State of Minnesota baseball: Strong, but could be better

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2014 - 12:03 PM

Design concept of the new Lowertown Ballpark in St. Paul.

Photo: file, Star Tribune

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By outward appearances, baseball in the state is doing very nicely.

Target Field, in its fifth season, is still a gem of a major league park. The independent minor league St. Paul Saints are moving into a new stadium next summer. The NCAA Division I Gophers have a new ballpark, and, for the first time ever, lights. The Northwoods League, a summer collegiate association, has six state teams in its thriving, 18-team league.

“Overall, compared to the past, I feel good about the state of baseball [in Minnesota],’’ Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “But it’s not without challenges.’’

And it’s how those challenges are answered that will determine whether all those glitzy new ballparks around the state are filled in the years to come. St. Peter believes that how the Twins fare at the top of the pyramid always will, in large part, determine baseball’s health in Minnesota. He’s optimistic that a wave a highly touted minor league talent will soon return the Twins to contending status, and reinvigorate what has been a sagging fan base at the new stadium.

But there are some who wonder whether even a winning major league team will be enough to keep baseball thriving here and elsewhere for the generations to come. Two major problems continue to dominate discussions about baseball’s future health: the lack of inner-city participation and corresponding future interest, especially American-born black youngsters, and the ongoing slow pace of the game, which has resulted in 3-plus-hour games being the norm at the big league level — the average MLB game was 3 hours, 2 minutes, 35 seconds through Sunday — leaving even many die-hard fans frustrated.

At baseball’s grass-roots level, the two issues are intertwined, according to Frank White, the coordinator of the Twins RBI youth program. Aside from the positions of pitcher and catcher, the game is too often considered to be boring to youngsters, White said.

“We need to figure ways to put the ball in play more for kids, and to make the game more exciting,’’ White said.

And if baseball can’t do that, well, football and basketball are attractive options.

“Kids this day and age like quick things, fast things and things that move along,’’ said RBI coach Steve Winfield, older brother of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. “Baseball has kind of sat on its laurels, if you ask me. Baseball is called America’s Pastime, but it’s been kind of been passed by — the NFL and the NBA have kind of shot past it.’’

Changing the perception

White said the RBI program has been successful in getting young blacks to try the game, but keeping them in the sport has proved to be a challenge. Part of it, he said, is the perceived lack of college scholarship opportunity. Division I baseball splits 11 ½ scholarships among its rosters, resulting in a number of partial scholarships. Football has 85 full scholarships, men’s basketball 13 full rides.

“If [inner-city] parents are thinking their son is a pretty good athlete and has a chance to make it, they generally pursue another sport,’’ White said. “Part of the challenge is that families don’t see the opportunity.’’

As the ranks of America-born players thin through the teenage years, the face of the game has taken on an unmistakable quality. This year less than 10 percent of major league players were American-born blacks.

“I can’t tell you how many times I hear kids of color, African-American kids, say, ‘Oh, you’re playing that white boys’ sport,’ ’’ White said. “That’s not said as a negative. That’s just the way they view it.’’

Can baseball change its face? And its pace?

St. Peter points out with pride that this year’s major league amateur draft produced the first Minnesota RBI alum to get selected — Onas FarFan, a 21st-round pick by the Twins.

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Cleveland - WP: C. Allen 4 FINAL
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NY Yankees - WP: M. Pineda 5
Kansas City - WP: D. Duffy 2 FINAL
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Texas - WP: D. Holland 4
St. Louis - WP: A. Wainwright 8 FINAL
Chicago Cubs - LP: T. Wood 0
Arizona - WP: J. Collmenter 6 FINAL
Minnesota - LP: R. Nolasco 2
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Oakland - WP: J. Samardzija 8
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Chicago 27 FINAL
NY Jets 19
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