Diamond in the rough

I WAS JUST OVER at ESPN.com checking out the stats on the five Cougars who are playing Major League Baseball. What struck me wasn't <b>Mark Hendrickson</b>'s four wins, <b>Aaron Sele</b>'s three or the collective 61 RBI and seven home runs of <b>John Olerud</b>, <b>Scott Hatteberg</b> and <b>Mike Kinkade</b>. Nope, what caught my eye --- and, hopefully, <b>Jim Sterk</b>'s too --- was the salaries.

We're talking some serious coin here, folks. Right next to height and weight you can find every player's dollar data. Forget about bats right, throws right. Show me the money!

Sele is making $8.67 million this season. Olerud is slidin' home with $7.7 million and Hatteberg's at a tidy $1.75 million. Kinkade's pulling in $320,000 and Hendrickson $300,000.

Having just read the latest issue of Butch's Beat and seeing that WSU is trying to raise $1 million to upgrade the Baily-Brayton baseball field, I think I've stumbled across the perfect match of need and resource.

But that's not why I'm writing this column.

I'm writing because their salaries actually are one powerful reason why Coug fans ought to cough up a few extra bucks to get the ball field, one of the finest in the land when it opened in the early 1980s, back up to elite standards.

What's the connection?

I'll explain.

First class facilities, as we know so well from the recent successes of our football team, help attract top athletes. And in baseball particularly, the finest go on to looooong professional careers -- at least twice that of football players.

Baseball is where journeymen infielders and rookies make ten times the average household income.

For the ol' alma mater that means a steady source of alums with huge amounts of money to donate to their favorite 501c(3)s.

Alas, the downfall in the fortunes of Cougar baseball over recent years has slowed the parade of talent going from Pullman to the $how.

Hendrickson, the former basketball star, is the only new Cougar to advance to and stick in the Majors over the last six seasons. And don't forget, he's damn near 30 and actually not even a product of WSU's baseball program, having pitched just a few games for the Cougars his senior year after hoops season ended.

We're talking about a crimson line up in the Majors that's getting long in the tooth. Olerud is in his 15th season, Sele his 11th, Hatteberg his ninth and Kinkade his sixth.

Sure, there are a number of Cougs toiling in the minors right now. Former Mariner Rob Ramsey, for instance, is trying to make a comeback in the Padre organization following life-threatening brain surgery. And Jason Grove, just a couple of seasons removed from WSU, appears to be steadily working his way through the Yankees' system.

But by and large, the days of knowing a handful of Cougars would always have steady work in the Majors seems to be over.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

For one, today's NCAA scholarship restrictions on baseball, which "charge" you more for out-of-state players than in-state guys is punitive and gives an unfair advantage to schools in larger states such as California.

Second, with the rise of Montlake's once-hapless program over the last dozen years, competition for prime in-state kids is tougher than ever.

Third, a number of schools in the Northwest have dropped their baseball programs over the last 20 years, meaning the Cougars have few opportunities to get their sea legs and build confidence on weaker teams before heading into the rigors of Pac-10 play. Instead, they're making the rounds in California against teams that have been playing outdoors all winter long.

Under those conditions, even legendary Buck Bailey and Bobo Brayton would find the going rough.

As I see it, that array of external forces --- coupled with the WSU athletic department's seeming indifference toward baseball in the mid- and late-1990s --- is largely why Washington State's 60-year reign of diamond excellence has devolved to the point where a paltry eight conference wins in a season would be tantamount to plowing new ground.

That's why the parade of Cougars to the Majors is slowing to a trickle.

And that's why first-rate facilities are so desperately needed. They help attract top talent. Moreover, one of the upgrades planned for Bailey-Brayton Field is new-age artificial turf, making it possible to practice outdoors year-round.

So dig deep, Cougfans. Bobo's number recently was been and his named added to the ballfield. What better time to start waking the echoes of our former glory than now.

Rest assured, your small investment today could spawn millions of dollars tomorrow in the form of new, crimson-colored Major Leaguers.


Bookie Gates, WSU's all-Pac-10 second baseman last season, hasn't strayed far from home since he was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks a year ago. The Pride of Seattle's Garfield High, he spent his rookie campaign last summer with the D-backs' single-A team in Yakima and is slated this summer to be in Pasco with the Tri-City Dust Devils, one of Colorado's single-A farm clubs.

Kyle Kendrick, the Mount Vernon quarterback/pitcher who signed with the Cougars to play both sports, may be headed to the professional baseball ranks instead. After an impressive, undefeated spring on the mound, he was drafted last week in the seventh round by the Cardinals.

Billy Petrick, the 6-foot-6 long-snapping phenom who signed a letter of intent a year ago to play center for the Cougars but instead opted for pro baseball, is considered one of the brightest young pitching prospects in the Chicago Cubs' system. Over the winter in the Instructional League he got his fastball up to 95 mph. He'll play Rookie League ball this summer in Mesa, Ariz.

Another lad the Cougar football team lost to pro baseball, WR/DB Forrest Lawson of Federal Way back in 1999, continues to struggle. He's in his fifth season of pro ball and still finds himself at the single-A level. He spent last season with Cleveland's single-A affiliate in South Carolina and is toiling this season with the Mets' single-A affiliate in St. Lucie, Fla.

TRIVIA TIDBIT: Since the Major League Baseball draft began in 1965, only 17 players have advanced directly to the bigs without playing a minor-league game. The most recent was none other than WSU's John Olerud, nabbed in the first round by Pat Gillick and the Toronto Blue Jays back in 1989. The most famous member of the 17 is former Minnesota Golden Gopher Dave Winfield, taken by the Padres in 1973.

Cougfan Top Stories