The dawn of the 2007 Major League Baseball (MLB) season is perhaps the best time to reflect upon baseball’s past and its hopes for the future. At no other time of the season will fans’ aspirations be as high without need for qualification.
As teams gear up for Opening Day on April 1st, major league camps in both the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues have had the enviable positions to not only evaluate the 2007 starting line-ups but to get a look at what the future holds for 2008 and 2009. And in that regard, Spring Training has routinely become important not only to evaluate present-day players but for the prognostication of what teams can expect down the road.
Baseball is arguably the sport most intertwined with its history and legacy along with its impact on society. Its past demands that it be revisited, especially when speaking about its future, as we explore here two notable and historically unique minor league prospects.
It was in 1887 when the first American Indian is believed to have competed in the major leagues. James Madison Toy, of partial Indian ancestry played in the American Association League in that year as well as in 1890. Toy preceded Louis Sockalexis, the first officially acknowledged American Indian who competed for the Cleveland Spiders of the National League in 1897 until 1899.
Although Native Americans entered the world of professional baseball 50 years prior to African Americans, who competed in the Negro Leagues, until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by signing his minor league contract with Dodgers in 1945, there have been less than 50 Native Americans of full Indian ancestry to compete in the Major Leagues since 1897.
Charles Albert “Chief” Bender is the sole Native American elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, although Jim Thorpe was perhaps the best-known Native American player of the 20th century as he excelled in multiple sports.
There are, however, many well-known Hall of Famers who are of part Native American ancestry such as Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell and Early Wynn.
At long last, the drought of notable Native American future hopefuls in MLB may be over. One of them can be found in the New York Yankees organization and the other in the organization of its rival, the Boston Red Sox. Right handed starting pitcher, Joba Chamberlain, was landed by the Yankees in the 2006 draft, signed as a supplemental first-round pick and 41st overall. Chamberlain is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. After competing for two years for the University of Nebraska, having only started to play baseball as a senior in high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, Chamberlain led his team to the 2005 College World Series going 10-2 for the season with a 2.81 ERA.
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Now 21, Chamberlain has been clocked with a 98-mph fastball and has been favorably compared by physique, delivery and his portfolio of pitches to Cleveland Indians pitcher, C.C. Sabathia. Most important for the Yankees, is not to rush Chamberlain to the Big Show too early, as he has a history of weight and triceps tendonitis problems. He spent the winter in the Hawaiian Winter League where his progress continued, followed by an invite to Spring Training. Yet, it is his strong mental makeup which is central to his battling any problems which may arise along the way, according to the Yankees. Slated to start in A-ball at the beginning of 2007, Chamberlain could end the season as high as AAA, with a possible shot at making the Yankees rotation in 2008.
Another Native American star in the making spent Spring Training in Red Sox Nation. Jacoby Ellsbury, whose mother is of full Navajo descent and a member of the Colorado River Tribe, has taken his partial Native American heritage quite seriously. Ellsbury, signed by Boston in the first round of the draft in 2005 as the 23rd overall pick, is a left-handed outfielder who competed for Oregon State University where he was the 2005 Pac-10 Conference Conference Player of the year and an All Academic Honorable Mention. Ellsbury was ranked as the fastest base runner and 3rd best defensive outfielder of eligible college players in Baseball America’s Best Tools Survey for 2005.
Ellsbury’s speed coupled with power to all fields, according to the Red Sox, most closely resembles Johnny Damon’s playing style and the hope is that he will at least spend part of the 2008 season at the major league level while becoming a regular starter in 2009.
And a recent former major leaguer, Bobby Madritsch, pitched for the Seattle Mariners in 2004 and 2005 and was traded to the Kansas City Royals for the 2006 season. Madritsch is of Lakota Sioux heritage. He recovered at age 28 from reconstructive shoulder surgery when the Mariners signed him. Unfortunately, he re-injured his shoulder and tore his labrum in 2005 and the Royals eventually released him. Now 31, Madritsch has not elected another surgery but is still attempting a comeback in some organization with a minor league contract for 2007. Thus far, only the Philadelphia Phillies have shown any interest.
All three of these players have one commonality in addition to their Native American roots, however, and that is that they grew up off of the Indian reservation, regardless of their heritage. Ellsbury had limited time living at the Warms Springs reservation early in his childhood, where his mother is a special education teacher, but he grew up in Madras, Oregon. Chamberlain grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska and Madritsch, while born on an Indian reservation, was taken away when he was but 2 months old and raised amongst the rough neighborhoods of Chicago.
Key to their success, however, is that all three men assimilated into American life, unlike other Native American boys living on Indian reservations and thereby increased their odds for success later in life. Still, unbeknownst to most Americans, the reservations remain rife with poverty with a lack of general services. There exists a high school dropout rate of over 40%, an unemployment rate of over 60% and the poverty rate exceeds 25%. Healthcare and education are under-funded while diabetes, obesity, alcohol and drug abuse are pervasive problems. And all of this remaining depravity is present in spite of the fact that the Indian Gaming Association touts that there are now Indian gaming casinos in 28 states which have proliferated over the past decade.
And the lack of participation in sports on either the collegiate or professional levels by Native Americans prevails. The overriding concept ingrained in Native American culture is that standing out for individual accomplishment is in direct conflict with the importance of functioning as a group. Enjoying success apart from the tribe is not rewarded but rather scorned. As such, athletes who leave and go on to have a modicum of success only return to the reservation to face criticism and rejection by family and friends. This is often too much to reconcile in the mind of an adolescent.
Many Native American athletes additionally suffer from a bad rap by college coaches or professional scouts as well. Few coaches avail themselves to the talent on the reservations. Most are told, by the scant few who have actually approached Native American communities, that they will be let down by the Native American’s inability to successfully assimilate on the college or professional level. Moreover, coaches worry about academic eligibility of these prospective students.
Making the transition from a sheltered life on a reservation to a college campus requires basic life skills which are lacking without the proper guidance. And feelings of guilt about achieving success have led Native American athletes to deliberately sabotage his or her chances to thrive. They would rather go back to a depraved life that is familiar to them and be around family rather than vying for a better stake in life.
Not dissimilar to the lack of effort exhibited by MLB in its investment of players from the African American community, it as well as the universities routinely seek out players overseas rather than even approach potential which exists on Indian reservations. The idea is dismissed out of hand. But unlike the youth of the African American community, who generally long to escape a life of poverty and crime-ridden neighborhoods, the Native American needs to be exposed to options in a way which can work in concert with their culture and customs, yet improve their lot in life.
Both Chamberlain and Ellsbury find themselves in unique positions, given the level of expectations for them on the big league level. And since they remain members of their respective tribes, they have the opportunity to foster a new dialog between MLB and the Native American community as well as to implore scouts and college coaches to not give up on their people. Therefore, it is ever more important that these two players by virtue of their climb to success at the major league level and beyond play a key role in introducing a whole new source of untapped talent of American boys, who just happen to live on a reservation.
“I think coaches might find out that the reservations contain some extraordinary athletes….It takes a special coach to bring them along, give them the security they need,” according to South Dakota State Representative, Ron Volesky, a member of the Lakota Sioux and a Harvard graduate. He too grew up primarily away from the reservation.
But let us hope that the Native American population can give to those of their own heritage, who have been successful, the necessary access to its most important asset, its children, in that they have a chance for a better life, whether it be in sports or some other discipline.
Diane M. Grassi is a contributing writer for The Biz of Baseball.
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