Andrew McCutchen in the Country of Baseball How high-priced travel ball is excluding poor blacks from the MLB
Andrew McCutchen in the Country of Baseball How high-priced travel ball is excluding poor blacks from the MLB
It starts with a man walking to a park to watch a baseball game. He doesn’t know why, other than the park is near his house. He has no connection to anyone on either team. He’s there for the most basic of reasons: It’s something to do.
He figures this is where he belongs. He coaches a team that plays in this park, Peterson Park in Lakeland, Florida, and he feels fullest when he’s on a ballfield. And so here he is, sitting in the clamped air of a central Florida summer watching what he comes to learn is a Dixie Youth League All-Star game. The kids are unremarkable, except for a 12-year-old on the team from Fort Meade, a rural speck on the map about 25 miles up the road.
It’s 17 years later, and Jimmy Rutland is standing on the spongy grass of Peterson Park, pointing out the exact spot where he was sitting the night he first saw Andrew McCutchen. “I don’t think Drew even did anything that game,” Rutland said, but he was drawn to the ease of movement, the gentle manner, the way his teammates drew to him like he was already famous. Rutland sits in the metal bleachers where he sat 17 years ago, looking out onto the empty field like he’s watching that same game all over again. “I just saw something in him,” he said. “Something in the way he carried hisself.”
Rutland, at 68, is fond of calling himself an old man, and he’s the kind who wears his regret in his eyes. He’s quick to disparage himself, joking about living a quiet life without the burdens of money, but he’s got something nobody else does. He sat down on a metal bleacher in a Little League park one day, for reasons he’ll never know, and walked out with the greatest story he’ll ever tell.
The story Rutland tells isn’t an uncluttered fable. It would be easy to mistake it for a great triumph of the human spirit – Blindside dressed in a baseball cap and spikes – but that would reduce it to caricature. White man saves black kid? Nobody involved sees it that way, least of all Rutland.
“I don’t even know why I was there,” he said again. “But I’m sure glad I was.”
His voice is a tired whistle, the words muffled slightly as they travel through his gray mustache. He’s wiry and small, and in his movements you can still see the kid who could climb any fence and accept any dare. Even at his age, he’s got a mischievous air that makes “Jimmy” seem perfect. It’s difficult to think of him as “Jim.” “James” is impossible.
If you want to know how much times have changed, he’ll tell you about being offered a college basketball scholarship even though he didn’t play on the high school team. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and went to Korea instead. His bunkmate in basic was a black guy from Atlanta named Ernie C, and the two of them did the White Men Can’t Jump routine whenever they weren’t wondering what indignity would befall them next. “We won a lot of money on the basketball court,” Rutland said. Korea wasn’t bad, either, mostly because it wasn’t Vietnam. “I think about how lucky I am all the time,” he said. “I just don’t think I could have killed a man.”
He went home to Lakeland and worked for an auto-parts company, among other things, but he found his passion teaching girls his daughter’s age to play fast-pitch softball and boys his son’s age to play baseball. He never cared where the players came from or what they looked like, a trait he attributes to Ernie C. When Rutland’s son, Chris, was playing in the Lakeland City Baseball league, Rutland tried to persuade the board to bring in the kids from predominantly black North Lakeland. “They didn’t have anywhere to play,” Rutland said in a way that makes you think those are the six saddest words he can string together. He gets quiet and looks toward right field. “The people here …” He stops, thinks better of whatever was going to come next. He pulls on the bill of his Florida Gators cap and said, “They just weren’t interested, is how I’ll put it.”
That night in the bleachers he watched that small kid from Fort Meade – maybe not so much small as condensed – and started asking questions. What’s his name? Is his family here? By the fourth or fifth inning he had found Lorenzo McCutchen – to that point, the only coach Andrew McCutchen had known – and started his sales pitch.
