Kimera Bartee graduated from Omaha Central in 1990. From a youth baseball perspective, it might as well have been the Dark Ages.
Bartee’s childhood friends in northwest Omaha changed passions with the seasons. Football in the fall. Basketball in the winter. Baseball in the spring and summer.
“We weren’t paying the amounts that they’re paying now for these state tournaments and traveling halfway across the country,” Bartee said. “The travel ball we played was country club little league going to play a practice game against Keystone Little League or Benson Little League.”
Bartee didn’t attend national showcases. He didn’t receive personalized instruction. He earned a scholarship to Creighton without playing an inning of select baseball.
That scenario is nearly impossible today.
Select baseball, Bartee said, is the chief cause of the game’s demise in inner cities, especially in the African-American community. Baseball is a developmental game of attrition, and skill trumps athleticism. The game requires years of training. Expensive training.
Over the past 30 years, Bartee said, “I think there was a lot of 8-, 10-, 12-year-old kids that played Little League and saw the bill for travel ball and Mom and Dad said, ‘We can’t afford that, but there’s an AAU basketball team that will take you.’”
There’s a case study of the sport’s demise in Oakland, California.
In the 1970s, the Athletics won three straight World Series with Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue. In the ’80s and ’90s, they dominated the American League with the Bash Brothers and a pair of Oakland natives, Rickey Henderson and Dave Stewart.
When Derrick Nesbitt’s son started Babe Ruth Little League in Oakland the early 2000s, there were a few thousand kids in the league, overwhelmingly minority.
But as Channing Nesbitt, who pitched for Washington in this year’s College World Series, developed into a pitching prospect, opportunities faded. His dad moved him to a select team in suburban Oakland, where he was one of the only African-Americans.
Recreational baseball in the city was affordable and accessible. Select baseball in the suburbs was expensive and exclusive. The time commitment forced athletes to give up other sports.
“It’s like a cult,” Nesbitt said. “If you’re spending that kind of money, you’re locked into one. You’re playing all-year round. If you get behind, it’s easy for them to move to the next kid.”
Then there’s the college scholarship limit of 11.7, dispersed among 35 players, forcing even the best to take on student loans.
“For a lot of people in my community back home,” Nesbitt said, “to get a college education you pretty much have to have all of it paid for. Baseball doesn’t offer that while football and basketball does.”
When Nesbitt returns to Oakland now, he drives by Greeman Field, where he played seven years of Babe Ruth.
“The life is not there,” he said.
One mile away sits Oracle Arena, where the next generation of Oakland sports heroes wins championships. Steph Curry. Draymond Green. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
The Bash Brothers have given way to the Splash Brothers.