"In many ways the minor leagues have already become a myth. College baseball is the future of the game. It may be the solution to our financial crisis."
When Jerry Kindall broke in with the Chicago Cubs fresh off the Minnesota University campus in 1956, he did not need a name.
"They just called me 'the College Player,'" recalls Kindall. "I was an oddity."
Kindall looked around him and found only one Cub teammate who had been to college - Moe Drabowsky of Trinity.
Since then everything has changed.
When Kindall played shortstop for those 1956 NCAA champion Gophers, such credentials didn't cut a bit of ice with the pros. "They looked down their noses at us," say Kindall.
A long way down. College baseball was considered on a par with some obscure Class D rookie league. Sheepsskin and horeshide weren't supposed to mix.
Now, nine years as a big league player and a dozen seasons as a college coach later, Kindall finds himself at the vortex of pro baseball's interest.
Last week Kindall's Arizona University team - the defending NCAA champions - hosted the final game of a series in Tucson against Arizona State. For the third straight day Arizona's 10,000 seat park, largest college stadium in the nation, was sold out. Pro scouts dotted the box seats.
Right now colleges are the major league's chief source of players," Kindall said proudly. What was once a relationship of mutual disdain is now what Kindall calls "a very happy marriage" between college and pro ball.
From the commissioner's office to the board rooms of team presidents to the cluttered desks of general managers, the words "college baseball" are on the tongues of organized baseball's leading citizens.
It is the undeniable direction of the game, they all say, and possibly its salvation in these economic hard times.
"It is one of best kept secrets in sports," chuckled baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn" that 67 per cent of the players on major league rosters last year had attended college.
"I don't know if that percentage can get much higher. But the quality of college players has gone up in all nine years I have been commissioner," said Kuhn.
Even the children of the old minorleague school have become converted to the college way, now that they are fathers themselves. "Colleges are replacing the minors," Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle said flatly. "That's where my four boys are now."
Two schools of thought disagree on why most of baseball's new stars are arriving by the college-to-high minors-to-majors route. Many say college programs are so vastly improved that a year in AAA ball is all it takes to jump from the best college to a major league all-star gaem.
Others say the low minors offer such an abysmal life that colleges are now getting first dibs on up to 80 per cent of the best American players simply by default.
Kindall, naturally attributes the silent college revolution to "enormous improvements in tha last dozen years in travel, publicity, facilities, coaching and schedules."
Certainly the lure of th exotic 150-game-plus schedules of the Sun Belt college powers is a great attraction.
Arizona capped its 93-game regular season last year with a 19-game junket to Holland, Germany and Italy. The Wildcats, playing under a pseudonym, had 50 more games in the Colorado Summer League, then tossed off 25 contests in a regular college fall league.
It is hard for an 18-year-old to pass up the sort of schedule, for instance, that six-time NCAA champ USC offers.
"Our alumni game is kind of impressive," laughed Baltimore rookie Rich Dauer, an All-America at USC in 1973 and 1974. "Tom Seaver, Dave Kingman, Bill Lee, Ron Fairly, Don Buford, Fred Lynn, Jim Barr, Steve Busby and Bill Buckner all showed up for one game.
"We beat 'em."
Others, however, like Houston Astros president Tal Smith, see a different cause-and-effect at work.
"College baseball has grown not so much because college have that much to offer, but because the minors are so disgraceful," he said.
Certainly the shock of going from the sun-tanned blue-jean baby queens of Southern California to the dismal tank towns of that baseball limbo for lost souls - notorious AA ball, the region of dead careers - is a shattering experience.
Dauer's first months out of USC are just a blur he'd like to forget. "Asheville," he recalls that AA stop like an epitaph. "You'd take a 14-hour, all-night bus ride and you get whereever you're going and it's raining and there's no BP (batting practice) and the lights are crummy and the field is bad and, Jesus, you just want to hit your way out of that league as fast as you can."
Dauer came out of high school knowing the minor league nightmare was out there waiting. "I knew they could mess you up a lot more in the low minors," Dauer said. "There's less pressure in college."
"There's no doubt," said Milwaukee president Bud Selig, "that 75 to 80 per cent of American kids are going to junior college or four-year schools at least in part to escape from the low minors.
"They know that when you get a player that is 20 or 21 years old, it's almost impossible to ask him to start in Class A. If he's no better than that at that age, then why did you sign him?"
Whatever the reason, college ball has blossomed at the time baseball needed it most.
The national pastime has always knows it was only as strong as its roots system.
Once players came off real farms. The game at the turn of the century sprang from the pasture diamonds of towns like Humboldt, Kan., and Narrows, Ga., that gave their Walter Johnsons and Ty Cobbs, their Kansas Cyclones and Georgia Peaches.
But, as America urbanized, the tide tide of farm boys receded, their places taken by "farm hands," those toilers in the bush league vineyards.
By 1949 the nation was speckled with 475 minor league teams. Then came television. Another root system began to die.
"There are only 120 minor league teams today," pointed out John Johnson, assistant to Kuhn. "But that's been stabilized for almost 15 years."
At first, college baseball, which last years had 13,350 players in junior college programs and 23,975 playing for four-year schools, was seen as a luxurious adjunct to the minors. Just gravy.
The day may be coming, however when what was once they gravy may have to become virtually the only course.
"The new reserve system - free agents - are a fact of life now, even if we hate it," Steinbrenner said. "Everybody's screaming. 'Where can we replace the money that's being grabbed off at the top in major league payrolls?"
