Tuesday, April 10, 2007 | Add another award to Mike Cameron’s baseball bio: San Diego Teacher of the Week, April 15.

Cameron, the Padres’ Gold Glove centerfielder, is raising awareness of Jackie Robinson’s impact on American society and sports when he wears Robinson’s No. 42 Sunday against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium.

The tribute will honor the 60th anniversary of Robinson integrating baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. On the 50th anniversary, No. 42 was retired by all Major League Baseball teams, but baseball is allowing selected players — and the Dodgers’ entire lineup in a scorekeeper’s nightmare — to wear No. 42 on Sunday.

In San Diego, Cameron jumped at the chance to wear No. 42. He understands Robinson’s place in history.

Cameron was a multi-sport high school athlete growing up in Georgia. But when he chose baseball as his future, he went against the trend of the past quarter-century of black kids picking football or basketball.

The percentage of black players in the Major Leagues has dropped from 25 percent in the 1970s to eight percent in 2007. In the 1970s, it seemed every team had a player with Cameron’s athleticism running down fly balls in center field.

Michael Brunker, executive director of the Jackie Robinson YMCA in Southeast San Diego, says he still sees plenty of black kids being exposed to baseball at the youth league levels. But the best athletes aren’t continuing to play by the time they get to the high school level.

“So much of what has happened is related to year-round sports,” Brunker said. “Baseball has become so specialized with the high-profile clubs at the elite level. It’s almost become a niche sport because of the cost. Families are paying for hitting coaches, throwing coaching and club fees. Players from those families are the ones continuing to play.”

The best high school baseball programs these days thrive on kids coming out of club pay-for-play programs with highly developed skills. And, of course, high school is the age when college and pro scouts are scouting talent.

For many years now, high school football coaches have lamented that there aren’t enough cornerbacks to go around because the kids with those skills are playing point guard year-round on basketball teams. So if black kids are choosing between football and basketball, well, that makes baseball a distant third.

Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Tony Clark was a basketball/baseball high school star at Christian and Valhalla, but it’s a double rarely seen anymore since he graduated from high school in 1990. Tony Gwynn also played baseball and basketball at San Diego State and Long Beach Poly, but Gwynn is a decade older than Clark.

It’s a complicated socio-economic development, but I believe another reason is too many kids want to be like Mike — Michael Jordan. They’ve had it ingrained in them by those materialistic Nike and Gatorade television commercials that warp their minds.

Maybe if Jordan’s ill-advised baseball career that ended at the minor league level had succeeded, baseball would have benefited. But Jordan couldn’t hit a curveball.

Jackie Robinson could hit a curveball as well play running back in football, guard in basketball and set national records in the long jump in track. He was projected as an Olympic gold medalist in the long jump while still at Pasadena City College. He went on to become a four-sport star at UCLA.

Robinson took brave stances on civil rights. Jordan has always avoided politics for fear of damaging his marketability.

Mike Cameron is teaching kids this week about being like Jackie.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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