Rays owner Stuart Sternberg sat down with FoxSports.com’s Jon Morosi last week and discussed the need to get more children involved in playing baseball. Sternberg sites one of the biggest problems in today’s youth baseball programs is the growing financial cost of playing sports, which makes it harder for underprivileged children to be a part of the game. One of the reasons this is happening is because of the existence of elite and pricey travel teams.
"“The thing that has changed so dramatically the last 10, 20, or 30 years is the advent of travel teams…the best of the best are getting siphoned off [from the local leagues]. It’s an expensive proposition…the sport itself is OK, because a lot of people are playing it, but the problem is for minorities and poorer people. It’s tough to get into that treadmill of travel teams because of the expense involved,” Sternberg said."
Although the costs of sports have grown through the years due to travel teams, Sternberg told Morosi that the changes in households also have an impact on children’s ability to play baseball. Children that live in single parent households are disadvantaged because they often have no one to practice with.
"“Baseball, as opposed to other sports, you need somebody to throw the ball with. You can hit off a tee but you have to chase it,” Sternberg said. “You need another figure, and, in a lot of single-parent households, mom is working, or dad is working, or both parents are working. It’s hard. With basketball, the ball doesn’t go far. You can chase it down and keep shooting.”"
However, the economic factors that help decide what sport underprivileged play also include college scholarships. Sternberg discussed with Morosi how after the age of 12, the final year children play in Little League, many kids with drop out of baseball to specialize in one sport, especially a sport that can earn them college scholarships. An entire NCAA baseball team is allowed only 11.7 scholarships, making it difficult for many students to receive baseball scholarships. Because of this, some teenagers choose to play a different sport that can earn them more scholarship money. Sternberg believes that awarding more scholarship money or helping teenagers realize the big paycheck that comes with a signing bonus and contract could lure more teenagers into playing baseball after Little League ends. Or even after high school, like in former Rays’ left field sensation Carl Crawford’s case.
"“You look at a guy like Carl Crawford, who we had. He had a choice to do a lot of different things. We in baseball, coming out of high school, we were able to provide him a good amount of money. So, he chose baseball,” Sternberg said. “We have to make sure we’re not dragged down by this idea that kids (who are) 11 or 12 say, ‘I can’t get a scholarship in college, so I’m going to give this game up and play something else.’ ”"
While Sternberg wants to keep kids in the game, especially underprivileged children, the Rays have a program that reaches out to children in St. Petersburg, the Rays Dugout Club. Started in 2010 in honor of eight-year-old Paris Whitehead, who was killed by gunfire in 2009, Rays players adopt local recreation centers. 2013’s player sponsors are pitchers David Price and Matt Moore and center fielder Desmond Jennings.
Each player visits their clubs multiple times throughout the summers and promotes positive messages to the children. The Rays also donate “angel funds” to each recreation center to help the centers meet the needs of the children and their families served at the centers. More information can be found on the Rays’ website.
While the Rays Dugout Club does not involve children joining baseball teams, it at least exposes them to baseball and developing a love for the game. The Rays also award scholarship money to students in the Tampa Bay area through various programs.
Sternberg understands that getting more underprivileged children involved in or exposed to baseball does not happen overnight. But with his desire to help decrease the costs of playing sports and reaching out to the local community in St. Petersburg, it looks like Sternberg and the Rays are on track to accomplish his mission.