“I’d like for your son to play on my AAU team,” Rutland said. “I see a lot of potential in him.” Lorenzo McCutchen knew the potential quite well, considering he’d been the one fostering it through his son’s first 12 years. Rutland gave him a couple of names and numbers for references, and when he was finished, Lorenzo McCutchen thanked him and said, “Travel ball isn’t in the budget at the present time.”
Lorenzo McCutchen came about his practicality organically. He left college, where he was a running back on a Division II national champion at Carson-Newman University, and returned to Fort Meade to marry his girlfriend Trina after they found out she was pregnant with Andrew. He went to work in the central Florida phosphate mines, and the first day on the job he was taught a lesson in economics and geology. “This mine has 20 more years, tops,” his boss told him. “So you need to start looking for your next job now.” They call the area Bone Valley because dinosaur bones turn to phosphate, and generations of families like the McCutchens have learned to view the land the way a butcher views a carcass. They still live here, four generations of McCutchens within four blocks. Lorenzo McCutchen still coaches Dixie Youth League baseball and works as a youth pastor with boys from age 9 to 17. Trina McCutcheon does the same with girls. There’s still work to do here, and the land just won’t leave them alone.
There’s regret in his eyes, too, regret that’s tinged with pride when he said, “Andrew used to be known as Lorenzo’s son. Now I’m known as Andrew’s father.”
My A 1 since Day 1. Happy Father's Day pic.twitter.com/YVTLwT2rjT
— andrew mccutchen (@TheCUTCH22) June 19, 2016
Rutland sat in the bleachers that night and told Lorenzo McCutchen he understood the cost of travel ball: gas, hotels, meals, tournament fees. And this was before the travel-ball model began asphyxiating the local leagues and parents starting believing they had to fly across the country at least three times a summer to make sure their sons were seen by the right people in the right places. The Lakeland Roadrunners, with their cheap mesh jerseys and store-bought white pants, were low-key. Rutland was about baseball, not appearances.
“I’ll tell you what,” Rutland told Lorenzo McCutchen, making it up as he went along. “Your son needs to get out there. If you get him to Lakeland, I’ll take care of the rest.”
Rutland had no idea how this would work out, but the optimist in him figured it would. Rutland didn’t have any money, as he surely doesn’t now, but there were kids on the team whose parents did have some, and Rutland figured he’d spackle in the rest on fundraisers and faith. It was a decision like many in Rutland’s life: quick, generous and not rigorously considered.
“I told people back then, I think this kid can make it to the major leagues,” Rutland said. “He just seemed to have everything.”
McCutchen went on to play on Rutland’s team for three years. One of the fathers on the team, an orthopedic surgeon, bought him his first new glove. Lorenzo McCutchen helped Rutland put on tournaments and car washes to raise money for the Roadrunners. To view McCutchen’s journey from Fort Meade through a Hollywood lens requires a willful refusal to address how incongruous it was. And while it’s easy to view McCutchen’s journey from Fort Meade to national stardom through a gauzy lens of community and sacrifice and the ever-adaptable American can-do spirit, it’s also insane how easily it could have turned out differently. Given the almost systematic structures in place to exclude people like McCutchen from the highest levels of youth baseball, his ascendance is the butterfly effect in a minor key: a man named Jimmy walked into a ballpark in Florida and 17 years later Andrew McCutchen is a perennial All Star-and former MVP.
Sitting here with Lorenzo McCutchen and Rutland, with McCutchen making $13 million a year as a center fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, it seems almost laughable. What if Rutland hadn’t walked to Peterson Park that night? What if Lorenzo and Trina McCutchen decided they didn’t want their son traveling around the state every weekend with strangers? The Rube Goldberg-level chain reaction that needed to transpire for McCutchen to emerge from the white dust of Bone Valley to become one of baseball’s most marketable and talented players makes it seem more like a divine revelation than a rational process.
“You got him started,” Lorenzo McCutchen told Rutland. “No way we would have been able to do it without you.”
Rutland thinks about this for a moment and said, “You know what, Lo? I think I just got lucky and saw him before anyone else.”
