It’s Not Really a Market Inefficiency Per Se…

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Late last night (or early this morning, depending on your perception of time and semantics), I wrote about an issue that was well-described in Andrew McCutchen‘s article on The Players’ Tribune.  It doesn’t take too much thinking to realize why it’s so difficult for African-American kids to break into and stay committed to baseball.  The question now becomes how we go about changing this, and while I think McCutchen already covered most of it, I’d like to take a crack at this too.

Right now on the Chicago Cubs’ 40-man roster, there are only three black payers of African-American descent.  These are C.J. Edwards (who is probably going to be in the minors for a while longer), Dexter Fowler (who may or may not stay depending on how this year and free agency goes), and Edwin Jackson (who very likely won’t be a Cub once spring training ends, but who knows).  This is sort of a big deal considering that Chicago has a huge African-American population and you’d think that a team like the Cubs could use a few black players to appeal to that demographic.  At the same time, you have to realize that baseball is a meritocracy and the Cubs can’t just put a guy on the team just to say, “Hey look at us, we’re diverse!” when that player isn’t going to help the team win (insert Edwin jokes here, but he used to be pretty solid, ok?).  Before Edwin Jackson I had to dig into my memory banks and the last black players I could think of other than Billy Williams and the late Ernie Banks was Jacque Jones, before I remembered, oh yeah, at some point Wesley Wright was a Cub too.  That’s pretty bad.  The White Sox probably have it a bit worse on that front, as they don’t even have one African-American player on their roster after the Marcus Simien trade.

McCutchen’s words from the article ring true when considering what an African-American family is thinking when weighing their options:

Many low-income kids don’t have the option of going to college to develop their game and get an education. They have to roll the dice by entering the MLB draft. I had the good fortune to be drafted by the Pirates in the first round, but I spent four years in the glamorous towns of Williamsport, Hickory, Altoona and Indianapolis. A lot of talented kids look at that lifestyle and compare it to the bright lights of Florida State or Ohio State, and they think, “Okay, I could get a free college education and be on ESPN, or I could spend five years eating cereal for dinner and trying to hit a 90-mile-per-hour fastball in Altoona.”

I asked Dan Kirby and Kevin Gallo what the deal was with college education if a high school player is taken in the MLB Rule 4 Draft, and this is what I found out:


I asked this because I had recalled reading from a few signing announcements over the past few years that high school kids could get part or all of their college costs taken care of upon signing with an MLB club, but didn’t know whether they could work out something where they go to college anyway and develop more.  I guess this is similar to the way the NBA and NFL drafts work, where once a kid declares for the draft (though I think he has to hire an agent first) he forfeits his remaining college eligibility.  So to summarize, if you’re an African-American kid, you have these options:

  1. Hope that you’re good enough to be drafted early and get a big bonus;
  2. If not, hope that you can get through the minors very quickly so you don’t get sucked into poverty, because as we all know, minor league players don’t make diddly;
  3. Go to college while incurring student loans, while also keeping in mind that options 1 and 2 can still happen to some degree, but hey, at least you’re getting educated and developed;
  4. Forget about baseball and get a full-ride basketball or football scholarship (even if they don’t get drafted, everything’s paid for, or at least that’s the claim because we know that NCAA is not-so-secretly evil).

And that’s even assuming that the African-American kid got a chance to play little league and/or high school baseball at a level that could even get him noticed in the first place!

I think of a guy like Michael Jordan retiring from basketball and taking up baseball in the White Sox organization.  Jordan was obviously an exceptional athlete, and despite his anemic offense, the fact that he was able to run the bases well and play decent defense while putting up a batting average above the Mendoza line makes me think (maybe erroneously, but bear with me) that other kids with raw talent could get to that point or better with the proper development.

I had my advisory class take a free gym day on Friday, and while the students were obviously very energetic and athletic in playing basketball, their skills were also very raw.  They were playing in a recreational setting and not a game setting, sure, but even though they had the handles and the shot ability, it seemed that many didn’t actually have a plan when they had the ball other than to drive to the rim and hope to get fouled or take a ridiculous three-pointer from 40 feet out.  No mid-range jumper, no backdoor cuts, but now I’m nitpicking because some of these guys are going to try out for baseball and I’ll probably have more legitimate beefs with them as they practice sometime in the next few weeks.  But the point is, there is a lot of untapped athletic potential in some of these kids and it would be really cool if some of them really developed well enough to be noticed.  I know that the White Sox and Cubs scout our players every now and then, too, even though the program is still fledgling since our school is only in its fifth year of operation.

Getting back to a point McCutchen made, Dominican kids and other Latin American kids do get noticed because baseball is the game many of them naturally gravitate towards, and as such a kid will get a nice payday and the attention of a major league club to be developed in the hopes that they become something greater.  I had a half-idea developed in my brain as I finished up last night’s insomnia blog and drifted off to sleep.

The idea is that instead of just RBI, maybe MLB (or a specific club that is interested in taking advantage of an untapped resource) can identify athletic individuals in that demographic early.  This would be like a supercharged version of RBI where instead of just giving kids an avenue to play recreational baseball (though RBI does provide opportunities for showcases and travel leagues), MLB or interested club(s) are actually sponsoring select kids to fully develop like the more affluent kids have.

New MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in his introductory statement:

My top priority is to bring more people into our game — at all levels and from all communities.

It seems to me that a supercharged RBI program to sponsor African-American kids, who demonstrate ability but otherwise lack the opportunity to develop skill, is exactly in line with this part of Manfred’s statement.  And as I said last night, maybe a certain MLB club with smart executives and an eye towards every extra advantage (*cough cough* Cubs *cough*) could get this jump started so black kids will continue to want to play and excel at baseball.  I’ll do my part by telling my students that participating in baseball will reduce the likelihood that their brains get turned into Jello, but I am curious to see what MLB will do to truly revive African-American involvement in baseball.


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About Rice Cube

Rice Cube is the executive vice president of snark at World Series Dreaming. He loves all things Cubs, with notable exceptions (specifically, the part of Cubs fandom that pisses him off). Follow on Twitter at cubicsnarkonia

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