A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Editorial: Why Baseball Is Now So White
SAN FRANCISCO — America marked the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut in Major League Baseball a week ago today. The milestone made many people look at today’s professional rosters and wonder why there are so few African American players.
All sorts of reasons were cited, from a lack of current role models to the rise of video games. But as Bay Area cities crank up their Little League seasons this weekend, here’s another explanation. Money.
In the past few years, youth baseball has become a game for affluent suburban kids. It isn’t only the well-groomed ballparks they play on. It’s the personal professional instructors and summer traveling teams that crisscross the nation and “showcase” events where families pay an entry fee of $500 or more so their sons can be seen by professional or college scouts.
The financial pressures restrict most young players, but particularly those in the inner city. We know that there is another model — the Latino players who have become such a big factor in the Major Leagues come from nations such as the Dominican Republic, where baseball is played year-round on every available field as well as in the streets and parking lots.
But with the recent attention on Robinson, the question has been asked: What happened to black baseball players?
Ask a former player like Mike Felder, who grew up in Richmond, played 10 years in the big leagues (two with the Giants) and is now coaching baseball at University Prep, an Oakland charter school where most students are minorities.
To him, the financial change in the game has been mind-boggling.
“My athletic director said he bought us two bats,” Felder says. “One was $125 and one was $250. I said, ’250 dollars? You have got to be kidding me.’ When I was playing, we used the bats we got on bat day at the A’s and Giants.”
Actually, $250 isn’t bad these days. A top-of-the-line bat — with a “carbon reinforced composite handle” — can run as much as $400. A good glove can cost $100 to $200.
And most of the top players have private instructors whose fees can top $75 an hour.
“It is like it has become a necessity out here,” says Bill Piona, who has coached the extremely successful baseball program at Danville’s Monte Vista High School for 20 years. “There must be 50 to 100 guys out here who are making a pretty good living just doing lessons.”
On one hand, that sounds like typical over-the-top parents, and Piona admits to having some qualms about the idea. However, in the case of baseball, a game of specific skill sets and subtle techniques, it can pay off. Let’s look at the other side of the equation on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel.
Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl, who pitched at Rice University and spent two years in the Kansas City Royals farm system, is in his second year as head coach at Richmond High. He can see the difference money makes when he compares a team like Monte Vista with his team.
“I’ve got some incredible athletes at Richmond, but I am teaching them things now, at the age of 15, that they should have learned when they were 8,” Kurtz-Nicholl said.
Piona adds that the best baseball players combine knowledge and technique. “In other sports, if you can run a 4.4 40 or jump 36 inches, you’re going to make the team,” he said. “But you may be all those things and not be a good baseball player.”
To improve, they not only need good instruction, but experience on “traveling teams” during the summer. Those teams, which may charge from $2,000 to $10,000 for the season, not only play all over the nation, they are also likely to attend “showcase” events.
An Iowa-based organization called Perfect Game puts on a tournament in Marietta, Ga., where more than 150 teams attend from the Bay Area and elsewhere in the United States.
“In the old days, scouts and recruiters used to go out and find kids,” says Perfect Game President Jerry Ford. “Now they are seeing 100 prospects in one place, instead of going 100 places to see one prospect.”
What do you expect, says Eric Kubota, director of scouting for the Oakland A’s. “You are talking about spending a lot of money on top draft picks these days,” Kubota says. “The days of taking a raw kid in the first few rounds is from 25 years ago.”
The simple fact is that the showcases, traveling teams and expensive instruction do work. At upscale Monte Vista, Piona says, 50 percent of his varsity team plays on traveling teams. At University Prep, Felder says he doesn’t have a single player on one of those teams this year.
“At one point, we charted the first five rounds of the draft over the last eight or nine years and highlighted every black kid,” says Perfect Game’s Ford. “We found that with the exception of two or three players, every one of them had attended a Perfect Game event.”
That’s the harsh reality for someone like Felder, who is doing a great thing in the community by coaching in Oakland, but knows the deck is stacked against his kids. His goal is to get a scholarship for at least one of them, but that will be tough if they’re not in the traveling-team pipeline.
“The colleges are not coming out after our kids,” Felder says. “And if they don’t see us, we’re not going to get to play.”