McCutchen felt out of place, isolated. One weekend in one Florida city, Fort Myers, the next in Orlando, then Sarasota and Vero Beach after that. “People running the tournaments go where the money’s at,” he said, sitting at his locker in PNC Park in Pittsburgh. “The money isn’t in Fort Meade, Florida.” He slept on the floor or couches of hotel rooms, sometimes with Rutland and his son, other times with whatever family had room. His parents always sent him off with a few bucks in his pocket, enough to eat at McDonald’s but not enough to help with the cost of hotels, gas or tournament fees.
“I couldn’t be comfortable because I was never home,” McCutchen said. “For a weekend tournament I had to pack up and live with a family that wasn’t my own. The next weekend I’d be staying with another family, trying to get comfortable there. My parents can’t come to these tournaments – they have to work to pay bills. The families were great, but it wasn’t easy.”
I ask if he saw many people who looked like him.
“Are you meaning black people?” he asked. He is not here for quaint construction. The tone in his voice reflects a leap of several vocal registers, and the look on his face says: Are we really going to talk like this?
“Yes,” I said, chastened. “Black people.”
“Of course there weren’t black people,” he said. “That’s not the game of baseball. There aren’t many African-American kids in the game. No different down there in Florida than here. It’s parents and families that can afford it, and we all know the numbers. The kids who can’t afford it? You may have one or two. They might be black or white or Hispanic. Doesn’t matter. And they’re there because they have talent and someone else is taking care of them. There aren’t many people who were in my situation, regardless of color.”
Dusty Baker’s son, Darren, is a Cal Berkeley commit who plays for NorCal, one of the most well-respected and inclusive (Jimmy Rollins, Dontrelle Willis, Tyson and Joe Ross) travel teams in the nation. Cost for one summer, including travel, team dues and tournament fees: $5,500. “How many people can do that?” Baker asked. And one day last summer, driving home from a tournament, his son asked, “Dad, do you think I’ll ever get to play with any black dudes?”
Maybe not in college, Darren, where the dugouts look like frat row at an SEC school. Roughly 70 percent of players drafted are college players, and a study by University of Nebraska-Omaha researcher David Ogden showed that black players comprise just 2.6 percent of Division I rosters. Black players are a minority even at many historically black colleges and universities. On April 15, UCLA wore throwback jerseys, caps and special spikes to honor Major League baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson’s days as a Bruin. They’re proud of him there, of course, where they play their home games in Jackie Robinson Stadium, and where they boasted precisely as many black players on the 2016 roster – one – as there were when Robinson played in 1939.
Stricter NCAA academic standards set to begin in the fall could further erode the meager percentage of black college baseball players. C.J. Stewart, a former minor-league player who runs the L.E.A.D. Academy in Atlanta for inner-city youth and high school baseball players, said higher admission standards and a loss of scholarships for poor academic progress ratings (APR) could drop the percentage of African-American players in Division I baseball to 1 percent within five years. “Once that happens, we’ll start peeling back the layers to see that those are the ones coming from private schools whose dads played in the big leagues or are doctors and lawyers,” said Stewart, whose work as a hitting coach includes training Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler. “It’s not even intentional, but it’s institutionalized racism. It’s crazy to ask a college coach to recruit a black kid with new requirements for APR. You lose scholarships if kids don’t perform in the classroom. When you’re a coach and you’ve got to get them in and graduate them to keep your scholarships, you’re doing the right thing by recruiting the kids that come through the established system. I commend these coaches.”
There’s little question that heightened academic standards and increased scholarship punishments for college baseball programs will amount to unofficial – and, again, unintentional and perhaps inevitable – redlining of poor and low-achieving high schools in rural areas and inner cities.
“The way the system is set up,” Stewart said, “if you’re a black kid, you’re crazy for trying to play baseball.”
