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Off-the-field News

Publication Date: January 30, 2001

A Couple of Potentially Big Changes

Play has started in a limited fashion around the country -- cheer up, Texas, Arizona State, Stanford, and Fullerton fans; that first game counts and is an indicator of how good your team is, but no more than any other one game -- but I want to take a look at a couple of brewing storms on the off-field news front before we all get really busy watching the games, since they could have a pretty big impact on the game we're watching five years from now.

Amateurism Reform

The first issue, amateurism reform, has been relatively high-profile in the college baseball community. The NCAA is strongly considering revising its rules on amateurism to allow players who have formerly played professionally to return and play college ball, losing a year of eligibility for each year of professional play and sitting out a year while enrolled before being allowed to play. Athletes would also be allowed to enter the professional draft each year without loss of amateur status. The proposal has come to the membership from the Agents and Amateurism Subcommittee, who have strongly endorsed it.

A couple of stories about reactions to this issue:

The idea seems to be most favored by individual sports like tennis and golf, but baseball may be the most affected by it, since it's one of the few team sports where professional employment at 18 is a definite possibility. Reaction by both the baseball coaches and general membership seems to be highly negative, but the subcommittee seems quite dedicated to the idea, so I'd give this one about a 60% chance of going through.

Ending Junior Draft Eligibility

The second issue seems to have escaped the notice of the college baseball press completely so far, probably because it originates completely within the pro ranks. As one of his proposals in a package designed to save the game once again, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig proposed ending junior draft eligibility for college players.

This one has a much smaller chance of going through, since this change would have to be approved by the players' union and would certainly reduce the amount of draftee signing bonuses by a bit, but I'd give it a 10% chance of going through as a concession by the union, since it would only affect future players, and they've been willing to give things up in that case once or twice before.

Possible Outcomes and Implications

Status Quo: Given the probabilities I've given above, which admittedly are nothing more than an educated guess, the most likely outcome is the status quo, although the uncertainty involved in just the proposals being made could cause a few high school players to go ahead and enter the minors.

Amateurism changes only: If only the amateurism rules change, there are a couple of possible outcomes. One is that players who currently go to college for the degree currently may be more likely to go into the minors, since they may feel that they can always try the minors for a couple of years and then still be able to go to college afterwards. The other outcome is that there will be more older players available for schools willing to take them -- older in this case meaning 21-23, most likely. The general shift caused by these factors would be that the player population would probably get a bit older.

We're probably not talking about potential superstars here; those guys are generally going to last at least four years in the minors. However, great programs aren't just built on superstars, they're built on a good supply of mid-level guys with specific skills as well, so there definitely could be a positive impact on play quality from this.

I'm ignoring, because it's been covered well elsewhere, the administrative headache that this proposal would represent, although it is substantial.

Draft changes only: If only the draft rules change, there will be a couple of balancing factors. High school players who have borderline options will be more likely to go on into the minors, since college will then represent a four-year commitment rather than the current three. On the other hand, players who do choose college will obviously be around for four years now. Given the normal amount of playing time for freshmen, that's actually a considerable boost to the useful life of a player who blossoms around age 20, not an unusual circumstance.

Selig is a strong contender for the worst business executive in a major U. S. industry at the moment (and for all of you who have gone through staff cutbacks made with an eye on the stock price three months hence, you know that's a pretty tough competition), so this is almost guaranteed to be a bad idea for major league baseball. That's not my beat, though, and I think it could be a good thing overall for the colleges.

Depending on how the rules were written, there might also be an increase in the number of players going to junior college, if that were available as a short-term stayover.

Both changes: The most drastic circumstance, of course, would be if both changes were to go through. This, I think, would potentially raise the age of the average college starter by as much as a year. In the absence of any other factors, that would obviously raise the level of play.

There are administrative difficulties and fairness problems with both proposals, so I don't support either of them, but neither do I think they're the unmitigated disasters they've been presented as so far. Having no control over any of this, I'll just sit and wait to see how it goes with the rest of you.

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