BY ANDREAS BUTLER
Bethune-Cookman University has built a strong baseball program dating back to the mid-1990s.
The Wildcats arguably has the top HBCU (historically Black College and university (program).
B-CU has won 14 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) titles and made 14 NCAA Regional appearances in the past 16 years, including six straight.
Former coach Mervyl Melendez, a Latin American, was able to recruit numerous Latin American ball players. Melendez hails from Puerto Rico.
Melendez left for Alabama State University in June; now Jason Beverlin heads the program.
This season the Wildcats are 24-16 overall and 13-34 in the MEAC atop the Southern Division.
Latin and White players dominate the composition of the team, but there are four Black players making a positive impact this season.
Brashad Johnson, Anthony Stokes, David Lee and Jake Welch each have contributed to the team’s success and will be counted on to continue it.
“Each guy definitely brings a certain dynamic to the team. They are not all vocal guys, but they go out there and get after it. David Lee is the most visible leader in the clubhouse. He is the voice of reason in the locker room and everyone respects him,” responded Beverlin.
Stokes (.284BA, 9HR, 30 RBIs, 23R) a junior designated hitter and first baseman from Chesapeake, Va., has provided the power, leading the team in homeruns and RBIs. He is a business administration major with a 2.58 GPA.
Lee (.314BA, 3HR, 27 RBIs, 31R, 11 SBs), a junior outfielder out of Jacksonville, has produced runs. He is second in the team in homeruns and RBIs. Lee is a criminal justice major with a 3.2 GPA.
“We all had to step up this year; we lost a lot of players. We are doing a great job of being team players this year,” said Lee.
Johnson (.313BA, 1HR, 21 RBIs, 25R, 10 SBs), a senior shortstop from New Hope, Minn., has been an all-around player. Johnson is a sociology major with a 3.28 GPA.
Welch (7 RBIs, 1SB), a freshman outfielder from Hollywood, Fla., also has contributed. Welch has a 3.58 GPA and is majoring in business administration.
“I just wait until my number is called and go out there and do what I can do,” added Welch.
Last year, B-CU had a lot of power hitting 58 homeruns but this year the team has only 17.
Power hitters such as Peter O’Brien (14HR, 69 RBIs) and Ryan Durrence (10HR, 48 RBI) are gone. (B-CU 2011 team stats: .288BA, 58HR, 369 RBI, 54 SBs). The Wildcats also had four other players with six homeruns in 2011.
Johnson commented, “We lost a lot of power, but we still play team ball. We do more of bunting runners over, stealing bases and whatever we can to score. It’s more team ball.”
The Wildcats have played had to play more small ball on offense this year. (2012 team stats: .273BA, 17 HR, 179 RBIs, 55 SBs).
“We don’t look at it as if we don’t hit homeruns, but we are more of a contact hitting team as in regards of an approach to the plate,” reiterated Lee.
Pitching has carried the club this season. Last year they posted a 4.46 team ERA, with 18 saves, 309 runs and 255 earned runs with a .964 fielding percentage. This year they have a 3.71 team ERA with 9 saves, 185 runs and 141 earned runs with a .961 fielding percentage.
Under the radar
Playing baseball at an HBCU has the players fly under the radar more than usual.
“It is different at an HBCU. The fans don’t really come out. Growing up there were a few minorities playing so we are kind of used to it,” said Lee.
Welch echoed, “It is different, but we know as a team that we can compete. We just come ready to play everyday.”
Baseball not only takes a backseat to football and basketball in Black communities but also at HBCUs.
“It’s different, not a lot of spotlight makes it tough to play, but we still come out and do it,” Johnson noted.
Stokes added, “It’s different because we really don’t have fans but we still come out and compete on a daily basis.”
More Black players at HBCUs
The players are accustomed to low Black representation in the sport.
”Growing up there weren’t a lot of African-Americans playing the game but it didn’t affect me,” recalls Stokes.
Lee agrees, “The experience was similar for me. I didn’t have a lot of fans cheering me on, but I love playing the game and kept at it.”
Playing at an HBCU actually puts them on a team with more Black players than normal.
Welch stated, “I always was the only Black kid on the team. I was used to it but now it’s actually better because there’s more of us here.”
“It takes a lot of hard work. I have always been the only Black on the team. I just work hard. My goal has always been to play professionally. I just go and play hard,” Johnson told the Times.
Black baseball dilemma
A recent US Today article reveals that African-Americans make up 8.5 percent of Major League Baseball players. The numbers are reflected at the college and high school levels.
Different factors contribute to low percentages of Blacks in the sport.
Johnson commented, “The choice of sports in our community is more towards football and basketball. Also, there aren’t a lot of people in our communities to teach the game to kids and the cost of travel ball (AAU) is very high.”
“Our youth don’t see Blacks playing, so many don’t want to play; we do have a few. Also the pace of the game is slower and doesn’t have the action of the football and basketball,” added Lee.
The Wildcats have 17 games remaining; 15 will be on the road. The team is looking forward to the MEAC and NCAA tournaments.
“Our goal is to win the MEAC tournament and a Regional. We want to go into the MEAC tournament playing at a high level. If we do that, we like our chances,” Lee explained.
Stokes added, “We are just staying focused and taking it game by game as the season goes along.’’