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The percentage of black players from the United States and Canada on opening-day active rosters rose to 8.4 per cent, its highest level since at least 2012.

Major League Baseball attributed the increase at least partly to its efforts to increase baseball youth participation with programs that include Urban Youth Academies and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI).

“It’s been a huge investment for us,” Renee Tirado, MLB’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said Monday. “Obviously growing the game amongst our players is a priority, so that uptick has definitely been from a concerted effort.”

As the 71st anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the major-league colour barrier approaches on Sunday, MLB said the percentage was up from 7.7 last year and 8.27 the previous two seasons.

MLB based its figures on the 750 players who were active on March 29 and did not include the 127 who were disabled, suspended or on paternity leave. The percentage peaked at 19 in 1986, the league said, citing Mark Armour of the Society of American Baseball Research. The league said previous accounts attributing a high of 27 per cent in the 1970s included dark-skinned players from Latin America, according to Armour.

MLB launched the RBI program in 1989, and the commissioner’s office said it served about 130,000 boys and girls last year from the ages of 5 to 18, including 16,648 in softball.

The first Urban Youth Academy was started in Compton, Calif,, in 2006, and others have since opened in Cincinnati; Dallas; Houston; Kansas City, Missouri; New Orleans; Philadelphia; and Washington. Each complex typically has two full fields, a softball field and a youth field, and last year drew 39,728 participants. The goal is to have every team eventually support an academy.

About 150 players who attended the Compton Academy have been drafted and a dozen have reached the major leagues, including Aaron Hicks and Khris Davis. Pitcher Hunter Greene, selected by Cincinnati with the second overall pick in last year’s amateur draft, started at Compton.

“We have all these players that have made it to the major leagues on our outfield wall at the Compton Academy,” said former Los Angeles Angels general manager Tony Reagins, now MLB’s executive vice-president of baseball and softball development.

Twenty per cent of first-round draft picks from 2012-17 were African-American. In another effort to increase participation in more than a dozen youth programs, MLB launched a Play Ball initiative for young players three years ago, shortly after Rob Manfred succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner.

“It’s translating, but it’s a marathon, not a race,” Tirado said.

Despite a crushing Game 7 loss the last time Toronto faced the Boston Bruins in the playoffs in 2013, Leafs players say both teams have changed a lot. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock says the first-round series with Boston won’t be “easy.”

The Canadian Press

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