Why Jackie Robinson West Players Will Never Go Pro

A devastating glimpse into the rich, ugly world of Little League and Travel baseball

jackie robinson west chicago

I’m sure that my inbox will soon be flooded with ignorant hatemail of “readers” who don’t actually read this article. I, too, sat and watched JRW as they battled their way through the ranks. Their game against Nevada was, without a doubt, the most exciting game of baseball I’ve watched in at least 5 years. The kids are amazing, and their talent level is top notch. But baseball is a game of numbers, and unfortunately, the odds aren’t in their favor.

While watching the game with some friends, one turned to me and said “You want to write a great article? Write about Jackie Robinson West. Write about this league and this organization, and what they’re doing for the young, black athlete and their interest in baseball. Write about how they’re getting the attention of all those other kids who are deciding between baseball and football and basketball right now. That would be a great article.” Who am I to deny a fellow sports enthusiast an article that actually sounds socially relevant? So I looked into it, and found nothing but horror. What JRW is trying to do is the equivalent of emptying the ocean with a cup. The hard, cold reason is this: BASEBALL IS A GAME FOR THE WEALTHY.

That’s it. I know it sounds strange. “Little league is our past time. It’s just as cheap as soccer through the park district.” We aren’t talking about park districts. We aren’t talking about friendly, community-based baseball. We are talking smashmouth, competitive, showcasing, 130-game playing, $1500 equipment having baseball… all starting at the age of 8.

The Background

Now, I don’t want to get into the socioeconomic intricacies of urban environments and disposable income by race. That lends a large part to this issue, but it also extends beyond that. This is a sports website and no one is going to particularly want to read a 15-page dissertation on the topic. But here’s the setup: Children are now given $1500 worth of equipment to lug around from team to team to play baseball. They consistently participate in “showcase” events that cost anywhere between $300 and $700 to participate in, so that scouts can watch them play. Said scouts then report to their Little League “Owners” (Yup, not coaches…OWNERS), and the teams reach out to the best players. These children then fly from state to state, league to league, playing in tournaments for the best teams. Once they get to about 130 games, they rest up for a bit, just to do it again next year. And by the time they get to college, they hope they have the stuff to receive one of the 11.7 full ride baseball scholarships that a Division I NCAA school provides, even though they could’ve played football to receive one of the 85 scholarships available in that sport.

You see, it’s all a setup. From the very beginning, it starts with parents having the time and availability to put just as much into this sport as their child. Already you’ve knocked out the entire working class, and most of the middle class. As one video so aptly puts it, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Well, let’s say you don’t have time for that, and the child is in a normal travel league, and plays ball up through high school. Well, Junior year has come, and the child needs to decide what to do.

Typically, kids these days are two sport athletes. So let’s say they receive an offer to play basketball at a Division I school, with a full ride. They are also offered the chance to play baseball at a Division I school that has won the College World Series twice in the last five years, but the scholarship is a half ride. The final offer is to become draft eligible, and hope to be drafted by a major league team, and head to the minors.

Most often, families will choose the first option…Unless they can afford for the kid to go to college by paying the other half. Yeah, there are loans and other scholarships, but that stuff is hard to get. So typically, students won’t go that route. Some may head to the minors if drafted, but soon learn that life riding buses and sleeping at second rate motels is nowhere near as glamorous as what life was like for the little-leaguers being flown from state to state. The obvious choice here is the basketball scholarship.

How this Affects the MLB

This is the cycle that occurs. Year after year. Major League Baseball has started the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) in an effort to bring baseball to inner city youth. However, many have criticized the program as a simple PR campaign, and nothing more.

“RBI. Whatever.” – Jimmy Rollins

I encourage everyone to read the transcript between New York Daily News reporter Andy Martino and the MVP shortstop. It’s pretty distressing. At the start of the year, only 8.3% of players on Opening Day rosters identified as African-American. 1.9% Identified as Asian, 26.9% as Latino and 63.9% as White. The makeup of players has been on a steady decline since 1981, when 18.7% of MLB players identified as African-American.

While this may not be an issue caused by the MLB, it is certainly affecting them. The fact that colleges simply don’t give the same opportunities to baseball players as it does to football players is doing the most harm to the league. Now factor in the $300 lessons and expenses of travel ($1500-$3000) and showcases ($300-$700) for little league, and there is no way MLB is able to get the “best of the best” when it comes to athletes. Even CC Sabathia notes that he would have played football, had he not been drafted.

“Take me, for example, ” said the Yankees’ C. C. Sabathia. “If I had a choice, I would have had to go to college to play football, because my mom couldn’t afford to pay whatever the percent was of my baseball scholarship. So if I hadn’t been a first-round pick, I would have gone to college to play football, because I had a full ride.

How do we fix it?

1. In order to ensure that the MLB is getting their fair share of the world’s top athletes, we need to start by adjusting the Little League system. It’s totally unregulated, and to ship nine year olds from state to state, to play 130 games a year, is ridiculous. Get rid of the showcases, where only the privileged are able to participate. Let baseball become baseball again for our kids. They need to enjoy the sport before getting committed to it. Involving a child that young will end in them burning out, more often than not.

2. Televise college baseball. MLB has plenty of TV contracts and networks and ways they can help the NCAA market the product they are putting out there. While the MLB may not be getting income as a direct result of the expense, it will only increase exposure that baseball exists. Real people are playing. And while it may be difficult to afford college and find other ways to cover your finances while there, you are still living your dream, which no kid should be denied. Until the MLB takes a more active role in this, underprivileged kids won’t want to play baseball, or at the least, won’t know how.

For anyone interested in reading A LOT more on this topic, Amy Shipley’s article in the Sun Sentinel shows six pages of investigative discovery into the world of little league, and what it’s become.

Hopefully all the JRW kids end up going pro, but as we discussed the odds are definitely against them.

Great season Jackie Robinson, Best Little League Team in the United States!