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SATURDAY, JULY 9, 2005
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Inner-city prep teams struggle for players, too

By Kyle Veazey
DAILY Sports Writer

kveazey@decaturdaily.com 340-2460

The last time you heard of Jim Holifield, he was shaking his head at how his West End High baseball team lost 17-0 at Hartselle in the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs.

Three Hartselle pitchers combined for a perfect game before the mercy rule kicked in after the top of the fifth inning.

It wasn't so much that Hartselle was overpowering. Instead, it was that West End was so dismal.

"I haven't had a problem filling out a roster, (but) I have had a problem filling out a roster with quality players," Holifield said. "We're always gonna have two or three kids that can play with anybody, but getting a solid nine is hard for us."

It's a battle Holifield has fought since he started coaching baseball at the inner-city Birmingham school in 1978. According to the Web site greatschools.net, West End's enrollment is 100 percent black, and 72 percent of the students receive free or reduced price lunches, which is double the state average.

The school's woes are personified on the baseball field, where Holifield has a hard time getting talented students to play. By contrast, West End has had success in other sports: The boys basketball team won Class 6A state titles in 1972, '96 and '97, and the football team, then coached by Holifield, advanced to the state championship game in 1993.

Of the nine baseball-playing Birmingham city schools, only one, Huffman, has its own field. West End has to fight for time to play at Rickwood Field or another facility in Ensley.

Practice is another problem.

Holifield usually converts the football practice field into a makeshift baseball park for in-season practices. He doesn't want to lose the time it would take to bus the team somewhere else.

All of Holifield's problems are a microcosm for the dying game of baseball among inner-city youths, which tend to be overwhelmingly black.

"Inner-city high schools don't focus on baseball," said SWAC commissioner Robert Vowels, whose member schools rely less and less on the pipeline of talent out of Southern inner cities.

Holifield says the problem isn't within the predominantly basketball- and football-playing role models of today's youths. The players aren't playing youth league baseball, and when they choose to play baseball in high school, they're woefully behind.

"By the time some of them graduate, I've usually got some pretty decent players," Holifield said. "But by then, they're gone."

Austin High coach Alan Watkins echoed Holifield. He said many of the blacks who have tried out for his team don't have much experience. Those who do, he said, are turned off by the game. Watkins said he's had five or six black players since he started coaching nine years ago.

"I ask the kids. I talk to them in the classroom and see them every day," Watkins said.

"I try to encourage them, but they tell me they're bored by the game."

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