Bo Knows Now – FanGraphs (blog)

On MLB Network Monday evening, contemporaries Dan Plesac and John Smoltz opined that Bo Jackson could have been a Hall of Famer, at least a regular All-Star, had he committed to baseball.

Jackson produced a career wRC+ of 111 and 7.7 WAR over parts of eight major-league seasons, hardly the stuff of bronzed immortalization in Cooperstown. But had Jackson fully committed to the sport, what could he have been? What could he have done?

Who is going to bet against a guy who can scale a wall?

Or accomplish this ….

The Bessemer, Ala., native was drafted by the Yankees in the second round of the 1982 draft but elected to attend Auburn. He did many impressive things at Auburn, starring in track and football, winning a Heisman Trophy. But he also posted a 1.364 OPS as a junior. He was drafted by the Royals in the fourth round of the 1986 draft after being selected first overall in the NFL draft. Jackson said publicly he would not sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And he didn’t sign.

Months after being drafted by the Royals, Jackson played 25 games in the majors in 1986. In 1987, he hit 22 homers and posted a .750 OPS with the Royals. In context – Jackson played only 53 minor-league games and 89 games in college – Jackson’s rookie numbers are remarkable.

The next year, Jackson was selected again in the NFL draft – this time in the seventh round – by the Raiders, who offered him a lucrative contract. From 1987 to 1990, Jackson split his time between the majors and the NFL. A football-related injury truncated his playing career.

Jackson was the subject of that conversation on the MLB Network because his name appeared in the news last week, as he made an interesting revelation: the star of Tecmo Bowl told USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale he wished he had “never played football.”

“I wish I had known about all of those head injuries, but no one knew that. And the people that did know that, they wouldn’t tell anybody.

“The game has gotten so violent, so rough. We’re so much more educated on this CTE stuff (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play football today.

“Even though I love the sport, I’d smack them in the mouth if they said they wanted to play football. I’d tell them, ‘Play baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, just anything but football.’”

Jackson is arguably the country’s greatest living athlete, certainly one of them. And perhaps at a time when many parents are questioning whether they should allow their sons to play football, Jackson’s thoughts can be influential. He could perhaps become a de facto ambassador for baseball.

Growing the game at the youth and amateur levels, making baseball more inclusive, is one of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s priorities. He should be applauded for identifying the issue and trying to implement change. Manfred is behind the push to unify youth, amateur and professional baseball through One Baseball. Under Manfred, baseball has launched its Play Ball initiative.

Baseball has gone from a game of the masses at the youth and amateur levels to an activity reserved for the upper middle class. This is in part due to costs of equipment, travel ball, and private instruction. Expanding the participation base is not just about attracting future players, but future customers. Those that play the sport at a youth level are more likely to continue to follow it in adulthood.

Many have noted the advantages a major-league career has over one in football: guaranteed contracts, longer careers, and lower risk of severe injury.

But reaching the majors is another thing entirely.

Amateur athletes are in part incentivized to play basketball and football because Division I baseball generally offers only partial scholarships.

Baseball is a high-skill, high-repetition sport and acquiring those reps, and necessary equipment, can be expensive and prohibitive.

Early in my writing career, about a decade ago, I was reporting on a story about the decline of African-American participation in baseball for the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Sun News.

I traveled to Georgetown, S.C., to investigate one of the most extreme examples, locally, of the trend at Carvers Bay High School. About three-quarters of the student population of the rural school on the coastal plain remains African-American, but that spring about 80% of the varsity baseball team was white. The school had a football tradition with NFL alumni, but the baseball team’s demographics spoke to baseball’s struggles at the grassroots level to attract African-American players.

A decade later, the demographic trends remain largely stagnant. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 8.3% of players on Opening Day rosters last year were African-American. According to SABR, African-American participation in the majors peaked at 18.7% in 1981 and has generally declined since then, reaching as low a 7.1 % in 2009.

Last year Adam Jones called baseball a “a white man’s sport.”

In 2015, Andrew McCutchen wrote a piece for the Players Tribune about the challenges of playing the sport as a poor kid growing up in central Florida.

Only 2.9% of Division I baseball players in 2015 were African-American last year, according to the diversity study.

Reported Peter Gammons in his notebook last week:

“The U.S. Hockey team that last week beat Canada in the finals of the World Junior Championships had three African-American players, as many as last summer’s Team USA baseball team comprised of the best college players.”

Baseball is losing ground in all types of rural communities. Jordy Mercer’s high school in remote Taloga, Oklahoma, no longer sponsors baseball and its varsity field has become overgrown, which I reported for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2015. Mercer is white and from a middle-class background.

Of course, much has been written about the decline of African-American participation in the sport. What has changed in the last decade, though, is the knowledge of the dangers of participating in football, which has displaced baseball as the country’s most popular pro sport.

Baseball has its own youth participation issues according to an NFSH study of youths between 6 and 17, as baseball participation dropped 4.3% from 2009 to 2014. But tackle football participation declined 17.9%.

Bo knew football. Bo knew baseball. Bo knows what path he would choose today. But how does baseball compel the next Jackson to choose baseball?

Jackson’s words perhaps resonate with thousands of families. But if more and more parents are seeking sporting alternatives for their sons, baseball must present itself as a viable one. There’s much work to be done.


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