Editorial: HBCUs play a pivotal role in baseball's future

Montgomery Advertiser

While Auburn was winning its season opener in dramatic fashion, history was being made 60 miles away at Alabama State. Unfortunately, few people know about it.

A no-hitter is one of baseball's great white whales, a milestone that is celebrated and honored. Alabama State's T.J. Renda threw a no-hitter last Friday, and it didn't even make headlines.

Most college baseball players have one thing in common: At the end of the day, they are really playing for just the love of the game. It's a sport that gets overshadowed by men's basketball and football, a sport forced to divvy up percentages of scholarships instead of full rides.

That's what makes the events of Friday night in Central Alabama even more special.

Even in college baseball, the worlds of the haves and have-nots can be plainly seen. Northern schools spend entire months away from home to start the season. Major schools like Wisconsin and Iowa State don't even field teams. Just like football, there are major conferences like the SEC and the Pac-12 that dominate, mid-majors like the Sun Belt and Conference USA that surprise, and just like the football world, there lives (normally at the bottom) the SWAC.

I've seen SWAC baseball in person. It has an eye-opening level of neglect at some schools. I've met a few players. SWAC baseball players are truly playing because they want to live the dream of playing baseball at a high level.

You've probably heard funny pseudo horror stories about minor league baseball: long bus rides to middle-of-nowhere cities, dirt patch fields. SWAC Schools are barely able to play at home or even field a full schedule against Division I competition. Take Mississippi Valley State for example. The tiny school in Itta Bena, Miss., will play "home" games in both Itta Bena and Greenville, and for two games against New Orleans, the Delta Devils will be "home" three hours away in Summit, Miss. The schedule is also pockmarked with road games to Division II West Florida and even a road game to NAIA Blue Mountain (Yes, that is a real school and not just a terrible Spike TV show with its best claim to fame being a Clay Travis cameo).

So when a SWAC school -- that is not named Southern or Jackson State -- makes a full commitment to a sport that regularly draws fewer than 400 fans per game, it should draw attention. When a school hires one of the top coaches, builds a brand new facility, welcomes in a host of international players, tries to make waves in a football-crazy state dominated by two major universities and pitches a no-hitter in its opener? It should turn a few heads.

Honestly, it hasn't.

Outside of the official school website and a copy-and-pasted blurb from the NCAA Baseball website, Renda's no-hitter has received little to no fanfare. The local newspaper devoted a full three sentences to it in their "Local Roundup".

Renda threw his 15-strikeout complete game in front of 234 fans. For comparison's sake, Huntingdon College, a Division III school, with a field barely a mile from Alabama State's, drew 275 on the same night.

This seems to be the norm for Alabama State and SWAC Baseball in general. In the college baseball world, the SWAC normally gets attention two times per year: during MLB's Urban Baseball Invitational and when the conference gets its lone bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Why is it important that schools like Alabama State succeed in college baseball? To put it bluntly: Baseball needs diversity.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities, like Alabama State, have long been a source of pride in the African-American community, providing education, enrichment and more. While some higher education opponents argue that the purpose of HBCUs and need for them have waned:

Black colleges are at a crossroads. At one time black colleges were an essential response to racism. They trained a generation of civil rights lawyers and activists who helped end segregation. Their place in U.S. history is secure. Today, however, dwindling enrollments and endowments indicate that fewer and fewer blacks believe that these schools, as currently constituted, represent the best available academic choice.

HBCU proponents, alumni and administrators of HBCUs are fiercely loyal about the benefits of the institutions:

The relevance and power of an HBCU education in which faculty expectations are high, peer support is strong, and role models are abundant is quantifiable and worthy of preserving and strengthening with investment. Black students who want to see themselves as not just one of a few who can succeed but rather one of many who seek and find that legacy of success and affirmation on an HBCU campus.This is not an issue for a baseball blog. What is, however, is the need for Baseball as a sport to promote diversity. HBCUs provide easy access, at a college level, to do just that. You already have a well established network of alumni, fans, and support that sustains HBCU athletics. Baseball simply needs to tap into them.

Major League baseball has long recognized that the future of the sport would depend on more urban (i.e. African American) involvement and invested heavily into two big initiatives: Urban Baseball Academies and RBI (Revitalizing Baseball in the Inner Cities):

The RBI program is one way MLB is trying to address the low numbers of blacks playing the game. RBI began in 1989 with 100 participants. This year, that number is about 200,000 nationwide, and the Dominican Republic and Venezuela each had teams in this World Series. MLB has spent $30 million on the project.

But is it really progress?

On Opening Day, blacks made up 8.8 percent of MLB rosters, a tick up from 8.5 percent in 2011.

Since 2001, that percentage has fluctuated between 8.2 and 10.2 percent.

To its credit, MLB is trying to tap into HBCUs with the long established Urban Invitational. Alabama State is participating again this year:

Mervyl Melendez, head coach at Alabama State, had also been involved in the tournament in his previous stint as coach of Bethune-Cookman, and he said his team was honored to be invited back. This tournament, he said, is one of the highlights of the season for his players.

"What it means is not only exposure for our program, but just being involved in the setting that these guys want to eventually play in," said Melendez. "Professional baseball is the dream of every single athlete, and they want to get in that setting. Unlike any other tournament in the nation, it's run by Major League Baseball. It's run first class like it was a Major League event.

"We're really very honored to be a part of it, to get the exposure and get the kids excited about our program, along with the other programs that are here. We wouldn't trade it for the world. We wouldn't trade it for anything else. We hope to be a part of it in the coming years as well."

The event helps with getting these HBCU's some much-needed exposure:

"Kids want to be on TV and national TV," said [Southern University Coach Roger] Cador. "That helped us a great deal in getting some of those kids out of Puerto Rico. We've done well in the United States, too, because I get letters, phone calls and e-mails from kids who say, 'I see you on MLB playing. Your team did very well.' So that helps a great deal also. But this thing is more than just within the United States. It's international.

"I know that when I go international to parts of South America, people say, 'I saw you on MLB playing. You're that coach.' They recognize me based on that. What this Urban Invitational has done is made us global. And that's the beauty of what they do. They have a global network, the MLB [Network]. I've had people call me from China who saw the game on TV. They're seeing it a little bit everywhere."

This push from MLB and the inclusion of HBCUs is great. It's needed. Still, even with this support, one of the more troubling truths about T.J. Renda's no-hitter comes to light. It should have made a bigger splash. More people should have been talking about it. More people should have cared.

It's going to be a long battle for respect for college baseball-playing HBCUs, one that Alabama State is trying to attack head on by winning on the field. The Hornets are currently 4-0 and shut out Mercer last night, the same Mercer squad that was getting national publicity for beating St. John's, Ohio State and Notre Dame last weekend.

Renda did his part to garner attention. He did something that some baseball fans say is nearly impossible. However, instead of being a highlight that made ESPN, it became an afterthought and barely made local waves. For the success of college baseball and baseball in general, more attention has to be paid to schools like Alabama State. It has to start from the top, and MLB needs to devote not just a one-weekend tournament, but it needs to fully incorporate HBCUs into the RBI program and Urban Baseball Academies and use the academies to develop scholarship opportunities in connection with these schools.

Renda's no-hitter originally received five sentences in his local paper, but it should jump start a dialogue about the future of baseball.

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