Digging under the Rock to look at MLB

Chris Rock is a baseball fan. His recent comments on Real Sports reflected a general concern about the state of the game. I agree and disagree with what he said. 

When he said as the world has sped up, baseball has slowed down he is correct. He also said baseball can’t be played the “white way” and be cool. That it can’t be played the way it was 100 years ago. The fact is the game 100 years ago wasn’t played the way it is now. In 1915 the game was faster. Before lighted ballparks games would start at 3:00 p.m., and if the game moved at its current pace half the games would’ve been suspended due to darkness. 

The stuffy “unwritten rules” that are part of the game now didn’t always exist either. Babe Ruth was as big of a trash talker as any athlete in the history of any sport. Opponents also taunted him on the field by calling him n***** lips all the time. Before integration, players would abuse each other constantly with ethnic slurs. The game was pretty rough and tumble back then. There were also teams like the Gashouse Gang Cardinals that played the game in a way that certainly wouldn’t adhere to the contemporary “unwritten rules”. Wherever this stodginess came from and how it evolved, it wasn’t always this way, even in MLB. 

The point is twofold: when baseball was America’s favorite sport it wasn’t played the way it is now; and the “white way” as Rock calls it wasn’t always the way the game was played when the game was exclusively white. Neither is to disagree with his larger point that the game needs to speed up and loosened up. 

Cost is the reason why youth participation is down for kids of all races. When I was a kid, which doesn’t feel that long ago, Little League was like $30 and almost every boy in school played. When baseball season was over we would play other sports or do other things until spring. Now playing baseball is more like playing hockey. Instead of just Little League in the spring, if a kid is serious about playing baseball he plays almost year round. Parents need to spend money on camps, multiple travel teams, and individual instruction. That’s a lot even for a middle-class white family to pay. 

MLB is trying to address this in the inner-cities with the RBI Program. There have been several prominent graduates of the RBI program who have become stars in MLB. RBI won’t meaningly increase the number of black Americans in MLB and baseball will continue to lose African-Americans to other sports for one main reason: the MLB Draft. 

MLB implemented its draft in 1965, long after the NBA and NFL. Before that clubs had to bid against each other for the best amateur free agents. The draft was implemented for the sole purpose of reigning in the amount of money clubs paid in signing bonuses. It took over 20 years after the draft was implemented for signing bonuses to get back to pre-draft levels without adjusting for inflation. 

Now with each team having spending pools in the draft and draconian penalties for exceeding them, the bonus pool is completely disconnected from what a player’s value would be on the open market. Yoan Moncada’s recent deal gives us an indication of what an elite amateur player really is worth when he has leverage and the clubs’ hands aren’t tied. When Catfish Hunter was released by an arbiter from his A’s contract and became the first player to sign a million dollar contract, it showed the rest of the players what they were really worth and they pushed harder for free agency. If only the Moncada deal could have a similar impact. If black kids could get Moncada money, they would be choosing baseball. 

Before bonus pools, and before the draft, the best athletes chose baseball because they would receive a fat signing bonus to do so. Baseball can’t count on the NCAA ever increasing the embarrassing 11.8 scholarship limit for baseball. Even if it did college baseball will always be a regional sport by dint of the calendar and geography.  If MLB wants baseball to be more appealing to kids they need to dig into their wallets. Especially as MLB salaries are only making up about 40% of revenue as revenue reached record levels. If you don’t believe me look at what has happened to baseball in Peurto Rico after it was included in the draft in the early 1990s. 

As far as African-American participation in baseball I don’t know what that number is supposed to be. Blacks make up about 10% of the U.S. population. The number of players from Latin countries seems to be increasing all the time. MLB has several African-American starts like Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, David Price. The fact they’re not well known outside of their communities could also be said about most of the white and Latino star players. That is a problem the new commissioner hopefully will start to address. 

Chris Rock is probably the greatest comedian of his generation. He was trying to be funny while getting his point across. His broad points are certainly true to a degree. The causes are more nuanced than Rock and most realize. 

About Jason Chalifour

WickedLocal homebrew blogger, Recognized BJCP, Newburyport Brewing Event team. Born and bred New Englander. Passions are baseball, soccer, football, basketball, hockey, and all sports really. Sport Management grad that follows sports media, law, and the business of sport.


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