"Cutting player developement costs is the only answer. The Boston Red Sox, a good organization, admit it costs them an average of $500,000 to get one player they sign out of high school to the majors. That's too much. One minor leaguer in 25 gets to the majors."
Throughout baseball, teams are cutting adrift scouts, minor league players and, in cases like the Oakland A's, entire minor league franchises. "Minor leagues and scouting are always the first cuts," said Philadelphia scouting director Jack Pastore. "We're looked on as an expediture, rather than an investment."
Nevertheless, the Phils are one of the six remaining teams with an independent scouting system. The 20 other clubs have amalgamated and trimmed back into the Major League Scouting Bureau.
Perhaps out of self-interest, perhaps out of far-sightedness. Pastore thinks the college baseball swing of the pendulum has reaches its peak.
"THe colleges will never supplant the minors," said Pastore. "People are starting to realize that a lot of lawyers are starving. We've got too many educated people.
"More kids are going to see the minors as a form of vacational training. The cultural fascination with getting a college education is waning.Not every athlete can get into college. In fact, most of 'em can't.
"Except for the very top college and junior college programs in Florida. Arizona and California, schools can't afford to pay a decent baseball coach. The hard truth is that, whether the minors are pleasant or not, they develop a player a lot better than colleges can."
Even if Pastore were right, few in the higher echelons of baseball could afford to try to swing the game back toward minor league player development. Money is the reason.
If Steinbrenner had his way, all of AA and rookie ball would disappear tomorrow. Each team would have only two farm teams. One in AAA for college players a step away from the majors and an A club for high school signees.
"Give money directly to the NCAA to work a baseball scholarship fund," says Steinbrenner, who has hired a college coach, Jack Butterfield, as director of player development. "The majors could contribute $5 million to college and still come out better off."
Last year the major leagues' subsidy to college baseball was $126,000 in the form of contributions to five college summer leagues.
By contrast, one of the minor leagues' best teams in 1976, the Rochester Red Wings, cost their parent club - Baltimore - $275,000 in direct subsidy.
What would the cost to the Orioles have been if the Red Wings had not won the International League pennant, drawn 221,000 in attendance and had a total revenue of $579,000 and had the Red Wings not picked up the tab for the first $450 a month of each player's salary"?
When a team like the California Angels pays $5,4 million (much of it deferred) for free agents, how can it indefinitely absorb the expense of a minor league system that runs $1.5 million a year in the red?
"We better have good years at the gate," said general manager Harry Dalton, chairman of the majors' College Baseball Committee.
Daltons is typical of the baseball executives who see colleges as "as wonderful, important adjunct" to the minors, yet hate the thought of a future - like the situation in Japanese pro baseball - where college ball, a shadow-thin AAA league and the majors are all that exist.
"Baseball is the most subtle of all sports - a combination of raw skills and years of acquired skills," said Dalton.
Yet even Dalton, who called the minors as they exist "bare bones," admits the bushes may have to be pruned even more drastically.
Men like Dalton and Kuhn used to have a cold sweat 10 years ago when Houston's radical president Tal Smith used to parade out his pet idea - complex baseball. "Hothouse baseball," Dalton calls it.
The concept would wipe out all minor leagues except 26 AAA teams. All players below that level would remain in the parent club's spring training "complex" with its multitude of fields, pitching machines and weightlifting gizmos.
In this "hothouse" atmosphere of constant intersquad games, drills, batting and pitching practice, Smith believes the development process would be dramatically speeded up and economized.
"Hell, we don't even ask that all the other teams do it," said Smith. "Just let us out of this archaic minor league concept. Let us have self-determination.
"As it is now we sign kids and after two years we still don't know if they can play. They ride buses, waste time, sit on the bench and sometimes they don't perform under crucial game situation once in a week.
"Baseball is just postponing the inevitable," snapped Smith. "This across-the board payroll escalation is going to force baseball to do something smart, even if it doesn't want to."
The thought of a baseball future predicated on quality college-trained players, plus hothouse products, with only a skeleton AAA minor league, makes traditionalists like Dalton sigh. But even he admitted. "It could come to that. It's a possibility. Economics is our dictator."
For the present, baseball would be satisfied to find a way to put some of its financial clout behind the college game. "We would definitely be willing to spend more money on the colleges," said Kuhn this week.
"If you try to subsidize colleges directly," said Milwaukee president Selig, "your basic assumption seems to tbe insulting. Aren't you saying colleges exist for minor league purposes, as soon as you start spreading the dollars, don't you give yourself a black eye?"
Baseball officials wring their hands about the wrath of the NCAA and what Kuhn calls "the stickiness" of the question.
Nevertheless, USC athletic director Dr. Richard Perry, boss of one of the nation's most successful college athletic empires, would not mind having a few sticky fingers.
"I've never heard of a college turning down a direct gift," Perry said wryly. "Our business school couldn't survive without donations from the United California Bank. What's wrong with baseball subsidizing the same way - not by individual athletics, but by institutions."
By contrats, Arizona coach Kindall said bluntly. "We can stand on our own two feet. I've heard coaches say that the majors should pay their college a $10,000 finder's fee for every player they sign.
"We're not manufacturing baseball players. I think it's good that we're not as big time as football and basketball. Most college baseball coaches have to teach other classes and I think we should.
"We have a relationaship with the pros that gives us credibility as teachers of the game and gives them players of a Class A or AA level. But neither side compromised its integrity yet."
The influence of higher education has done much to rock the venerable boat of baseball, bringing the Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone into lockerrooms where Babe Ruth would now feel like an alien.
But, in the end, college baseball may provide the green and growing new root system the old pastime needs to nourish it through these days of financial pestilence and free agent blight.