Friday, June 6, 2008

College baseball shares many of college hoops' ills

By Jason Whitlock
Jason Whitlock brings his edgy and thought-provoking style to Columnist for the Kansas City Star, he has won the National Journalism Award for Commentary for "his ability to seamlessly integrate sports and social commentary and to challenge widely held assumptions along the racial divide."

Pedro Alvarez, according to the New York Times and the NCAA, is the anti-O.J. Mayo.

Alvarez, who is expected to be one of the top three picks in today's Major League Baseball draft, went to college for all the right reasons. And he's leaving Vanderbilt after three years to pursue a professional career without anyone objecting because that is the right thing to do.

I discovered Alvarez's story this week after hearing that my Kansas City Royals coveted the third baseman.

What struck me about Alvarez's tale is how idyllic it appeared told through the lens of the baseball world and how dramatically different it might be presented if he were a college basketball or football player instead.

The Times article mentioned that Alvarez has an agent who goes by the name of Scott Boras. Of course, baseball fans realize Boras is perhaps the most powerful man in the game and has dedicated his life to torturing the bank accounts of MLB owners. To some, Boras is a polished, more evil, money-hungry version of NFL super agent Drew Rosenhaus.

In the Alvarez story penned by The Gray Lady, Boras is mentioned very briefly and referred to as an "advisor." The article goes on to explain that the Red Sox selected Alvarez in the 14th round of the draft three years ago when he was a high school senior. Alvarez turned down an offer of close to a million dollars back then because his cash-poor parents were determined that their boy would get a college education.

Now I have no interest in beating up the New York Times, Pedro Alvarez or his family. The Times is an awesome newspaper, and I suspect the Alvarez family is an example of what is right about the American family structure.

The point of this column is to highlight how we have been conditioned to view college basketball as opposed to college baseball or other non-revenue NCAA sports. We limit our skepticism when we write, discuss and think about sports not played by the O.J. Mayos of the world.

All the alleged and perceived agent corruption/manipulation we vilify in the college basketball world is running wild in amateur baseball. It's just no one seems to care. The NCAA sure as hell doesn't. That's why the organization pretty much looks the other way when guys such as Scott Boras cultivate relationships with teenage prospects and maintain those relationships while the players pursue education, sorority girls, beer bongs and curveballs at State U.

Top-flight baseball agents employ "runners," too. Except they're called "advisors," and no one chases them down to appear on "Outside the Lines" and reveal whatever "illegal" inducements the players were given to remain loyal while matriculating on campus.

I'm not calling Pedro Alvarez baseball's O.J. Mayo.

I'm saying all the ingredients are in place for the same things to take place in baseball that occur in basketball.

If I had a son who was worthy of being a 14th-round pick out of high school and getting offered a million at age 18, I'd send him to college for three years and roll the dice again.

Alvarez, as a top-two pick, might command as much as $10 million this summer. His ruthless advisor is likely to hold him out until the day before fall classes start and squeeze another mil or two out of the team lucky enough to select Alvarez today.

Do you think Alvarez chose Vanderbilt because of its fine pharmacy school or because it produces multiple MLB prospects each year with enhanced negotiating leverage?

Is it worth it to an agent to plant $100,000 in seed money in a teenage prospect in hopes of harvesting a $10 million contract three years later? My financial planner thinks it's a sound investment.

Again, I'm not saying that's what transpired with Alvarez and Boras. I'm saying the environment is ripe for those types of deals, and we don't even consider it. But we do when it comes to basketball. Why?

When the NCAA enacted its new, get-tough Academic Progress Report standards, a little-known fact that the media ignored is that college baseball programs traditionally performed far below basketball programs.

Let me translate that for you: Baseball players were less likely to graduate from college than basketball players.

The APR forced baseball coaches to bring their kids back to campus for summer school rather than allowing them to audition in front of scouts and agents in the Cape Cod League. Yeah, the "cesspool" of street agents, runners, handlers, scouts and agents we love to rail against in basketball co-mingle in baseball at high school All-American games without raising a word of dissent.

I understand why the NCAA is comfortable with this arrangement. It generates a billion-dollar TV contract by micromanaging its basketball players, keeping them uninformed about their value and selling the public a lie about the "purity" of amateur status.

Why do we play along in the media? We're not that stupid, are we? There's no way we're controlled by our biases. No way.

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