It’s difficult to address race in baseball without preparing to dodge the reflexive trope that is launched indiscriminately and without much aim. Why does it matter if blacks don’t play baseball? Why not address the lack of whites in the NBA? Because it’s different; poor and even middle-class kids of all races are denied access to the higher levels of youth baseball because of the exorbitant costs. White kids can play basketball as much or as little as they want; the lack of white Americans in the NBA has nothing to do with being able to find – much less afford – a team.
And maybe Rutland’s been right all along. Maybe someone else would have found McCutchen and he’d be precisely where he is today. But then again, maybe McCutchen would have veered toward football, where the lights are brighter and the attention of the Fort Meade community is more focused. He played varsity football his first two years in high school – “He was something else,” said Henry Grace, a former teammate, “he’d catch three touchdown passes every game and drop five” – but he tore an ACL turning the corner on a jet sweep his sophomore year and decided he could no longer risk his baseball career by playing football. And without that injury, maybe he wouldn’t have spent the summer after his junior year playing for Team Florida, crushing the best high school pitching in the country and chasing down fly balls with the smoothness and certainty that made him a first-round draft pick.
“By the luck of an ACL injury,” McCutchen said, “I’m playing baseball.”
When McCutchen played for Rutland’s Lakeland Roadrunners, his father attended as many games as possible, which wasn’t as many as he would have liked. Since he couldn’t afford to stay in hotels, the time commitment to drive to and from a far-off tournament was considerable. “I remember squeezing my 10 dollars to get into the game and seeing the doctors and lawyers with their rolls of money paying for the weekend pass,” he said. “But money can only take you so far. I knew on the field I had a good product, you know what I mean?”
Lorenzo McCutchen laughs, a booming, joyous laugh. Rutland laughs, too, because Rutland – more than anyone else – knows absolutely what he means. But there’s something unsettling about his admission that he, because of his financial situation, and his son, because of his race, felt that they were gatecrashers. And there’s something borderline repellent about a father having to scrape together the money it takes to get inside a ballpark to see his son play youth baseball. The idea that simply watching your 13-year-old son play a game can constitute even the slightest economic hardship was unimaginable before the advent of the youth-sports industrial complex.
The conversation makes it seem as if each one of them – Lorenzo, Jimmy, Andrew – got away with something, as if who should play and what the game should look like is being dictated by unseen forces, and the only way for a kid like McCutchen to break through is to be so obviously superior that nobody would think to deny him.
Which brings up an obvious question: Did they ever sense racism?
Rutland looks across the table at Lorenzo McCutchen, who opens his hand in a gesture that appears intended to both yield the floor and grant permission. “I’m trying to be as honest as I can,” Rutland said. “I think there were a couple of parents where it was. Just being honest.”
“We tried to protect Andrew,” Lorenzo McCutchen said. “We never said, ‘They don’t like you because you’re black,’ but we knew. Trust me: We knew.”
Perfect Game is baseball’s reigning pageant king. The company hosts tournaments and $600-a-weekend showcases (travel expenses not included) and bills itself as “America’s Largest Scouting Service.” On its website you’ll find an endorsement from Yankees GM Brian Cashman, letting parents know that PG events “are followed closely by our scouts.” Perfect Game sells – and delivers – exposure to scouts and college coaches, as well as the all-important “PG Grade” that is attached to a player’s online profile like a bar code. (The Royals’ Eric Hosmer once told me his goal in high school was to achieve a perfect 10 score from PG; he did, as did McCutchen.) Showcases, less obviously, sell parents and players on the idea of autonomy; you don’t need a coach with his political agenda and clot of biases hindering your path. At a showcase event, you don’t even need teammates obscuring your worth with their various inferior qualities. You spend a day running, throwing, fielding and hitting, and at the end an expert – along with a stopwatch and a radar gun – will issue an apolitical ruling based on the facts at hand.
The travel-ball/showcase model has created a system that serves as a de facto clearinghouse for prospective college and pro players. Scouts and college coaches attend the high-level showcases, even as they decry their existence. “If we don’t go, someone else will,” Athletics scouting director Eric Kubota told me. “It’s fear of missing out.” Why head out to a high school game to see one prospect when you can hit a showcase or high-level tournament and see more than 100? The travel-ball/showcase model has changed scouting; the job still entails finding players, but now the players pay to come to them.
