By RENALDO DORSETT
SCORES of prospective athletes, parents and local baseball enthusiasts took advantage of the opportunity to engage in a discussion with several progressive and experienced figures in the sport.
Bahamian major leaguer Antoan Richardson hosted the first of his federation’s many events to inform and educate: “Career Paths to Athletic Success.”
The panel included fellow Bahamian baseball players Albert Cartwright - who last played for the Ottowa Champions of the Canadian American Baseball League along with Crachad Laing, former collegiate player and current assistant baseball coach and physics teacher at Perkiomen School in Philadelphia, Pensylvannia.
Other panelists included MLB player Mike Baxter, Erik Bakich, head baseball coach at University of Michigan, and Rebecca Seesel, manager of International Baseball Operations for the Office of the Commissioner.
In recent years, several Bahamian players have been drafted out of college to enter the minor league farm system while the number of international signees, some as young as 16, have also increased.
Richardson, who was originally drafted in high school, finished his collegiate career and earned his degree from Vanderbilt, before he entered the major leagues.
“We want to educate the kids, the parents and their families on all of the options. It’s not about being an advocate for either choice, whether it’s deciding to pursue a major league career at a young age or making the choice to play and continue your education in college, but it’s about being informed and making the right decision for yourself. Education on all aspects of this business and the choices available to you,” Richardson told the crowd gathered at the British Colonial Hilton.
He drew on his personal experience of going back and forth between the world of professional baseball – a fact that some making the early jump to the major leagues may not consider when faced with the prospect of signing.
“It was very hard to go back to school because once you’re in that baseball world its kind of hard to turn your mind back to writing papers and studying for tests. On top of that you have the team obligations,” he said, “When I first was in an off season programme and I wanted to go back to school, I told the organization that I wanted to go back and finish my degree. When next year rolled around I had even more obligations to fill and at that point I realised they didn’t care about my education and I had to make a decision that was best for me. I went back to school, I knew I was going to anger people in the organization but it was the right move for me to make in the long run.”
Richardson, a pioneer in the resurgence of baseball in the Bahamas, whose MLB career includes seasons with the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees, among other teams, hosted the forum to better prepare young Bahamian athletes and their families as new opportunities arise each year.
Baxter, who was drafted by the Padres and spent time with the Mets, Cubs and Dodgers organisations said making an informed decision means being aware of the career path and the daunting task ahead.
“It’s an emotional decision, but you have to try to make it an informed decision. You have people that come in as professionals and their job is to make you believe that the situation they want for you is the best decision,” he said, “After you sign the work just truly begins. You’re not going to be in some glamorous league, you’re probably going to be playing in the Dominican Republic or some rookie league with nobody watching you and you’re going to be stuck on that field until you hit your way out of it. It’s the reality you rarely hear about but it’s the reality of the system.”
Bakich said that as an NCAA coach, it remains difficult to compete with the professional scouts for high school prospects with the promise of an immediate payday.
“Getting your college degree and having an opportunity to continue your academic career is something that can outlast a baseball career,” he said, “Before you get started on a professional career you need to know how difficult it is to make a career in this sport. Just because you get to the big leagues and you get drafted doesn’t mean you’re financially set for life. There are a lot of guys who reach the big leagues and they don’t get to that point of free agency and that money you think of being tossed around. Think of like a pyramid. At the bottom you have your little league baseball, 5 million little leaguers turn into 500,00 high school players. That turns into 50,000 high school players and the highest level that drop off continues, but those guys at the highest level, about 5,000 players are all chasing the major league career. At every level you have a 90 percent drop off rate and 10 percent retention rate. The competition to become an established professional is tremendous and you’re really fortunate to get to that level.”
Cartwright has spent nine seasons at the professional level, reaching as high as AA with the Phillies organisation.
Cartwright was drafted twice before he entered the minor league system out of junior college.
He currently works along side Max D Academy who has produced a number of minor league signees, with Henry Thompson and Tahnaj Thomas the latest to sign contracts this year.
“When you’re a little kid all you do is think of making it to the major leagues so when you’re presented with that opportunity it’s tough to turn down. The thought of not making it never enters your mind so it’s very difficult to say no to that when the opportunity presents itself, everyone’s situation is different,” he said, “For me I think it came down to me being ready. I think I changed my mind several times based on talking to family and talking to my college coach and everyone was basically being helpful and trying to help me to make the right decision but ultimately it came down to timing and me being ready to make that leap,” he said, “Having to go back to school after playing baseball for years is tough. You have many challenges and obligations that you don’t have time to think about school. If you don’t have that support system pushing you every year you wont take advantage of that chance to do it. I’m fortunate enough to have a system where my family has a business I can fall back on, but again, everyone’s situation is different.”
The panel offered diverse perspectives as each of the representatives come from different sides of the business: athletes, coaches and administrators.
Each speaker made their presentation followed by a an eventful question and answer period with the audience.
Richardson, the pioneer in modern era for baseball in the country, said he’s now at a crossroad in his 11-year-old professional career as he try to decide on whether or not he will continue playing or to move into front office of the sport.
Rebecca Seesel, Manager of International Baseball Operations for the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, said the league continues its interest in fostering a relationship with the Bahamas.
“Events like these and people like this with interest in the sport are the reasons this sport continues to develop in the Bahamas. As much as Major League Baseball wants to come in and work with the country it’s not about us implementing our own programmes but rather identifying the people doing the work to build the infrastructure with them. I could never know Bahamian baseball as well as the people on the ground here so it’s about identifying the positive work being done here and finding ways to assist,” she said, “The Bahamas has an amazing history of athletics and competition. There’s no question that you guys have tremendous athletes and people are very passionate about sports. It’s always been an attractive place and we know there is talent here with potential. In the last few years people have definitely taken notice. Commitment is very important, everywhere we work we are only as committed as the people on the ground want us to be. Whatever we do and wherever we go, the goal is to make it accessible for everybody.”
When asked about MLB programmes in the Bahamas in comparison with other countries in the Caribbean, Seesel said the unique nature of baseball in the Caribbean requires a unique approach.
“We view the Bahamas as a completely new challenge, a new adventure. I don’t go into any other country thinking that’s what we have to get to because each country is unique and each country has its own potential. My goal isn’t to change the Bahamas to get it to become more like the DR, the goal here is to find what fits here,” she said, “The most immediate impact the MLB would look to have is in the coaching arena. “We believe that coaching is really fundamental and kids can only get as far as their coaches can help them. Coaching is crucially important. We have some programmes we have implemented in other countries that we think are important and there is the potential to do that here. In the longer term we have to see what fits here.”
The 33-year-old Richardson said it’s important to empower individuals in athletic fields with facts and relevant information so those with the desire will hopefully be better equipped to chart a successful course.
“I would never want to discourage anyone from chasing their dreams,” he said, “The goal is to ensure that you have all of the options presented to you in order to make an informed decision for your future.”