College Baseball or Pro?—Which Is The Healthier Option for Promising Players?
The best of the best high school baseball players have an advantage over their peers who play basketball, football and several other sports: they may have the option to play college baseball or sign a contact with a Major League team.
For those who are not expected to be drafted early, college baseball is the more likely option, a better place to develop and mature, possibly to become a major leaguer after their junior year, or after they graduate.
“Eighty to ninety percent of our prospects are focused towards college,” says Joe Litterio, head baseball coach at Rutgers-New Brunswick. “Major league baseball is about skill and talent. College ball is more about individual coaching, including weight lifting and eating right.” Since he arrived at Rutgers six years ago, Litterio has seen at least one player selected in the Major League Baseball Draft each year. This past season two Scarlet Knights were drafted, one selected by the San Diego Padres in the seventh round, the other by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 32nd.
The Major League Baseball draft goes 40 rounds. The lower your draft position, the less the signing bonus, all the way down to nearly nothing. Players drafted below the fifth round in Major League Baseball’s 2018 draft received signing bonuses of less than $300,000, about the total cost of attendance for four years at a private college. Those selected below the tenth round were likely to receive less than it would pay to attend their home state university. The best of the best high school ballplayers might bite for the contract if drafted high. But those selected in the lowest rounds receive far less, quite likely less than the price of a good used car, let alone the costs to go to any college.
While an exceptionally talented high school baseball player might feel confident in his ability to make a major league roster before he turns 22, he is taking some risks if he is drafted too low. Not only is he missing out on a college education. He also works for a minimal wage, starting at $1,150/month, and only during the season, with $25/day for meals. His classmates who went to work after finishing high school are quite likely to earn more over 12 months of steady employment. Since he is essentially a temporary worker, he might find himself living with a host family during the season or opting to share a hotel room with teammates instead of signing a lease to rent an apartment.
A minor league ballplayer must also take more responsibility for his health and nutrition before and after the season. If he’s motivated to succeed, he would be wise to listen to the dietician and the conditioning and strength coach during the season, and develop a program to prepare for the next level. The quality and quantity of advice varies between the major league organizations. The Los Angeles Dodgers, defending National League champions, have been at the forefront. Players at every level from the majors to the lowest minor leagues dine from a menu of organic foods after games, practices and workouts. The Philadelphia Phillies, among other teams, have followed suit. But even if the ballplayer is drafted by a more nutrition-conscious organization, he might need to work out at his former high school during the off season, or join a gym at his expense, hoping to work with an experienced trainer, and hopefully a good sports dietician.
College baseball players receive more attention during the season, and for the remainder of their time on campus, than those playing professionally in the lower minor leagues. They may also live in college-owned housing, while they are in school. But it might come at a price.
Division I college baseball programs are allowed to award only 11.78 scholarships which can be divided up for as many as 27 players on a 35 man roster. Community colleges, aka “junior colleges,” may award as many as 24. Community college might become the preferred option for many high school ballplayers, who can re-enter the Major League Baseball draft after they earn the Associate’s degree. Or they can continue on to a four-year school, then apply for the draft at the end of their junior year. While college may come at a cost, the services available on campus to keep a ballplayer fueled, hydrated and healthy are available before, during, even shortly after the season without having to pay for them.
A college baseball player’s year to year experience goes beyond playing the game from February through June. Most play summer ball through July and August, with only one week off. Ballplayers have more work to do when they return to school. As one example, Rutgers-New Brunswick has a fall season that runs from mid-September through mid-October when ballplayers concentrate on strength and conditioning as well as practice and skills, says Coach Litterio, then players go through more intense conditioning from mid-October through Thanksgiving.
Ballplayers receive physicals as well as a nutritional screening after they arrive on campus. Each player’s conditioning is monitored throughout the season. While college baseball players do not receive meal money, as salaried players do, they dine before they travel—sandwich or meal, fruit and drink combining protein, carbs and vegetables. Players dine post game as a team. If a game ends in the afternoon on the road, an evening meal is served, too. This was not common practice throughout college baseball until four years ago, when the NCAA lifted restrictions on the number of meals that college athletic programs could serve their student athletes.
“Some of our players arrive with a foundation of knowledge on nutrition,” says Scott Maher, assistant sports dietician for Rutgers’ Olympic sports, including baseball.”But they lack knowledge of specifics about proteins vs. carbs, or the importance of eating fruits and vegetables.” Rutgers ballplayers receive nutrition education as a team, then have the option to develop a more personalized plan working with the sports dietitian, athletic trainer and the strength and conditioning coach. Some athletes keep food logs and journals, Maher says, noting when they need to make changes in their diet.
“Players fatigue faster during a college season when there is more travel, and they lose strength” says Coach Litterio. “During my first year, we traveled to the West Coast every third day. We had to refocus on the weight room and meals,” he added. While Rutgers began its past season in Florida, the team was home in New Jersey for only one game, then left for a three game series in Virginia. A minor league player at the lower levels is more likely to spend more time on buses between games in league cities. However, he is not in school. If he hopes to be promoted to the next level he has to spend more time to concentrate harder on his game.
Whether in college or the lower minor leagues, the best of the best ballplayers concentrate the hardest on advancing towards the majors. The college ballplayer has the added advantage of an education in the classroom and on the team in addition to some nice baseball memories.
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