What the MLB committee will find
It's been clear for years that cost of youth game affects participation
The decline in African-American participation in baseball has become an annual parlor game. It works like this: Everybody on the field dresses up in No. 42 jerseys while baseball's cognoscenti stroke their collective chin and ponder why so few people on the field look like Jackie Robinson.
Major League Baseball has decided to address the issue with more than a furrowed brow. In fact, Bud Selig has decided the issue is serious enough to assemble a committee to address it.
That's the good news, and the bad news.
The idea is noble, and necessary. Since 1986, the percentage of African-Americans in the big leagues has dropped more than half, from 19 percent to 8.5. But Selig needs to make sure his committee digs below the surface cultural factors that always dominate this conversation. I can't help but feel a bureaucratic, Olympian approach -- in other words, a committee of the esteemed -- is destined to address the symptoms and not the cause.
If the committee spends six months or a year to conclude that African-American kids don't think baseball is cool because the game is slow and hidebound, with fewer avenues of self-expression and a limited number of marketable African-American stars, then it'll be a noble failure.
The answer is not a Matt Kemp shoe or less time between pitches.
To be sure, there are structural issues with professional baseball that make it less attractive to African-American athletes who might be choosing between it and basketball or football. As Houston manager Bo Porter said recently, the allure of an immediate jump from the amateur ranks to the highest level -- as offered in an idealized version of the NFL and NBA -- makes the prospect of spending three or four years bouncing around the low minors less attractive.
The strange thing is that those structural issues with professional baseball would seem to make it less attractive to young athletes of any color or ethnicity.
The sport does move slower, but why does that make it less attractive to black kids than white kids? There are fewer recognizable and highly marketed black stars than in the NFL and NBA, but is that merely a product of the numbers, a self-fulfilling prophecy? The path to the big time is slower, but why don't more people associated with baseball trumpet two facts -- the number of players who get paid is far larger than the NBA and the money is 100 percent more guaranteed than the NFL?
I see a lot of impressive CVs on the Selig committee -- titles like director and president and former manager -- but what I don't see is anyone who might have an everyday connection to the kids MLB is attempting to attract to the game. Any honest approach to the issue needs to see the problem from the ground up, not the top down.
The committee members need to see the industry of youth baseball for what it has become: A business enterprise designed to exclude those without the means and mobility to participate. Over the past 15 to 20 years, the proliferation of pay-for-play teams in youth baseball -- and the parallel proliferation of parents willing to pay for them and coaches willing to cash their checks -- has had more of an impact on African-American participation than anything another sport has to offer.
It's become standard in youth baseball for parents of supposedly "elite" kids to eschew the riffraff of Little League and cast their lot with travel teams that play as many as 130 games a year. Both preposterous and routine, it's based on the questionable theory that the more you pay and the farther you travel, the better you will become. Longtime big leaguer LaTroy Hawkins said it directly: Baseball in the United States has become a sport for the rich.
This is the root of the issue, one that Selig's committee doesn't seem to be assembled to address. With the possible exception of Southern University coach Roger Cador, most of the esteemed committee members come at the game with either an ethereal or nostalgic viewpoint.
If I were Selig, I would give each committee member a reading assignment: Amy Shipley's fantastic piece in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel on the travel-ball industry. I've seen this world close-up, and it's shaping what baseball looks like in this country. It's contingent on year-round participation -- which either eliminates or severely reduces the possibility of playing other sports -- and a level of parental involvement that often goes far beyond reason.
And like other closed societies, once you get in, it's hard to get out.
Bryce Harper is baseball's version of LeBron James. Starting when he was 9, Harper was paid -- that's right, paid -- to play in the best travel-ball tournaments. Teams that wanted his services would buy him and his parents airline tickets to fly to a tournament. They would pay for a rental car. They would pay for their lodging. It's a model that is repeated with advanced or prematurely mature kids across the country as uber-wealthy team "owners" -- yes, they call themselves owners -- collect trophies and stroke their egos.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Outliers," cites a much-maligned study about the preponderance of elite youth-hockey players who are born in January. Since the age cutoff for most leagues is Jan. 1, the oldest kids in the leagues are often the most developed. From there, the dominoes fall. The oldest boys end up being picked for the most select teams, which have the best coaches, play the best schedules and get seen by the most college and pro scouts.
The phenomenon that takes place in youth baseball is more direct. The kids who can afford to play on the best travel teams get the most exposure -- a word that is the coin of the realm in youth baseball -- and the most direct access to the inside world of showcases and high-profile tournaments. They are the ones with the personal hitting or pitching coaches. They are the ones who enter high school, usually a wealthy suburban high school, with the buzz that makes coaches take notice. They're the ones who are seen by scouts at the $500-a-day Perfect Game showcases attended by more scouts than have seen an Oakland public high school baseball game in the past 10 years combined.
These boys are cultivated like state-fair orchids. They've figured out how to game the system and have the scouts come to them. They're taught from an early age how to impress at a one-day showcase. And if they manage to stay with the sport and ahead of their peers, they're the ones whose families can withstand the prohibitive scholarship limit in college baseball that allows for only 11.7 full rides to spread themselves -- in a miraculous, loaves-and-fishes way -- across 35 players.
The whole system amounts to athletic red-lining. Major League Baseball didn't create it, but it must address it to have any real hope of changing it.
MLB officials thought they addressed this issue with the RBI initiative, which established youth leagues in underserved areas. Jimmy Rollins is the product of NorCal Baseball, one of the most successful, respected and inclusive travel-ball organizations in the country. When he was asked by the New York Daily News about the impact of RBI, he gave an answer that is both piercing and sad:
In 2007, on the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut, I moderated a roundtable on this very issue with Rollins, CC Sabathia and Carl Crawford. Sabathia remembers calling home and telling his friends that his Vallejo High School team could have beaten his Class A team. "We need to get more exposure," he said. Rollins talked about scouts avoiding games in the Oakland Athletic League because they "were not gonna walk up 98th Street."
I recently re-read the transcript and wondered, Who needs a committee?
Of course, there's a fiercely libertarian (or worse) segment of the population that doesn't believe special considerations should be made for black baseball players any more than they should for white basketball players. Let the market do its thing and all that. But baseball isn't in a position to take that approach, nor should it. If you're going to dress everyone up in 42 jerseys once a year to celebrate the courage of Jackie Robinson, it's incumbent upon you to make sure you treat his legacy as something more important than an opportunity for people to slap themselves on the back.
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