Mark Etheridge

Bringing Baseball Back

by Mark Etheridge March 13, 2009 in Baseball

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Baseball used to be America’s pastime.

With the right ambassadors, it can be again.

Major League Baseball has soiled what once was a good name with steroid scandals, outrageous payrolls, and a disconnection with a section of the fan base.  The “me-first” mentality has caused some fans to look elsewhere for their baseball fix.

Judging by record attendance in the college game, many fans are finding amateur play to their liking.  Many of the knocks found in the professional game are absent on college campuses. The primary focus is on the team, not the individual. The same qualities that we were taught as children - loyalty, achieving in school, and working together – all are visible in the college game.

In an age where athletes are often too focused on the individual accomplishment, college baseball has examples of the best of team play.  Even as the talent level has risen dramatically, the game has remained more about the team as opposed to the individual. Players like Andrew Miller and David Price show their wares for Ol’ State U on their way to big paydays in pro ball. But the college rosters are packed with players who impact lives in less public ways.

Inaugural Lowes Senior Class Award winner Emeel Salem read to children with autism at local elementary schools.  Last season’s winner Cole St. Clair visited with and gave advice to several young men from the Omaha School for Boys, a residential group home for at-risk school-aged boys. Both were great players. Both were drafted and may someday be household names for baseball fans. Both faced criticism in some corners for returning for their senior seasons.

Skeptics asked, “What did they have to gain by returning”?  Instead these players viewed it as, “What would I have missed by leaving early?”
Both returned for senior seasons in a sport where the best players leave as soon as they can. Staying in school forfeits a player’s valuable negotiation leverage because as a junior, he has the option to return to school. As a senior, he has no such bargaining tool. If the primary goal is getting paid, leaving as a junior is the way to go.

Salem and St. Clair each opted for a fourth year in college. Both grabbed degrees, grabbed individual honors, and led their team to conference titles. However, if neither ever makes it to the show, they have already positively impacted young lives.

Beyond the on-field accomplishments these veterans produce, their leadership, character, and commitment resonate through the dugout.
“Staying four years and getting my college degree are two things that I’m very proud of,” Salem said in an email.  “I knew that if I’d gone pro after my junior year, it would have been difficult to get back on track and graduate. Also, staying all four years at any school is something that is completely undervalued these days. I wanted to finish out the commitment that I made to the University of Alabama. I owed it to myself and to my school to finish what I started.”

Some players have different perspectives, different outlooks, different itineraries. It takes a special player to put their careers on hold to honor a commitment.
In a sport where ballplayers’ negative publicity rules the airwaves, stories like these need to find ears.