Perfect Game’s WWBA National Championship in Georgia charges a $2,750 entry fee per team. Games are played over two weeks at 34 different ballparks, and last year 336 teams participated. (Here’s the math: $924,000 gross, before admission fees and concession revenue and rent from the countless vendors who hawk gear at each park.) There are showcases specifically for underclassmen, and others are marketed to the more academically inclined. Oftentimes lower-cost, one-day showcases – Baseball Factory is at least named honestly – are a back-alley way of recruiting players for costly travel teams.
“When someone looks at us they think everything we do is to make money,” said Jerry Ford, CEO and founder of Perfect Game. “I can’t deny that. We’re in business. We have 70 full-time employees and others part-time. Of course we have to make money. But we can find those Andrew McCutchens, playing for someone where you don’t need a small fortune to play baseball. Andrew has brought up a very legitimate point. We’re just as concerned as anybody else is. The commissioner’s office is concerned. Sometimes solving those problems isn’t as easy as recognizing them.”
Local baseball, town baseball, rec baseball – all have become pejoratives, ways for kids and parents to draw a distinction between those who are committed to the sport and those who are not. Over the past 20 years, youth baseball in America has become an endless flow of kids with $300 bats slung into $100 bat bags carrying $100 shoes walking into weekend tournaments that charge roughly $100 a kid to play and $10 a head to watch. They line up to get their bags inspected at the gate – only water is permissible inside many complexes – by teenagers operating with the same laconic sense of duty as TSA agents. “Has it gotten worse since I was in it?” McCutchen asked. “I’m sure. Look at the world we live in. The world has changed, so of course that’s going to change with it.” As youth baseball has taken on the look and feel of a corporate outing for pre-adolescents, the percentage of African-Americans in Major League Baseball has decreased 70 percent since 1981.
“We have created such a disastrous youth baseball climate,” said Chris Sperry, who spent 18 years as head coach at the University of Portland. “I regret it so much. We’re stuck with this until everybody gets united and says we’re tired of people making money on this deal and not getting anything out of it from a baseball standpoint.”
Jared Horn, a right-handed pitcher from Napa, California, was projected to be drafted in the top two rounds of the June draft until his “number” – the bonus the family set to buy him out of his commitment to Cal Berkeley – was deemed to be higher than big-league teams were comfortable paying. Horn is an outlier; he played summer baseball with his friends on a local American Legion team that traveled to a handful of regional tournaments. He was a three-year starter as quarterback of his Vintage High football team. He throws 97 but never attended a showcase. A recent Baseball America story on Horn, his emergence was portrayed like a unicorn sighting. He’s never even had his own private pitching coach. It’s as if Horn is either Lewis, Clark or Amish.
“There’s a whole subculture out there that’s hard to put a finger on,” said Daryl Horn, Jared’s father. “We never did Perfect Game, or the traditional travel ball, none of that flavor-of-the-month thing. When people say Jared was under the radar, I say, ‘I think you’re just starting to notice.’ ”
Several years ago, a longtime Division I pitching coach and big-league scout began offering to help young pitchers free of charge, only to find that parents are so accustomed to paying for specialized coaching that they look skeptically on anything without a price tag. He began charging a minimal amount – “Whatever they would stick in my pocket,” he said – but still got a tepid response. He was speaking to another scout, who asked him how much he was charging. When he told him, the scout laughed out loud. “The parents think you’re ghetto,” the scout said. “If you charge a lot, parents will be more likely to send their kids to you.”
