 percent are Hispanic.

"You just hope that somebody sees you and thinks they can go out and do it," said Bourn, the starting center fielder who grew up in Houston. "Hopefully it will be a spark for them to go do it. You just hope to see more of it. You can't just think it's going to change overnight. But hopefully you can spark somebody that will spark somebody else."

Cooper hopes young people will not only notice the increased diversity of the players, but take note of the position he's in as well.

"Now young kids can see that there's a chance to be in this role and a chance to make it at this level and I think that's encouraging all the way around," he said.

Lee said it makes sense for the team to represent the diversity in the community.

"I think that's a smart move," he said. "Houston is a mixed city. It's good for the city and good for the team."

While Wade said race was the "furthest thing from his mind" when putting together the team, he too knows the benefits of a more diverse group. He used Tejada, a four-time All-Star from the Dominican Republic, as an example.

"We acquired a middle of the lineup power bat who plays shortstop, but he also happens to be one of the most visible Latin American players in the game," Wade said. "In a community that has a large Hispanic population that has benefits. We don't walk past the fact that any residual benefits a player acquisition brings us is good."

For Chacon a selling point to playing for the Astros was the opportunity to play for a black manager.

"I'm not taking anything away from any other manager that I've played for," he said. "But it's the pride to have somebody in that position with the same background, when throughout the league you're trying to make baseball more popular to young, black kids. So to me that's a huge thing for Houston. It's going to bring a different fan base I think."

Lee probably wouldn't have the problems he had before if he tried his recruiting spiel this year at the All-Star game. But he says there's no need for it now because he's happy with the lineup the Astros have.

He is also encouraged by the increased diversity and said he's enjoyed learning about different players and their cultures.

"We've got people from everywhere," said Lee, who is learning Japanese from Matsui and his translator. "I don't think we have an Australian, but we might soon."

- Send us your sports story tips
- Click here for more sports stories

Copyright © 2021 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.