If you’ve read this site for a while, you may have seen my post about a young man named Mendez Elder who plays in the inner-city baseball league I’m involved with. Mendez did attend The Perfect Game National Showcase and I hear he made the most of his opportunity. He was 2-for-4 with a standup triple, a single and two stolen bases. His arm was rated as above average Major League arm playing both Right Field and Catcher. He really made us all proud!
Without organizations like L.E.A.D., however, I fear the number of African-Americans playing baseball at the collegiate level will continue to dwindle. On the rosters of this year’s eight College World Series teams there were just 11 African-American players out of 275 – that’s only 4 percent of players. Why?
We hear a lot of debate about whether college scholarships are sufficient compensation to college athletes or if they should be paid for their performance on the field. What we fail to discuss is the blockade many young men face trying to earn one of these coveted scholarships.
Most of the guys I know who played college baseball spent years playing travel baseball and taking private pitching or hitting lessons. They have the latest gloves, bats, cleats, and custom baseball uniforms.Their parents will tell you they spent thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars over the years getting their son to a level where he could compete for a college scholarship. The last time I posted on this I received responses pointing out the fundraising that is done by most travel teams. However, these teams are not located close enough to the inner-city for most of the young men I work with. Many come from broken homes. Many live on very tight budgets. Their parents can’t drive them out to the suburbs where the travel teams are concentrated because they are working multiple jobs or don’t have a reliable vehicle. That’s not to say they are the only youth with disadvantages to overcome, I’m simply explaining why there was a need in this community for an organization like L.E.A.D.
Back to why the number of African-Americans playing collegiate baseball is dwindling….
Collegiate baseball scholarships are getting harder and harder to earn. The NCAA limits the number of full scholarships in baseball to 11.7, however, the typical team roster is between 25-45 players. In 2008, new rules were adopted that limited the number of players on aid to 30 for the 2008-2009 season and 27 for the 2009-2010 season. Scholarships used to be split into amounts that allowed most, if not all, of the roster players to receive some sort of financial aid. Unfortunately, there was some abuse that caused the new rules to be implemented. Coaches were giving out “tryout scholarships” which lured the player to campus with a small scholarship. The amount was small enough that the coach could cut the player during fall practices without if effecting his bottom line.
Sometimes rules aimed at one problem make way for a new kind of problem. Under the new rules, only 27 players can be on scholarship and each scholarship must be for at least 25% of the tuition, room and board. Compare that to football where 85 full scholarships are available for about 87 roster spots (active and inactive), or basketball where 13 full scholarships are available for 12-15 roster spots. Which sport would you choose to play if you were a young African-American athlete who could only get a college education through an athletic scholarship?
Consider this: the champions of the 2009 College World Series, the LSU Tigers, had two African-American players, neither of whom were on baseball scholarships. Instead, Chad Jones and Jared Mitchell were both on football scholarships.
African-American young men who, like Mendez, grow up in the inner-city simply cannot afford to play travel baseball or take private lessons. Without participation on travel teams or being part of top-notch high school programs, these young men do not develop on the baseball field and/or go unnoticed.
For the young men who participate in L.E.A.D., a revolutionary inner-city baseball organization, college isn’t just a fairytale. It’s something they’re taught they can achieve with dedication to their studies and fine-tuning of their skills on the diamond. These young men aren’t playing baseball to become the next major leaguer. They’re playing baseball to earn a college scholarship – the only way most of them will ever set foot on a college campus as a student.
L.E.A.D. has changed that for quite a few young men in Atlanta by creating the first-ever inner-city travel program that doesn’t cost the participants one dime. The L.E.A.D. Ambassadors play against elite travel teams like nearby East Cobb, a perennial contender in AAU and Baseball America’s “Most Outstanding Youth Baseball Program in the Nation” for the entire decade of the 1990s. In addition to the baseball opportunities, scholarship and community service are emphasized, with 100% of the L.E.A.D. Ambassador graduates being accepted to college since the program’s inception and over 2,000 hours of community service being performed. Since being formed in 2008, 87% of the participants in the program have gone on to earn college scholarships to play baseball while pursuing higher education.
I don’t know the best way to address the shrinking population of African American collegiate baseball players, but I do know I was shocked to learn that they made up just 4% of CWS team rosters. Certainly the story would be different if we looked at rosters for teams in BCS bowls or March Madness. What I do know is that L.E.A.D. is an amazing organization making progress in this area, so I encourage you to check out their website and support their efforts or similar efforts in your community.