Ford tells the story of a team from the Northeast that came to Jupiter, Florida, to play in the PG World Championship, an annual strutfest touted as “Baseball’s Largest Scouting Attraction.” (Four years ago a scout attempted to foment a “Boycott Jupiter” movement, but – see: Kubota – it went nowhere.) It’s an invitation-only tournament, limited to what is termed an “exclusive” 85 teams – again, $2,750 a pop – but this team earned a spot because it had participated admirably the previous three seasons. This version, playing against some of the best prospects in the country, never scored a run and, by Ford’s recollection, lost one game 50-0. Ford asked around and found that the organizer of the team charged $10,000 per player – and there were 20 of them – to play in this one tournament. His sales pitch? Exposure. Scouts and college coaches will see you play.
“Needless to say, they weren’t invited back,” Ford said. But were the parents disgusted? Ford thinks for a moment and said, “I didn’t get that part from them.” His hesitation suggests he’s surprised by the question.
Nobody really knows how the concept of travel ball – now diluted to include any team that doesn’t play in a local league – got started. One popular theory suggests it originated after ex-players, attempting to profit from the growth of the private-coaching industry, opened batting cages to give lessons and sell cage time to individuals and teams. The business model for batting cages proved to be such a disaster – they open and close like a binge-eater’s mouth – that the ex-players started travel teams as an additional revenue stream and a means of creating a built-in clientele for their cages.
From the start, it marketed itself with terms meant to exclude. Elite. Select. Prestige. Travel baseball purports to separate kids by perceived seriousness of purpose. Your kid can’t play with the less talented or less devoted because it will stunt their development or waste their time. Real-world conditions – a common selling point for travel ball, based on a perceived need for competition that will ultimately translate to some future workplace – can’t be replicated if the 10-year-old second baseman is slow to turn a double play. (Travel ball starts as early as T-ball, making it possible to mistake a perceived lack of seriousness with simply being 5.) Entry into the ranks of the elite is granted through talent, parental involvement or a basic willingness to pay. It’s really no different from any other means of buying access. For parents with the means or the motive, arranging a kid’s future has become a prion disease, infecting every aspect of childhood: SAT prep courses, private hitting coaches, showcases, transcript-building humanitarian tourism trips to third world countries.
“If you’re really good, maybe the team will make an exception and provide,” McCutchen said. “But what about that kid who might not be the best but loves baseball? There’s a chance he can get better and still make it, but he can’t afford it, so he can’t play.”
In many cases, the professionalization of amateurism turns parenting into a transaction. The sport becomes an investment, and investments usually come with an expectation of returns. Check out the fetid wordswamp of travel-ball message boards and you’ll find a distressing number of parents – many of them moms – referring to their sons as “our player” as they testify to the most effective methods of attracting attention from scouts and college coaches.
(One email I received from a travel-ball mother in response to a previous story included this sentence: “I can’t imagine him being where he is if he had just played with randomly grouped kids who don’t share his passion and work ethic.” The boy’s age: 12.)
“I’ve had parents tell me they’d rather pay $50,000 for amateur baseball than $200,000 for college,” said Tony Reagins, former Los Angeles Angels general manager and now MLB’s senior vice president for youth programs. “I try to tell them the math doesn’t pencil out, even if you’re one of the few to get a scholarship.”
Division I college baseball programs are allotted 11.7 scholarships for 35 roster slots, and almost nobody – not even McCutchen, with his first-round talent and 3.8 high school GPA – is offered a full ride. (Florida offered McCutchen a package worth roughly 70 percent.) Many families spend more money every year on travel ball and showcases than their son could realize from the ultimate success of the endeavor.
“We have been recruiting kids who through no fault of their own have been raised in this,” said Sperry, the ex-University of Portland coach. “They don’t know how to play for the carrot at end of season. They’re not very tough, and part of that is the way they’re playing. There’s a travel-ball tournament every weekend, and they don’t know how to play for the long haul. They’ll say, ‘I hit .500 last weekend.’ And I mean, how many World Series are there? The college baseball season is a slog. It’s long. They can’t handle it.”
It’s a common refrain among baseball professionals. The travel-ball/showcase model produces the type of player the system was intended to discourage: the overindulged and entitled, who head into their teenage years with their mothers carrying their bat bags from the car to the dugout while their fathers drone on about elite competition and the pending ruin created by a world where everyone gets a trophy.
