If you listen to enough MLB broadcasts with the sound actually on, at some point you’ll hear a talking head with a mediocre hairpiece bemoan the lack of minority representation in the sport. In keeping with that narrative, they are obligated to mention baseball is losing many such athletes to other sports. If the sport suffers as a result, then it’s worth investigating, but it really shouldn’t be too difficult to understand, because the premise seems reasonable enough. If someone (minority or not) excels at another sport in addition to baseball, why on Earth would they choose to pursue a career in baseball?
Consider those interested in going the student-athlete path at All Super Sports University which may or may not be a fake name I made up just now. All Super Sports University (ASS U) has an NCAA Division I baseball program that can offer up to 11.7 scholarships spread out over 27 recipients. Its football program is an FBS member, so it can offer up to 85 scholarships which are all full rides. The basketball program can offer up to 13 scholarships, and again these are all full rides.
A great multi-sport athlete can take a scholarship from football or basketball and then play baseball as well, but ultimately allegiances tend to lie with whichever sport is paying the bills. Money talks, and the money at the college level isn’t in baseball.
The alternative in baseball’s realm is for a player to take a tiny signing bonus and slide headfirst into the luxurious world of A-ball roadtrips and a well-documented baseball vagabond lifestyle that leaves pretty much everything to be desired. Being a scholarship athlete at some random made-up university may not be the path to true enlightenment or happiness, but there is potentially a college degree and a career in or outside of professional sports at the finish line.
Financially, minor league baseball could very well be the least prudent choice when weighed against going to college or a career as a semi-successful subway busker. For the necessarily risk-averse or those who simply need to cash in as soon as possible, baseball is not the likely answer.
MLB teams have the power to change that, and in doing so could improve the quality and diversity of its athletes. Finance it, and they (meaning everyone) will come. Let’s say that each team has roughly 200 minor league players stretching from the lowest tier to AAA. If teams increase their minor league salaries an average of $24,000 a year, it would cost roughly $4.8M to upgrade an entire minor league system enough to all but eliminate hardball poverty.
An extra $2,000 per calendar month won’t solve all minor league ills, but it would potentially open the door for more athletes to chase baseball dreams instead of opting for the sadly greener pastures of the sports-academia hybrid universe. At the very least, those already chasing those dreams could do so year-round instead of in-between double shifts at their local grocery store. Why wouldn’t teams want to invest enough to make sure they are getting the most out of their employees?
The obvious answer is that they don’t have to, because they are doing just fine. That’s basically true for some, but it isn’t universally applicable, and I’d argue that struggling teams have greater incentive to improve their talent pipeline than largely successful ones do. The former have a competitive incentive to better as a driver for financial success. The latter has financial success, but they still have some incentive to maintain that success or enhance it through competitive advantage which can be driven by smarter investment.
Also, we’re just talking about $4.8M which is a creepy mascot’s teardrop in the respective buckets of team revenues.
If it’s a risk/reward thing, then that’s an easy case to make. At an extra $4.8M per year, a team only needs a little over half a win in terms of wins above replacement to come from a player who otherwise wouldn’t have had an opportunity. That means if the upgraded system kicks out a decent bench player or serviceable middle reliever every couple years, the cost gets offset by the on-field production. Even if that doesn’t happen, then I’d still argue that it’s a smart bet that increasing inclusion results in a better, more talented system over time than the current one does.
That’s because there is an argument to be made that improving talent by improving salaries will have a reinforcing effect throughout the entire organization. Better talent means better competition, and better competition means better context for evaluating players. Better or simply more meaningful player evaluations mean greater potential for maximizing value, because teams get a better idea of how a player’s skills translate to competition at higher levels. How is that a bad thing?
For a fraction of the cost of a two-bedroom apartment at One Cardinal Way, a minor league player’s dream of playing professional baseball and being able to eat off the dollar menu at McDonald’s could be realized.
Again, money talks, and it sounds the same to pretty much everyone regardless of race. Spending the extra money to make some noise is both good public relations and smart baseball.