One college baseball team’s roster has received plenty of attention at the College World Series in Omaha. It caused national television analysts to applaud during their broadcast. It set off an online frenzy of likes and retweets. It endeared the Michigan Wolverines to a host of new fans.
“We just think our roster should look like the United States of America,” Michigan Coach Erik Bakich said on ESPN’s telecast when his team defeated Florida State. “We target a lot of inner-city kids. There’s a lot of great athletes out there. I think it’s ridiculous, the cost of travel ball and some of these showcases. It negates opportunities for a lot of kids. For us, we want to have a diverse roster, and we want to provide as many opportunities for kids all over the country that we can.”
Major league baseball draws athletes from across the United States, Latin America and Asia. But in the college ranks, the game is overwhelmingly white.
According to the NCAA Demographics Database, 90 percent of Division I baseball coaches in 2018 were white; 4 percent were black. Nearly 80 percent of Division I players were white; 6 percent were black.
Even historically black colleges and universities have struggled to recruit African American players. Howard University dropped its baseball program in 2002. Bethune-Cookman, a 19-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion that plays its home games at Jackie Robinson Field, at times this year did not start a single African American player.
But Michigan starts four and has seven black players on its roster. Vanderbilt, another College World Series contender, also has seven.
“It’s a lot of digging. It’s a lot of travel. It’s a lot of time invested by our staff to find these types of players,” Bakich said in a phone interview. “We don’t limit ourselves to the mainstream tournaments and [recruiting] showcases that everybody seems to go to. We try to be as exhaustive in our search as possibly we can.”
Baseball, more than other youth sports, presents significant cost obstacles to families in the way of obtaining even a partial college scholarship. Equipment costs can strain budgets even before fees for travel teams and scouting events, where players compete before college coaches. The sport is harder to play recreationally, requiring adequate fields and requisite number of players.
It’s created a de facto color barrier for players and coaches alike. Edwin Thompson, coach at Eastern Kentucky University, became the ACC’s first black baseball recruiting coordinator, a high-level assistant position, at Duke in 2010.
“I’ve been the first black coach at a lot of places,” said Thompson, who coaches one of college baseball’s few minority-majority clubs and employs three black assistants. “That’s a problem. If coaches don’t come from diverse backgrounds, they’re going to recruit the players they’re familiar with.”
But some of college baseball’s ascendant programs — including Michigan, which until this year had not been to a College World Series since 1984, and Vanderbilt, which until Coach Tim Corbin took over in 2003 had made just three NCAA tournament appearances — are aggressively recruiting minority players.
They have turned to building relationships with the organizers of Major League Baseball’s diversity initiatives for elite high school-age players, tournaments and showcase-style academies that invite some of the nation’s top African American players to learn the game from retired big league coaches and players. Pro and college scouts also are invited to attend.
MLB officials are thrilled with the results: 60 alumni of the programs were selected in the 2018 and 2019 drafts. Big league stars Aaron Judge and Marcus Stroman were part of the earliest classes.
But college coaches largely have shunned the events, said Tony Reagins, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball and softball development. Thompson, from Eastern Kentucky, scouts the programs every year. Frequently, he’s the only college coach in attendance.
“The talent is so rich, I try to promote it myself,” Thompson said. “I tell other coaches, ‘You need to be at these events. There are a lot of great players.’”
“We think we are America’s best-kept secret,” Reagins said.
Bakich is in on the secret, though. His team has built a pipeline from the Amateur City Elite program sponsored by the Chicago White Sox and MLB’s regional prospect development events. Now Michigan will play for a national championship for the first time since 1962 after Friday’s 15-3 win over Texas Tech. The Wolverines are set to meet Vanderbilt in Monday’s College World Series finals. .
“What you’re seeing on the field is guys who are genuinely enjoying each other and genuinely enjoying supporting each other and pulling the rope in the same direction,” Bakich said. “It’s no accident.”