Florida Marlins’ Northern California scout John Hughes coaches the Area Code Baseball Games, an annual – and free – tournament in Long Beach, California, that features most of the country’s best high school prospects. On the last day of the tournament, after the nervousness has worn off, he takes his team down to a corner of the outfield – out of the earshot of parents – and gives them a speech.
“One year from now, your world is going to be turned upside down,” Hughes tells them. “You’re either going to play in college or sign. Ever since you were 12 all anybody has been doing is telling you how good you are because they want your mom and dad’s money. That college coach that was so nice to you when he sat in your living room is going to be so far up your ass about turning in paperwork and holding runners on base. Or you’re going to be in pro ball and someone’s going to be telling you you need to change how you do things. For the first time, it’s not going to be about how wonderful you are.”
The MLB cites its Play Ball initiative and Reviving Baseball in inner cities programs as signs it is intent on shoring up its banks. Four players from the Breakthrough Series, a tournament for 60 highly rated minority prospects, were drafted on the first day last year. (Those players weren’t discovered in the series, though – they were known quantities.) Perfect Game is sponsoring The Series, which Ford said is his company’s foray into a camp-style event that emphasizes participation and not profit. He cites as inspiration his company’s role in helping four-time All Star outfielder Carl Crawford, who grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward, to pick baseball over a football scholarship to Nebraska.
“There needs to be a real discussion,” L.E.A.D.’s Stewart said. “You can’t keep saying black kids don’t want to play baseball. That’s crazy. Just come out and say you don’t know how to develop them. The good news for Major League Baseball is that black people haven’t gotten to a level of offense yet to make something happen”
Baseball runs on a current of myth. It’s America’s pastoral game, closely tied to its agrarian roots. It is fathers playing catch with sons and all the bad poetry that has arisen from it. The game owes a significant amount of its allure to a perceived physical and athletic egalitarianism. You don’t have to be 6-foot-8 or 275 pounds or run a 4.4 40 to play the game. Half of middle-aged male America claims to have been one injury or one bad break away from making it big. But the showcase/travel ball model is edging baseball toward plutocracy. The game in this country is on an inexorable path toward becoming the domain of wealthy suburbia. What Jimmy and Lorenzo and Andrew did was not simply buck the system; they engaged in a quixotic quest to alter reality.
But beyond fairness, and beyond the distasteful reality that baseball is allowing businesses to hijack its sport and determine its participants, there’s a crass, practical reason for diversity: It’s good for business. Referring to the popularity of the Negro Leagues before Robinson broke the color barrier, Stewart said, “We saved baseball once before, and we can do it again.”
Shortly after taking office, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the issue of participation – the Play Ball initiative is geared toward reviving informal participation as well as team play. Refreshingly, he acknowledged the perception of college baseball as “a country-club sport – white, rich kids play.” And then in a mid-June press conference, Manfred announced the hiring of Ken Griffey Jr. as youth ambassador, a position intended to increase baseball’s profile in underserved communities.
This is baseball’s way: summon royalty to address its plebeian problems. It’s like coming across a freezing, naked person along the side of the road and asking for his suit measurements.
Every major league team has an academy in the Dominican Republic. There are others in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. They foster the talent there, where baseball remains the dominant sport and competition for athletes is not as fierce. Players in these academies are trained by paid instructors and brought along in much more controlled environments than American amateurs, whose development is dependent on the whims of coaches intent on winning games. Dominican pitcher Michael Ynoa signed as a 16-year-old with the Athletics eight years ago. The news of his signing included this nugget: As a product of a Dominican academy, he had never pitched in a game, which meant his arm would never have to withstand the nearly criminal overuse common in high school and college baseball. Ynoa was signed on the basis of supervised workouts. In his sixth professional season, he has never had success beyond A ball.
