Hunter was wrong, but had valid point

OK, Torii Hunter said something really stupid. Something unacceptable, something indefensible, something he now must live with. He should have chosen his words more carefully, and judging from his subsequent comments to an Angels-sponsored blog, he knows it.

But let’s not miss the point.

The point is that baseball, despite a slight uptick from 2007 to ‘08, is still not attracting enough African-American athletes — and maybe not enough American athletes, period.

Hunter, when he called Latino players “impostors” for African- Americans in a USA Today roundtable, was speaking more out of frustration than malice.

That does not excuse his remark, much as everyone loves Hunter and understands that his actions toward people of all backgrounds speak far louder than his words. But let’s skip the usual rush to PC judgment, the shrill, predictable reaction.

Hunter was wrong. And Hunter is right.

The percentage of African-American players increased to 10.2 percent in 2008, according to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports — up from an 8.2 percent in ’07, the lowest level in the more than 20 years of the study.

Still, a glance at several projected Opening Day rosters reveals some disturbing snapshots:

• The Cardinals, the team of Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, will be without an African-American.

• The Braves, the team of Hank Aaron, will feature an African-American only if rookie outfielder Jason Heyward and/or non-roster infielder Joe Thurston make the club.

• The Mets’ only African-American will be outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., a player they recently acquired in a trade.

• The Tigers could be without an African-American if they fail to keep outfielder Austin Jackson or left-hander Dontrelle Willis.

• The White Sox and Marlins, teams with African-American general managers, will each have only one African-American player — outfielder Juan Pierre for the White Sox and outfielder Cameron Maybin for the Marlins.

These teams are not racist; they are looking for the best players. As Red Sox outfielder Mike Cameron, an African-American, recently told me, “Different teams go through stages where they have more or less African-American players on their roster. With only about nine percent in the league, it’s going to happen.”

But therein lies the problem.

One point from the USA Today roundtable deserves more attention than Hunter’s comments: The low number of baseball scholarships — 11.7 per season — permitted for each Division I team.

The scholarship limit in football is 85. In basketball, it’s 13 — and a basketball team uses only five players at a time.

On the other hand, football and basketball are revenue-producing sports and baseball is not.

“The colleges have corrupted baseball because they’ve taken away the scholarships,” agent Scott Boras said during the roundtable. “They’ve taken away America’s pastime from the grassroots level of homes.”

The trend is just the opposite on the international market, where teams sign large numbers of Latin players inexpensively because such players are not subject to the amateur draft.

The worldwide draft, a principal goal of commissioner Bud Selig in the next collective-bargaining discussions, would help change that dynamic, even though teams still could sign scores of undrafted Latin players cheaply.

But how about fixing the problem at home?

Baseball players rarely even command full scholarships; Rays left-hander David Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, was on a partial scholarship at Vanderbilt, according to his coach, Tim Corbin.

Football and basketball offer more immediate gratification than baseball; players in those sports jump right from college to the pros.

Baseball cannot compete unless it partners with the NCAA, creating more scholarships and increasing the role of the college game.

A major-league pitching coach recently sent me an e-mail on this very topic, even outlining a plan for the NCAA to shift to a summer schedule and 12-month academic year for baseball, with colleges becoming more a part of the feeder system for major-league clubs.

The NCAA might not go for it, but such a proposal is worth exploring; baseball would save money by scaling back the number of minor-league clubs and also sign fewer high-risk, high school players if those players considered college a more attractive option.

Selig, even while presiding over record revenues, remains open to change — he formed a 14-man competition committee in December to examine new ways to improve the game on the field.

He should form another committee solely to address the amateur side, with the idea of taking further action to prevent baseball from becoming an elitist sport in this country.

Torii Hunter said something really stupid.

Baseball needs to get smart.