Spring, Featured Column, Column, Baseball

Reviving Baseball Starts At The Youth And College Levels

A kid can’t play more than one sport anymore. At least, that’s how most people feel. In an effort to get a kid to the pros or to college with a scholarship, an increasing number of parents force their children to specialize and focus on one sport around the age of 10. Parents and coaches believe it’s “the best way to produce superior young athletes,” according to Robert Malina, former professor at the University of Texas. After all, unless they have the freakish ability of Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, chances are a child’s best opportunity to make it big can only happen in one sport. Many contest the benefits of this strategy, including those at the Changing the Game Project, who believe that specialization causes more sports-related injuries. The motivation for specialization, however, is justifiable.

And if parents plan on getting their kid into school on a significant scholarship, they better not have them specialize in baseball.

C.C. Sabathia, pitcher for the New York Yankees, said as much in an interview with The New York Times last season. “If I had a choice, I would have had to go to college to play football, because my mom couldn’t afford to pay whatever the percent was of my baseball scholarship,” Sabathia said. “So if I hadn’t been a first-round pick, I would have gone to college to play football, because I had a full ride.”

I don’t mean to knock America’s Pastime. The sport, while declining in popularity, still leads all major sports in attendance. While baseball suffers on national television, it dominates primetime hours in many local markets, such as Boston and Kansas City.

“I’m biased, but I think baseball is the best sport ever played,” Boston College baseball head coach Mike Gambino said. “College baseball is a more accessible goal for many kids than playing in the big leagues.”

But is baseball the most accessible way for a kid to get to college? Look at other big-name sports. To fill a basketball team with an NCAA average of 16 players, coaches can offer 13 full scholarships to athletes. Since basketball is a “headcount sport,” only those 13 players can receive a scholarship, but coaches can give full rides to each of those 13 players. The same is true in football on a larger scale. Of the 116 players on an average team, schools can allot 85 full scholarships to athletes—the other 31, usually walk-ons, cannot receive any grant-in aid from athletics.

One number plagues college baseball: 11.7. Coaches can only appropriate funds from 11.7 full scholarships to fill up 35 spots on a baseball roster. Unlike football and basketball, baseball coaches can give scholarships to each athlete, as long as they offer a scholarship of at least 25 percent. In theory, those coaches could divide that 11.7 by the 35 roster spots—that comes to about 33 percent—and give partial scholarships to each athlete. That’s still a lot of money for the athletes to take on themselves.

Coaches don’t have the luxury of this theoretical situation. Only 27 of a possible 35 players can receive any form of a scholarship. Baseball players receive, on average, the second-lowest scholarships per athlete of any male sport ($5,806), according to a 2008 NYT report. Only riflery has less.

With this disadvantage in the number of scholarships available, baseball coaches struggle to create competitive rosters. In other sports, one player can take a team from middle of the pack to elite, like Ohio State basketball’s D’Angelo Russell. The same isn’t true in baseball, where superstars can’t “make” a team—at both the college and professional levels, baseball clubs rely heavily on strength of their depth. This season, Gambino has used 33 of the 34 men on his active roster, and he doesn’t hesitate to go to his bench even in big situations. For example, utility man Travis Ferrick came in for slugger Chris Shaw in extra innings of the 15-inning loss to North Carolina State because Gambino felt removing Shaw for a faster runner would give his team a better chance of winning. Given the nature of baseball, it just isn’t feasible for coaches to invest a full scholarship into one player.

“To be a really good quality team, you need all 35 guys,” Gambino said. “You need that roster, you need guys all the way through helping you out.”

Because of this system, players, especially those from lower income and minority families, are discouraged from choosing baseball since it doesn’t help get them earn scholarships. For many, there’s no reason to pick a sport that can earn them a partial scholarship if there’s no way the family can make up the difference. On the other hand, football and basketball can offer these kids a chance at a more heavily discounted college education.

But the problems with the sport start at the youth level. The high cost of baseball’s multitude of equipment forces parents to break the bank. Baseball players need gloves, bats, and other gear that totals around $450. For basketball, all you need is a ball and some sneakers.

That’s before taking costs of registration for Little Leagues into account, if any Little Leagues still exist. To get recognized by college and Major League Baseball scouts, kids must play in travel leagues, tournaments, or showcases. Fees for those are extraordinary, totaling around $2,000 per year, according to The Washington Post.

Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfielder and 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen echoes this from his own experiences as an underprivileged kid in an article he wrote for The Players’ Tribune. “When you’re a kid from a low-income family who has talent, how do you get recognized?” McCutchen wrote. “Now, you have to pay thousands of dollars for the chance to be noticed in showcase tournaments in big cities. My parents loved me, but they had to work hard to put food on the table, and there wasn’t much left over.”

This has made baseball an upper-class sport. Although nothing can pinpoint a decrease in the economic demographic of the sport, many statistics indicate a further widening of the racial divide in baseball. The number of black players in the MLB dropped to 8.3 percent in 2014, less than half its peak in 1986 of 19 percent, according to the NYT. It’s most notable in the college game, where black players make up less than half of that (4.1 percent), according to the most recent statistics provided by the NCAA from the 2009-10 season. MLB is doing its part to help out, developing an initiative to offer additional scholarships to prospective baseball players, especially minorities. Adding enough scholarships to match the roster size of a college baseball team would be the best, and easiest, way for the NCAA to begin reform. Yet Title IX may restrict this attempt, unless a balanced amount of scholarships are offered to female athletes.

As Little League dies out in favor of expensive travel leagues and the gender-equity hurdle for adding baseball scholarships, the best chance for helping these kids comes from organizations designed to train young players from minority and low-income families. The largest of these initiatives, the MLB-sponsored initiative Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) has yet to show its effectiveness. A big part of that is a lack of exposure, according to Charles Saunders, a coordinator for RBI in Pittsburgh, in an interview with The Pittsburgh Tribune. Kids either don’t know about the program or scouts don’t pay enough attention to the talented players that come through it. It’s not to say it’s without its success stories—many players, such as professional pitcher James McDonald, have come through the program. Yet many don’t find it’s enough to solve the economic inequalities inherent in the game. Los Angeles Dodgers’ Jimmy Rollins, a black player, replied with a curt “whatever” when The New York Daily News asked him about the issue.

But Gambino thinks hope for baseball starts with developing these groups. He promotes The BASE, a Boston-based program founded by Robert Lewis, as something MLB should use as a model. Although Lewis was unavailable for comment, Gambino praises his work in transforming the lives of young baseball players—last year, all 20 of Lewis’ boys matriculated into college, according to the program’s website. Lewis prepares his players to compete at the level of travel teams with his intensive baseball and softball academy. Additionally, Lewis readies his student-athletes to succeed academically, offering SAT Prep and college counseling, among other scholar-driven benefits. And with programs like Lewis’, Gambino believes baseball can help create better young men.

“One of my favorite lines that [Lewis] always says is: ‘if you think we’re just teaching baseball, you’re missing the point.’”

Featured Image by Michael Sullivan / Heights Editor

March 30, 2015

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