Duke Russell sat in the stands at the College World Series, staring at Long Beach State’s Terrmel Sledge and wondering what went wrong. Sledge should have been wearing a Cal State Northridge jersey, and the Matadors could have been at the College World Series themselves.
Instead, some of the school’s top baseball players fled elsewhere last summer when Northridge temporarily cut the program.
Colleges cutting baseball is one of Russell’s pet peeves. It’s a practice that has become increasingly common as cost-cutting administrators try to find ways to comply with the gender-equity stipulations put forth by Title IX. There were nine fewer NCAA baseball programs this season than there were in 1996-97.
“You don’t hear about them cutting math programs,” Russell says. “Baseball is a subject. You study it, you learn a lot from it.”
It’s something he feels is worth fighting for. He once played the sport, at L.A. City College and then Loyola Marymount. He spent one season (1948) with the Dodger organization.
When L.A. City College tried to cut baseball in 1986, he rounded up support to keep it from happening. But his interest doesn’t stop with his own schools.
In 1996, he went before the board of trustees at Pasadena City College and pleaded with them to keep their team. He headed a group that fought to resuscitate the Northridge program last year.
When he read that Portland State was going to fold baseball this spring, he called the school’s president. For a while, it looked as though the program might survive. Then Portland State, which had beaten eventual national champion USC during the regular season, gave the program the ax the day the College World Series began.
Russell’s premise is simple: People should have a chance to go to college on a baseball scholarship.
“When they kill baseball, they prevent an opportunity for kids to get an education,” Russell says. “It’s a very big problem. I know the presidents are in a tough situation with gender equity. We have to see beyond that. We have to find a way to get kids an education.”
If it’s a financial matter, where should some of the money come from? How about major league baseball, the custodian of the game at its highest level?
Baseball owners would rather have high school stars go straight to their minor league system. They hate that players can use college as a bargaining chip, threatening to go to school, costing the team its draft rights, rather than signing right away.
The owners need to see the big picture and realize that anything that would get more people playing baseball would only help the sport. Baseball lags far behind other major sports when it comes to attracting youth, particularly in minority communities.
President Clinton alluded to this during his town hall meeting on race and sports earlier this year. Recalling the pitching performance of Cuban defector Livan Hernandez in the 1997 World Series, Clinton said, “As strained as our relationships with Cuba are, it’s virtually more likely that you can be a Cuban player in major league baseball than a Cuban-American from Miami or New Jersey [in the big leagues].”
What a sad but true statement that is.
Baseball has done some good things at the grass-roots level through its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) programs. Why stop there? A college scholarship is a much more attainable goal than a big-league career.
“They’re talking all the time about kids in inner cities: ‘Why aren’t they playing baseball?’ ” Russell says. “If I am a kid and I hear they are taking about cutting baseball [in college], I would not want to play baseball. I’d want to play basketball.”
Even can’t-miss talents could use a stop in college. Delaying their pro careers didn’t seem to hurt Frank Thomas (Auburn), Tony Gwynn (San Diego State), Mark McGwire (USC) or Darin Erstad (who also picked up a football championship at Nebraska).
Take a look at the careers of Darryl Strawberry and Roger Clemens, who both graduated high school in 1980. The New York Mets made Strawberry the No. 1 pick in the 1980 draft. They took Clemens with their 12th pick the next year. He decided to go to school at Texas, where he was a two-time All-American and won the College World Series in 1983.
He made his big-league debut the next year, only one year after Strawberry. Perhaps if Strawberry had some of the maturity (however slight) that often comes from attending college, he wouldn’t have fallen prey to the drug problem that almost wrecked his career. He never maximized his potential, and Clemens won four Cy Young awards.
Who knows what might have happened if Strawberry had gone to college?
Russell wants to make sure the next superstar--or the next kid who could only make it to the big leagues as a trainer--always has that choice at whatever school he wants to attend.