College grads in baseball a rare breed

College commencement ceremonies and Major League Baseball games are staples of American life in May.

Only a small number of men can say they have participated in both.

As of Wednesday morning, 917 players had appeared in at least one big-league game this season, according to STATS LLC. Of that group, only 39 — or 4.3 percent — were confirmed by their teams of MLB as having obtained four-year college degrees through a survey of clubs.

The tiny fraction highlights the challenges of pursuing a higher education while chasing big-league dreams. Young men are eligible for the Major League Baseball amateur draft at multiple points in their development:

• After graduating from high school.

• After any season of junior college.

• After their junior or senior seasons at a four-year college.

• After any season during which they are 21 years old.

With so many chances to focus solely on baseball — and earn money — it’s not surprising that 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds turn pro. And once they do, baseball’s year-round schedule makes it difficult for them to make up the missed credits. Think about it: If your team’s general manager wants you to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic to improve your chances of reaching the majors, would you say no because you need to take a marketing class?

Maybe you should, given how difficult it is to score a set-for-life contract. But chances are you won’t.

In that context, Curtis Granderson’s degree in business management and business marketing is about as impressive as the MVP-caliber numbers he posted for the New York Yankees last year.

The Detroit Tigers selected Granderson in the third round of the 2002 amateur draft, after his junior year at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As the son of teachers, Granderson felt a familial obligation and personal desire to graduate. So, while playing for Class A Lakeland in 2003, he asked the Tigers if they would accommodate his desire to fulfill his degree requirements. The organization agreed, even though his obligations to baseball didn’t cease.

One example: Gary Green, Granderson’s manager at Lakeland that year, was asked to serve as a proctor for an exam. Green was so impressed with Granderson’s commitment and integrity that he quickly agreed. So Granderson took his test in the manager’s office at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Not that his teammates noticed. “I don’t think a lot of our guys were really aware,” Green recalled during a telephone interview last year. “At 18, 19, 20, 21, they’re caught up in themselves. Our staff was aware, no doubt. But I don’t believe the majority of our players were.” Thanks to his in-season head start, Granderson graduated from UIC in December 2003 — only one semester behind his original classmates.

Granderson’s status as a college graduate is well-known in baseball circles, partly because many of his charitable efforts involve educational initiatives. (While speaking to school groups, Granderson routinely receives his loudest ovation when it is mentioned he obtained his degree.) He’s heavily involved with the Major League Baseball Players Association, having volunteered for — or been volunteered for — various responsibilities because of his business education.

Teammates and opposing players approach him from time to time, curious about how he graduated. They want to know how many credits he had left when he was drafted. They want to know what degree he earned. Basically, they want to know if they can make it work, too.

“It’s very difficult to do,” Granderson told me. “A lot of stuff had to line up for me to get the opportunity to go back to school.

“First, the individual has to want to do it. School’s not necessarily for everyone.”

MLB clubs include a college tuition escrow in contracts for many drafted players — generally speaking, those born in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. The program, in effect, provides protection for high school seniors who turn down scholarship offers to turn pro. According to MLB figures, 60.2 percent of amateur contracts signed in 2011 by players born in those three countries included some kind of scholarship money.

But teenagers who encounter instant (if not enduring) wealth tend to think about other aspects of their new contracts. For them, to place great emphasis on the scholarship plan would sound something like failure. Who cares? I’m going to make it and get rich anyway. Well, not necessarily.

Another complication: Players receive the scholarship funds only if they enroll in college within a fixed time period after their careers are over. Even then, money from the escrow is taxable. “The college education program has been there for student-athletes, but a lot of guys don’t use it because they don’t know the ins and outs of how to use it,” Granderson said. “It’s there. But you’ve got to keep in mind, too, that (baseball) becomes the priority once you sign the professional contract.”

Still, Granderson found the time. So did Arizona Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz, who received his undergraduate kinesiology degree from the University of Michigan more than 11 years after the Seattle Mariners drafted him. Never too late.

Putz, in fact, plays for the most educated team in baseball. The Diamondbacks lead the majors with seven college graduates: Putz, Willie Bloomquist (Arizona State), Craig Breslow (Yale), John McDonald (Providence), Takashi Saito (Tohoku Fukushi University in Japan), Mike Zagurski (Kansas) and Brad Ziegler (Southwest Missouri State). The Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays are tied for second with four graduates apiece on their 40-man rosters.

“I am thrilled to see we have the most educated players, but they are only as smart as their win/loss record,” Diamondbacks club president Derrick Hall said when told of his team’s standing among baseball’s mortarboard wearers.

“I happen to believe our guys are as smart as any, but fans want to see wins. Where I do see the difference is with an educated group that understands the business of the game, the importance of the fan and the significance of giving back to the community. That can be linked to education and a strong level of common sense.”

Speaking of that: Wise people are well-aware of what they don’t know. Such individuals perceive their own deficits and address them with further education.

So, it shouldn’t surprise you that Granderson, one of the smartest players in baseball, mentioned a new interest during our conversation in New York this week.

Graduate school.

Granderson said a representative from the University of Chicago — one of the country’s foremost private research universities — conveyed to him that he has a standing offer to enroll in a program there.

“I was like, ‘Oh!’ ” Granderson said.

Asked what he might want to pursue, he added, “Initially, when I first graduated, it was finance. I’m not sure if I still want to go that route. Educational administration would be the other one, which has been the leader (for me) over the past few years. I’m not too sure what the (other idea) might be. I’ve had some ideas. I don’t know yet. I’ll keep doing homework.”

He always has. It’s still serving him well.