“I oftentimes wonder: Did they replace the black kids with the kids from across the water?” Lorenzo McCutchen asked. “They’re fast, they’re talented. They put them in a program over there, raise ’em up and bring ’em over here. I struggle with that.”
Reagins, who was the fourth African-American general manager in baseball history, has heard this charge before. He does not rush to dispute it. Instead, he pauses, lining up his words like a golfer sizing up a putt.
“I try to be optimistic,” he said. “We have a great game and we have to invest in our game domestically. Over the past 15 years we’ve invested internationally – in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico. We’ve invested a lot in development and signing of international players. We haven’t invested as much in the domestic player. There are a ton of players internationally that can play, and a ton that can play in this country. We need to give those in the States the same chance.”
And so, in Oakland, California, the most storied high school baseball program in town is being run by a former NFL wide receiver who never played high school baseball. Will Blackwell, who attended high school in Oakland, took over the McClymonds High School baseball program after an advertisement for the job received no response. “Just trying to keep the program going,” said Blackwell, who works at the school. There is no junior varsity team, and no local (read: nontravel ball) summer league for high-school age players in Oakland. Blackwell added the name of every McClymonds football player to his roster at the beginning of the season and called on them when he needed to avoid forfeits. “No forfeits,” he said of his season. “That’s a good year.”
Blackwell laughs at the irony. Oakland has a rich baseball tradition, especially among African-Americans, and McClymonds was once one of the most famous baseball schools in the country; Vada Pinson, Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson all went there. And now the goal of the baseball program – and its 14 turnstile players on its one team – is to have enough players to get through a season.
We’re sitting in an otherwise-empty restaurant at Cleveland Heights Golf Course in Lakeland, where Rutland works part time and plays as much as he can. It’s a public course, the kind that runs the local classic rock station through the sound system. At the moment, as Sweet Home Alabama rolls through the speakers, Rutland turns to Lorenzo McCutchen and said, “I just like to say something, Lorenzo. I really appreciate your loyalty. You were always good to me with all your help. I’d just like to think I gave Andrew a chance. And there’s something else I want to tell you from my heart. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would think with Andrew’s talent you probably had a chance to go to a lot of other teams, better teams with more money and everything. I just want to tell you that I appreciate all this loyalty you showed me over the years.”
Lorenzo McCutchen nods, a little taken aback by the solemn turn. “No problem, Jimmy,” he said. “Our thing was to play baseball. Keep playing baseball. It wasn’t about what the best team was, and, Jimmy, you gave him the opportunity. So I felt a little loyal. I felt I needed to be loyal.”
“And Lorenzo, I remember this very plainly,” Rutland said. “You told me, ‘I would love for you to do it, it’s a big opportunity, but all I ask of you is to treat him like your own son.’ ”
Rutland stops, adjusts his cap and wipes his eyes. “I did try to, Lorenzo. I really did.”
“Andrew thinks very highly of you,” Lorenzo McCutchen said. “Jimmy, you were good to him.”
“He did more for me than I ever did for him,” Rutland said. “I’m very proud of him. Andrew don’t owe me anything. In fact, I probably owe Andrew something.”
Later, as he walks around Peterson Park, Rutland says the events of the day have made him want to coach again. He points to a majestic tree across a parking lot beyond the left-field fence, an impossible distance from home plate, and says 13-year-old Andrew McCutchen hit a ball that struck a limb more than halfway to the top. Standing next to the backstop, looking through the chain link and imagining Andrew on that empty field, his mind goes back to something Lorenzo McCutchen said at lunch: “God don’t bless you just to bless you. He bless you to be a blessing.” Rutland can’t help but think there’s a reason he found himself sitting at lunch telling Lorenzo McCutchen the things that have stuck in his throat for more than 15 years. And standing here with his memories has him pondering the mysteries of time and place, how an old man can end up standing on a baseball field for the first time in a long time, wondering what brought him here in the first place, and why he ever left. They’ll be playing ball at Peterson Park tonight, and Rutland’s made up his mind: He’ll be there.