As he progressed through his baseball career, UNC junior Alberto Osuna found that the diversity of his teammates “dwindled down."
“I want to say that we’re diverse (at North Carolina),” Osuna said. “But obviously, it’s pretty obvious that we don’t have an African American on the team.”
The Tar Heels, despite being a preseason top-20 program, are reckoning with the same diversity issues as the rest of the collegiate baseball landscape.
According to demographic data from the NCAA, outside of HBCUs, Black players make up just four percent of all Division I baseball players. Looking specifically at Power 5 rosters, there were 137 Black baseball players in 2022.
As for the Tar Heels? There are only two players of color on the 2023 roster in Osuna and Alden Segui, both of whom identify as Hispanic.
This raises questions about how baseball teams at UNC and across the country came to look this way. The answer, much like the issues of diversity in field hockey, might lie in recruiting.
Matt Andrews, a UNC history professor whose research specializes in sports and American culture, said baseball is a “suburban sport."
In the past decade, 35 percent of the UNC baseball players recruited in-state have come from the Charlotte metropolitan area. The Greensboro-High Point area is the second-most popular in-state hotbed, and the Raleigh area follows in third.
These three areas represent the largest metropolitan areas in North Carolina. However, Andrews said that it’s important to keep in mind that the “rural-suburban difference" is blurred in a lot of places.
“You can be from Durham, but there are parts of Durham that are awfully rural, I would argue. So, being from Durham wouldn’t necessarily tell you anything,” Andrews said. “But because of the money, and because of travel teams and because of space requirements, rural and suburban seems to be where the pool is coming from.”
However, the regions where recruits are from aren't the cause of these disparities. Rather, it’s the system of high-profile showcase events that UNC taps in to to carry out its recruiting.
Since he’s been at UNC, head coach Scott Forbes said he’s been “traveling all over the country” to see tournaments put on by Perfect Game.
Perfect Game, which describes itself as the largest and most successful baseball scouting organization, was founded in 1995. Organizations like Perfect Game and Baseball America operate high-profile tournaments across the United States for elite showcase baseball programs.
While Forbes said he tries to attend both showcases and high school games, these national tournaments are essential to UNC’s recruiting.
“The club tournaments are nice from, from the standpoint of in the summer, you can go and see 100 kids instead of one,” Forbes said. “Usually, when you go to a North Carolina high school game, you’re going to see that kid that you know about.”
The problem with that? Well, in the words of former UNC outfielder Justice Thompson, “it costs money.”
“A lot of those big organizations have multiple teams,” he said. “They have lower teams, and they have the top-tier team that uses the national platform that travels and gets all the internet sensations. A lot of the time it costs money, and, growing up, I didn’t want to make my parents spend that type of money to get me on that type of platform.”
Thompson, who now plays in the Cincinnati Reds organization, transferred to North Carolina in 2021 after playing a year at junior college. He was the lone Black player on UNC's roster that season.
The costs of competitive travel baseball are well-documented. In 2015, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen wrote that baseball is “a sport that increasingly freezes out kids whose parents don’t have the income to finance the travel baseball circuit.” USA Today reported in 2017 that travel baseball costs average out to $3,700 a year. In some cases, parents have reported paying upwards of $4,000 in a single season.
Due to the increasing popularity of travel baseball and the dwindling numbers in more democratized Little League Baseball programs, local and national baseball organizations have kickstarted initiatives to help serve those groups underrepresented across baseball.
Jerry Manuel — a former major league manager of the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets — launched the MLB DREAM Series in 2017. The multi-day event allows a pool of youth minority players, mainly catchers and pitchers, to participate in batting practice and drills in front of college and professional scouts. The series also features a forum of retired professional players and coaches as well as seminars to inform the prospects about some of the baseball’s trailblazers from the past.
There are also programs that serve minority communities on a local level, including the formation of all-minority teams for youth players.
Thompson said he practiced on an all-minority team in high school as a part of the P.R.O Youth Foundation. The organization is currently run by founder Chip Lawrence, a former professional baseball player and current Special Assistant to Scouting for the Milwaukee Brewers. The opportunities within P.R.O Youth provided Thompson with a unique experience outside his club and high school teams, he said.
“It was fun being able to be around kids I could really relate to,” Thompson said. “Kids who grew up the same way that I did. Kids who had that same background as me and being able to use that in a baseball foundation.”
Like Thompson, Kaleb Cost — a UNC baseball and football commit — played on an all-minority youth baseball team, the Georgia Heat. Cost’s playing days with the organization came before he started high school, and he said the time with the Heat helped him transition to higher levels of baseball.
“(Diversity) definitely impacted me a lot; growing up I played with an all minority team until I moved,” he said. “When I started playing with Home Plate, I had to adjust to playing with other ethnicities. It was a cool switch for me. I knew I was going to have to do it if I was going to continue playing baseball.”
While there are many initiatives to improve diversity at the college level — and in baseball as a whole — there isn’t a quick solution.
Black participation in the MLB has steadily declined since its peak in 1981. There were no U.S.-born, Black players in the 2022 World Series — something that hadn't happened since 1950.
So while Forbes said UNC wants to improve, dwindling diversity in baseball has been an overarching problem for several decades.
“There definitely are some things that go on (to increase diversity in college baseball),” Forbes said. “The MLB Breakthrough Series is really awesome. We’ve recruited some kids out of there. And again, I do firmly believe this, everyone in baseball has the same goal — and it’s just to get best players. We’re fortunate here. We’ve had kids from all over, and we’re proud of that. But (diversity) is something I hope will improve and continue to improve. That’s the best way to answer it, I don’t know how else to answer it.”
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