Rays owner pushes to grow game

Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg is viewed as one of baseball’s most innovative executives, for the way his franchise has become a perennial winner in the rugged American League East despite severe payroll and revenue disadvantages.

Sternberg also has assumed leadership positions within the sport, as chairman of Major League Baseball’s diversity oversight committee and a member of commissioner Bud Selig’s newly formed on-field diversity task force.

Sternberg granted FOXSports.com an exclusive, wide-ranging interview at this week’s MLB Diversity Business Summit in Houston. This is Part I, focusing on MLB’s efforts to expand diversity and the future of the game itself.

FS: The commissioner formed the on-field diversity task force in April. What’s your early sense of the measures baseball could adopt going forward?

SS: On the field, everybody is focused on the number and lack of African-Americans (in the major leagues), and that’s incredibly alarming. [Black players accounted for only 7.7 percent of Opening Day roster spots, the lowest in more than 50 years, according to USA Today.] But are we just about trying to get African-Americans into the system and into the front offices? Or are we concerned about our fan base, making sure we’re not turning off African-Americans and other minorities to the game?

It is really America’s game. We reflect America. We want to make sure we’re doing a good enough job. It seems clear (to me), because of my age, that kids — after 12, 13 years old — is they’re lost (by the youth baseball system). Not only do they quit the game after 12 or 13, potentially, but they quit it sooner or don’t get into it because there isn’t a place for them from 13, 14, 15, 16 to really play the game consistently.

One thing is we don’t (necessarily) have two parents in a household. Baseball, as opposed to other sports, you need somebody to throw the ball with. You can hit off a tee but you have to chase it. You need another figure, and, in a lot of single-parent households, mom is working, or dad is working, or both parents are working. It’s hard. With basketball, the ball doesn’t go far. You can chase it down and keep shooting.

FS: You’ve talked about establishing a better bridge between Little League and high school-age baseball. We don’t typically standardize youth sports in America, but is that something that needs to be considered here?

SS: The Little League side has been standardized through age 12. Then we have the Babe Ruth and PONY Leagues. But it does thin down.

The thing that has changed so dramatically the last 10, 20, or 30 years is the advent of travel teams. It’s not just baseball. It’s every sport — soccer, lacrosse, you pick it. The best of the best are getting siphoned off (from the local leagues). It’s an expensive proposition. You play a lot of games. They travel far distances. You need a lot of kids.

The sport itself is OK, because a lot of people are playing it, but the problem is for minorities and poorer people. It’s tough to get into that treadmill of travel teams because of the expense involved.

Standardizing is one thing we could look at. Maybe it’s cutting down the travel time. Maybe it’s having games on certain days. The other part is also weather-related. We’ve focused on inner cities through the RBI program, obviously. But historically, a ton of players came from Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia. Do we maybe try to focus there, as well? The weather is good year-round. In northern cities, you can’t get the kids playing all the time. Scouts scout there less. Colleges recruit there less. The baseball teams are not as good.

FS: You mentioned college baseball. How much does the limited number of scholarships in NCAA Division I [11.7 for the entire team] reduce the number of kids playing baseball?

SS: I was just talking about it 45 minutes ago with a couple other owners. In truth, a lot of the players who come into the system come after high school. If it were a big issue — and it is significant — we’re able to work around it. (But other) kids don’t stay with the game because they know the scholarships aren’t there.

You look at a guy like Carl Crawford, who we had. He had a choice to do a lot of different things. We in baseball, coming out of high school, we were able to provide him a good amount of money. So, he chose baseball. That’s one player. I’m sure there are a number of others. So, we have that advantage. Now we have to make sure we’re not dragged down by this idea that kids (who are) 11 or 12 say, ‘I can’t get a scholarship in college, so I’m going to give this game up and play something else.’ There’s no question that’s prevalent.

FS: Do you think this era of single-sport specialization among children has hurt baseball?

SS: I think so, because baseball’s been such an inclusive sport over the years. If they’re forced to make a decision, it might not be a kid’s first choice. But if they were allowed to make three choices, it would absolutely be one of them. A lot of kids will play baseball, especially if they’re basketball players, because there’s less of a chance of getting hurt (than other sports). Concussions aren’t the issue. You don’t have to be dramatically tall or fast. Baseball is inclusive. As a second or third sport, if kids are given a choice, they’re going to play baseball.

FS: Do you find it’s helpful to exchange ideas about the future of baseball with other young owners, since you’re going to be the group that’s collectively in charge of the sport for the next generation?

SS: The on-field stuff, I’m not so happy about anymore. People are copying us too much. [Laughs.] Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but I wish we’d stop getting flattered so much.

I know any work (with the diversity committee) will only be additive to the game of baseball 10, 20, 30, 50 years from now. It’s whatever we can do to get more fans interested in the game at a young age. People who play the game tend to be fans.

Judging by what we’ve done with our franchise, in the stadium with the fan experience, we’re very open to trying new things. The younger owners — all the owners — genuinely care. But we need to do it institutionally, (not just) on a team level. We need to get some data around it, to make sure the amount of money, resources and manpower is done correctly. We need to put it out there and hope some of it sticks.

FS: I often think about the popularity of athletes across different sports. If you showed LeBron James on the Jumbotron of a random NFL stadium, I think about 99 percent of the fans there would recognize him. You have Evan Longoria on the Rays. He might be one of the five or 10 best players in the game. But if you put his face on the scoreboard of a football game in Seattle, let’s say, I bet only about 10 or 15 percent of the people there would know him immediately. Does baseball need to do a better job of turning its players into quote-unquote celebrities?

SS: We can definitely do better. We can always do better. We are trying and doing whatever we can, especially with social media now. With national sponsorships and endorsements, you see a guy and the face becomes familiar. Baseball is still a 25-man team. Basketball has the advantage that you see them up close and personal. The more individualized the sport — tennis, golf — you see the player (more often). But baseball, there could be 20 guys on the highlights.

We need to expand the ways we promote these guys, with as much or more cooperation with the union to make sure these things take place. None of this is done in a vacuum. If this was up to me, I would trot my guys around, have them show up at places, and try to do it in a reasonable fashion — the way it was a long time ago. You saw them everywhere. They would do postgame shows. I grew up with Kiner’s Korner. Those things, they’re a thing of the past in a lot of respects. There are a lot of rules on what we can ask them and what we can’t. Generally, they’re pretty good with their time. But it’s their time.

FS: One thing that came out of the World Baseball Classic this year was the Dominican team’s style of play. It was so visually captivating, with their celebrations. Their excitement jumped out of the TV set. Should we have more of that in the regular season?

SS: In the NFL, I go back to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson dancing in the end zone. Now you have the celebrations in the end zone. In baseball, the guy flips his bat a little — like we had the other night — and three innings later Matt Joyce gets hit in the back of his numbers. If there’s any showmanship, the game doesn’t promote it on the field and the players take exception. As a purist, I’m fine with it.

How do you have guys more animated? At the end of the game, the thing I love to see with my guys is we have Fernando Rodney shooting the arrow. The game is over already. Guys in the outfield play rock-paper-scissors coming in. They have the lineup, the high fives. It’s great stuff. During the game, because of the way the game has been played and the way the players approach it, it doesn’t lend itself to that celebratory nature.