Every Jackie Robinson Day brings about a reexamination of the diminishing number of black America players in major league baseball. Unfortunately, some misguidedly present the issue as a residue of racism. We’ve seen Gary Sheffield and Torri Hunter both imply that baseball teams are willfully using Latin players to phase out the black American athlete. Of course, even if this was true, the exact same thing could be said about white American players. After all, while the number of black American players has declined from 17.8% in 1990 to 10.2% in 2008, according to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, the number of white (mostly American) players has also declined from 70% to 60.4%.
Making up the lion’s share in the decline of white and black American players has been an exponential increase in the number of Latino players. At 27% of the major league talent pool, the number of Latino players has more than doubled since 1990. Also, Asian players have carved out a 2.4% segment of the pool after not being represented in 1990.
What makes the racism angle so dicey is that many of the Latinos playing baseball are, in fact, black. It seems kind of odd to deny them this distinction based on their country of origin. It would be like not considering Jason Bay and Justin Morneau as white because they are Canadian. For some reason, however, many in the game and media have felt the need to make the separation. So, players like Robinson Cano, David Ortiz and Vladamir Guerrero are not considered to be black. Nonsensical suppositions like that only serve to cloud an already complicated issue.
In order for baseball to really address the decline in black, and yes even white, American players, we need to get past the smokescreen of race. Instead, our focus should be on talent, namely how can baseball ensure that the highest percentage of the most talented athletes in the largest number of countries are playing the game. Baseball shouldn’t really care what color skin its players have, but it definitely should be concerned if a segment of athlete is not playing the game.
Now, the question becomes, does MLB want to put its money where its mouth is? Tributes to Jackie Robinson and initiatives like RBI are all very useful, but they really don’t scratch the surface of the issue, which is investment in player development. To fully address that issue, however, baseball has to do something revolutionary…it has to either discontinue or significantly revamp the Rule IV draft.
The Rule IV draft was instituted in 1965 as a means to prevent larger market teams (mostly the Yankees) from either hording talent, or using surrogate teams to circumvent bonus rules that required players making a certain salary level to remain on a big league roster (for years, the Kansas City Athletics were referred to as a Yankees’ minor league team). At the time, most of the players were drafted out of high school, so there really wasn’t a noticeable impact on the kinds of players entering the league. With integration fully taking hold, the percentage of black American players jumped to nearly 30% in the 1970s.
However, by the late 1970s, baseball teams starting looking to college for draftees. Why? Because those players were further developed and required less investment before reaching the majors. What’s more, college-drafted players were developing a stronger track record than their high school counterparts. As a result, the shift began and by 1978 more players were drafted from college than high school. Unfortunately, because black Americans were underrepresented on college campuses across the country (a larger social issue that still exists at many colleges today), this was the first trend that began the decline of their representation in baseball.
In addition to looking at college players as a way to avoid development costs, major league teams also began to invest heavily in Latin American scouting. After years of having American players hone their skills in the winter leagues of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, MLB teams began to mine them for talent. Eventually, MLB teams established local academies with the sole purpose of finding, developing and signing players. Compared to the relative costs of signing American-born draftees, international development became an attractive alternative. As a result, foreign born players now make up approximately 28% of active major league rosters and nearly 50% of minor league rosters.
So, where does that leave us? For starters, it is not a bad thing that baseball is becoming a more international sport. It is, after all, the American past-time, and America has always been a nation of immigrants. Having said that, it is in baseball’s best interest to make sure it is not neglecting black (and white and Hispanic) American athletes. So, the question remains, how does baseball re-connect with them? Why not, for example, develop domestic academies, as Ian O’Connor suggests when he asks why the Yankees and Mets are not investing in the New York inner city?
Well, the answer is simple: because of the Rule IV draft. In many ways, the Rule IV draft has placed American athletes at a disadvantage. While international free agents have the opportunity to sign with whichever team they please, American-born players are stuck at the mercy of the draft. Similarly, because MLB teams can exercise greater control over the players they develop in their academies, they are more likely to invest heavily in them. On both ends of the spectrum, the American athlete gets the short end.
We’ve also seen the same story play out in Puerto Rico. Curiously, the number of players hailing from Puerto Rico has slowly declined to 21 since peaking at 54 in 2000. Starting in1989, players born in Puerto Rico have been subject to the Rule IV draft, so the delayed impact of that change could very well be the reason for this downward trend.
One way to even the playing field would be to establish an international player draft, but that could result in fewer Latin American players involved in the game. In other words, the playing field might be level, but it would be lower across the board. Therefore, the implementation of a draft structure that discourages the development and recruitment of foreign born players could wind up having a serious detrimental impact on the quality of play.
Instead, MLB needs to attack this from the other end. It could either abolish the draft completely or develop a system that would give teams certain rights when dealing with players graduating from their academies. I am definitely not suggesting that teams be allowed to sign 14-year olds to indentured contracts; but rather, they could be given certain lesser privileges, such as the right to match offers or exclusive negotiating windows.
For those who fear that these changes would only serve to strengthen large market teams, it should be note that trend has not played out in the international market. Just this off season, we’ve seen the Royals, Reds and Blue Jays make the biggest international free agent splashes by signing, Noel Arguelles, Aroldis Chapman and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. If anything, abolishing the draft would force teams like the Yankees to choose between spending on major league free agents or jumping into the amateur pool (whereas now, it is easier for them to be involved in both). For example, while the Yankees spend $20mn per year on C.C. Sabathia, the Royals could handout 10 $2mn contracts to top level amateur talent. Because teams like the Yankees are more inclined to seek proven talent, smaller market teams could drill down into the amateur market with more efficiency.
Whatever the system, what can’t remain is the status quo. Unfortunately for baseball, it has very steep competition for American athletes…not from the NFL and NBA, but instead the NCAA. The instant fame and gratification offered by college football and basketball is far more attractive than riding buses in the Florida State League. The only way MLB can overcome this disadvantage is to focus on early development, and the best way to accomplish that is through the abolition or radical redevelopment of the Rule IV draft.