Opportunity to Play for Pay Keeps Top Talent Out of College Baseball
By Patrick Maks
It’s a juggling act with which OSU Head Baseball Coach Greg Beals is becoming all too familiar.
The challenge that the second-year Ohio State coach must annually battle is not often just a tall order, but also an issue unique to the sport of baseball at the collegiate level.
Photo by Jim Davidson
For Beals, coaching college baseball presents an inevitable struggle of recruiting top-shelf talent against the lure and luster of playing the sport professionally.
It’s what the former Ball State coach calls the biggest hurdle in bringing the nation’s best players to Columbus.
“Number one is major league baseball and the draft, and the fact that it’s a life-long dream for these kids to have a chance to play professional baseball,” Beals says. “And when they get drafted they obviously take a very hard, curious look at that opportunity.”
Compared to college basketball and football that necessitate a student-athlete to stay least one or three years, respectively, high school baseball players are free to enter the professional ranks without the obligation of attending at least some college even though they may have signed a letter of intent to do so.
Most recently, Beals points to last year when three members of his incoming freshmen class ended up signing professional contracts shortly after they were drafted into Major League Baseball instead of attending Ohio State—leaving Beals down two scholarships and two players compared to opponents.
And just last Friday, Beals again saw one of his own jump to professional baseball as OSU right-hander John Kuchno decided to forgo his junior season and instead sign a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates after he was drafted in the 18th round of 2012 Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft this past June.
That’s not to say that this dilemma is any sort of novelty—it’s something that former OSU baseball coach Bob Todd faced in his 23 years with the Buckeyes.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I had many that signed—that we had signed—that signed pro contracts,” says Todd, who accumulated a record 897 wins at OSU. “The minute they did, it was almost like out of sight out of mind.”
“I never once used their name, I never publicized that. I never wanted that person to get any free publicity at all from Ohio State. That wasn’t Ohio State’s obligation.”
Todd says there was “no crying about it, no griping about it.”
“This is the way it is. That was my belief—a guy signs, and I felt like turns his back on Ohio State after making a commitment because we made a commitment to him,” he says. “I’m never using his name again. Done. There’s no crying over spilled milk. That’s just business. Whether you like it or not, that’s business.”
Still, it’s a struggle that the program’s current coach seems positioned to fight with one hand tied behind his back.
According to Beals, Ohio State offers, on average, 40 percent scholarships for baseball players.
“Our kids aren’t on full scholarships. We have 11.7 scholarships to field our entire team. Well, there’s 35 guys on our team and 27 of them are on our travel roster and only 11.7 scholarships to go around for that,” he says.
“I think (people) think that all these college athletes are on full rides, that’s not quite the case.”
In a way, it handicaps Beals’ efforts to sell playing at Ohio State compared to lucrative offers from a professional club.
“Pro baseball is offering the kid money, and offering to pay for his college,” he says. “And we’re not even able to pay for his whole college. Most of our average players are on about 40 to 45 percent scholarships. Our average player is paying more to go to school than he’s getting paid in scholarship.”
Nor is it conducive, Beals says, to competing with other schools around the country from perhaps offering potential student-athletes more generous scholarship offers.
“That doesn’t keep school X and Y from offering him 70 percent, and now the kid’s got to weight the 70 percent scholarship offer to the 40 percent scholarship offer,” he says.
Beals, though, is battling such obstacles to try and continue to bring elite talent to Ohio State.
In addition to emphasizing the importance of education to prospective players, Beals thinks it’s the “natural time to go to school.”
“I’ve talked to players, and I actually did it myself when I went for three years in college and then I go play pro ball for three years and then you got to come back and now you’re 26 years-old back in class and school,” Beals, who played three seasons in the New York Mets’ farm system after playing at Kent State, said.
Beals says coming back to school at an older age isn’t an easy thing to do.
“When you’re 19 right out of high school, go to college like everyone else goes to college. You’re out playing pro ball for five or six years and then try to go to college, it becomes a whole lot tougher,” he says.
Just more than two years since retiring, Todd recalls his own methods in trying to bring premium talent to Columbus.
“I mean, my selling point is you can have the best of both worlds,” he says. “You can come to college and work on your skills, hone your skills as a baseball player and after three years still have the opportunity to play pro baseball.”
And while Todd says he looked for players with the ability to play at championship level in order to compete nationally, a recruit’s commitment to getting an education was just as critical.
“That was very important to me because if he’s not academically oriented then his success might be limited,” he says.
More than that, though, Todd says it’s about a player’s own aspiration to get a degree—not just the wishes of those around him.
“A student-athlete has to have a desire—you know if you have somebody that’s a very good student out of high school, the percentages are that he’s going to work at being a good student in college,” he says. “The kid that’s a borderline student in high school probably has already shown a propensity to be a little lazy in the classroom.”
If that’s in line, Todd says, college is a place that he thinks allows players to mature and prepare for the challenges that professional baseball will naturally present, on and off the field.
Similarly, Beals thinks that playing in college can be crucial in an athlete’s physical development.
“You get one shot to become a professional. Are your ready for that opportunity right now? Are you mentally and physically ready to go out and play professional baseball or would it be better for you to go to college for three years and get physically stronger, improve your skill, your game—and probably most importantly spend some time away from home, mature yourself,” Beals says.
Like Todd, understanding the maturity levels of prospective student-athletes—particularly their commitment towards education—is something that Beals has narrowed in on.
“You got to find out what’s important to them and their family. Otherwise, you’re making a poor decision, especially in our situation where it hurts us when we make mistakes and kids get drafted and sign,” he says. “I don’t necessarily call it mistake, but you’re left without a player and a scholarship that’s playing for you for the year, though.”
What’s difficult, Todd said, is that the idea of playing professionally can be very compelling for not only the recruit involved, but his family too.
“Pro baseball has a way that if they want to sign a high school kid, they can become very persuasive to—number one—parents that have stars in their eyes and what they visualize is their kid automatically playing in the big leagues,” he says.
It’s a value, Todd says, that needs to be defined as a group effort.
“It takes a conviction on everybody’s part that we want him to go college first, we want him to enjoy that experience and then he’ll have the opportunity down the road to play professional baseball,” he said.
Likewise, Beals stresses how the opportunity to play baseball at Ohio State is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“That’s a special life long experience that you’re going to have and it’s going to have value to you forever. You can be a Buckeye now and still have a chance to play professional baseball,” he said. “If you decide to play professional baseball now, you’ll never have a chance to be a Buckeye.”
It’s not stopping Beals from recruiting the best talent he can, though. It’s part of the job.
“I think in order to do what we want to do here; you got to go after that caliber athlete,” he says. “And that’s what buckeye nation expects. That’s what I want from our program, I want to attract recruits and get the best student-athletes possible to come to Ohio State. And when you do that, you’re going to run the risk a little bit of a guy here or there getting drafted and signing.”
Part Two Tomorrow
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