Taijuan Walker stands 6-foot-4, weighs 215 pounds and fires 97-mph fastballs. He is bright, personable and smiles like a 21-year-old in his first week with the Seattle Mariners should: wide and often. He grew up in a single-parent household and played mom and dad for his younger brother and sister when his mother was out serving court summons deep into the night. He is the sort of son who could hear the fear in his mom's voice when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, tell her everything was going to be fine and convince her it was absolutely true.

People at Major League Baseball love this about him. They do. By itself, it's a wonderful story. With another component, however, Walker can become an essential part of the sport's future, symbolic of everything it will spend tens of millions of dollars trying to become.

The vital piece: His skin color.

Walker's father is black and his mother half-Mexican, half-white. He is modern America in 46 chromosomes. And in a sport where not only is the paucity of African-American players stark but troublesome enough to commissioner Bud Selig that he created a task force to address it, the emergence of Walker and Tampa Bay Rays starter Chris Archer, who was born to a black father and white mother, represents what the league desperately hopes is a trend and not an anomaly.

Through Wednesday night, 648 pitchers had thrown in a major league game this season. Only 15 were American-born black players. That is 2.3 percent. On opening day rosters, 8.3 percent of all players identified themselves as black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, a number consistent with levels of the past decade. Prior to that, the last time baseball saw such low numbers was 1960, according to a study published by the Society for American Baseball Research.

While plenty of people see the concern over the declining number of African-Americans in baseball as political correctness run amok, the problem runs far deeper than some purported liberal agenda. The dearth of black ballplayers is a microcosm of a far larger dilemma: After decades of laurel-resting, MLB saw interest in the sport wane. As much as baseball touts its high attendance and staggering revenues, other truths – that pro and college football surpassed it in popularity, that pro and college basketball certainly could make the same argument, and that with options galore the entertainment marketplace struggles with nightly three-hour commitments – make this a serious priority.

View galleryTaijuan Walker
Walker is a member of one of baseball's smallest fraternities. (AP Photo)
There is an assumption in this that goes unspoken: If baseball can bring back African-American youth, chances are it will have captured the zeitgeist of all races. The idea that a population laden with athletes is shrugging its shoulders at baseball, let alone flat ignoring the sport, makes cases like Walker's all the more interesting – and perhaps worth studying to see how to better appeal.

Walker didn't start playing baseball until he was 11. He was more of a basketball kid. All he needed was a ball and a hoop. Walker liked baseball – the Angels, the way Jose Reyes played shortstop, going out on the mound and throwing as hard as he could. He only played a little travel ball, an overwhelming requisite for kids who get drafted or fetch scholarships.