Commentary

Is Major League Baseball too Hispanic?

Updated: October 4, 2011, 3:13 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

A question occurred Monday around the time Juan Cruz was pitching to Nelson Cruz, which was a half-inning after Alexi Ogando got the Rangers out of a seventh-inning jam and one inning before Neftali Feliz came in to close out the Rays. The question was this: Do young American baseball players understand what they're up against?

[+] EnlargeNelson Cruz
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNelson Cruz lined out in the eighth inning.

Every year, hundreds of American college and high school players sign contracts and head out to go to work in the minor leagues. They show up and find the world doesn't look quite the same. Amateur baseball in this country -- especially college baseball -- could be mistaken for a country-club sport. There are shockingly few minorities and not even much in the way of socio-economic diversity. It's an upper-middle-class world, fueled by expensive travel teams, private coaches and the best suburban high schools.

Counting historically black colleges, a recent study by the United States Sports Academy found that 4.5 percent of college baseball players are black, In 2006, there were just 24 black players in the SEC, a conference that includes eight states with a black population of more than 25 percent.

That's the reality, not a judgment. Baseball has become less enticing to African-Americans, a fact attributable either to diminished opportunity (expense/infrastructure/support/coaching) or the allure of other pursuits (basketball/football). College baseball is by far America's most underrated and under-covered sport, but the racial makeup of participants is no different from women's soccer. Players are often groomed more than developed.

As a big league general manager told me a few years ago, "A dad will spend 25 grand over the years on gear and travel ball without blinking an eye, just so he can sit at the bar in his country club after playing 18 and tell everyone his kid is on a baseball scholarship that might be worth five grand a year."

And when those kids leave home or college and play for money, they find a vastly different landscape. Kids from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela -- to name two countries whose players are exempt from the amateur draft -- show up in droves with little cultural assimilation but a ton of baseball savvy. Major league teams have invested heavily in player development in the DR and other Latin countries, and you can watch that investment pay off in the postseason. It's no coincidence that organizations with some of the best Latin scouting and development systems (Rangers, Yankees, Diamondbacks) are still playing.

[+] EnlargeRamon Ramirez and Shane Victorino
AP Photo/Ben MargotRamon Ramirez, left, and Shane Victorino, center, exchanged words after Ramirez hit Victorino with a pitch in August.

This season, 27 percent of major league players and more than 42 percent (conservatively) of minor league players are Hispanic. Which raises an uncomfortable but inevitable question: Is baseball too Hispanic? It's a sentiment that occupies a quiet but steady undercurrent throughout the game. How else to explain radioman Tony Bruno's decision to use Twitter -- a technology that sits poised and ready to ruin careers -- to call Giants reliever Ramon Ramirez an "illegal alien" after Ramirez sparked an August fight with the Phillies by hitting Shane Victorino?

Bruno's quickly deleted tweet is a byproduct of a small-minded mentality that good old American ballplayers are getting squeezed out by Latin players. I was sitting at a high school baseball summer event a couple of months ago when one dad -- a former big leaguer -- waved his hand toward the field and said, "You watch a big league game, see all the Latins and wonder, 'Do any of these kids have a chance?'" His tone was more admiring than disparaging, but, as the conversation continued, someone else half-jokingly suggested that MLB might want to adopt a limited-foreigner rule similar to those in European professional basketball leagues.

The stories of the kids who arrive from the Dominican after playing years with a milk-carton glove and a tree-branch bat are dissolving into folklore. They might start out that way, but, as soon as they show promise, they're funneled into academies that are run like schools and funded by agents, scouts and coaches. The model is often predicated on advice from big league scouts. There is an emphasis on training and instruction, but very few (if any) games.

[+] EnlargeMichael Ynoa
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuHighly touted prospect Michael Ynoa sat out this season because of arm surgery.

The most funhouse-mirror example of the phenomenon came in 2008, when 16-year-old, 6-foot-7 right-handed pitcher Michael Ynoa signed with the A's for a $4.25 million signing bonus. Ynoa had all the qualities scouts covet -- size, projectability, a plus-90 fastball -- but the most eye-popping aspect of Ynoa's signing wasn't the money or even Ynoa's age. It was this: A product of the academy system, Ynoa had never thrown a pitch in a game.

It didn't matter. He was the most touted Dominican prospect in at least a decade. Billy Beane flew down personally to see him twice. His bonus was a record for a Latin player, but he turned down two larger offers because -- so the story goes -- he liked Oakland's track record of developing pitchers.

(So far, the A's have gotten just three minor league starts out of Ynoa, who had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2011 season. He's still only 20.)

Latin ballplayers are so ingrained in the culture of baseball that it's wild to think it's a problem, but there are indications -- anecdotal and otherwise -- suggesting a chillier climate.

By itself, the Arizona immigration law seemed alarmist, a reactionary one-off. Now, though, comes the Alabama immigration law, raising the possibility of a trend. Despite the vehemence of the public debate surrounding the severity of the Arizona law, the Alabama law is even more severe. For instance, it requires schools to ask about the legal status of children -- and their parents -- if they were born out of the country. And one of the more persistent knocks on presidential candidate Rick Perry in the conservative world is Texas' decision to give in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.

The talking points are similar: jobs, opportunities, benefits.

And if we've learned anything from every baseball book we've read or documentary we've seen, it's this: Baseball can't help but mirror society. So why should this be any different?

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," also available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com