Erik Bakich turns Michigan baseball into 'America's Team'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Omaha, Neb. — It was a moment that captured America because Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich said he wants his team to “look like America.”

During an in-game interview during the College World Series last week, Bakich shared his recruiting goals. Among them is to continue building a diverse roster – white players, black players, Latino – anyone who can play the game and meet his and the university's admission requirements. His comments made headlines and appeared across a number of social media platforms.

Michigan left fielder Christan Bullock greets fans as he leaves the field after Michigan defeated Vanderbilt in Game 1 of the College World Series.

It is a recruiting philosophy he shares with Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, Bakich’s friend and mentor with whom he coached at Vanderbilt.

And that’s why Michigan and Vanderbilt, playing for a national championship, have two of the most diverse rosters in college baseball. Michigan has the best-of-three series advantage having won the opener Monday night, 7-4.

Bakich, 41, is completing his seventh season at Michigan, and he’s working to build the Wolverines into a mainstay among the top baseball teams in the country. That isn’t an easy thing to do for a program that practices in the snow in January while the southern and western powers are basking in the more pleasant regions of the country.

Recruiting already is a challenge in baseball with 11.7 scholarships, and coaches must get creative on how to divide the financial assistant to build a roster. Add to that the fact that the top players in the state of Michigan and the surrounding Midwestern states have been packing their bags to head to the warm-weather schools, and it’s clear programs like Michigan have an uphill battle.

But this kind of postseason run is certain to give Bakich and the Wolverines a boost in recruiting.

“I haven’t felt it yet,” Bakich said this week. “Gotten a lot of emails. We’ll experience it in the next cycle as we start to be able to initiate contact with the next wave of recruits. … I would expect that if you’re one of the top recruits in the country and you’re looking at a school that can offer you a great education that has great facilities – yeah, it’s cold, but it isn’t stopping us from producing professional players and isn’t stopping us from competing in the postseason.”

'We're very white'

Corbin said the Wolverines’ success will open many more doors to top players.

“There is no question that it will help their program,” Corbin said. “Any time you do something like this, there's an attraction that takes place. But Michigan is an unbelievable university with such great tradition, and when I was at Ohio State as a volunteer assistant, Michigan was the program (in the 1980s). That was Hal Morris, that was Barry Larkin, that was Jim Abbott, that was Scott Kamieniecki. They had some tremendous personalities. But I look at what (Bakich is) doing, and it's come full circle back to that situation, and he's done it the right way.”

Michigan second baseman Ako Thomas bunts against Vanderbilt during the fourth inning in Game 1 of the College World Series.

The right way in Bakich’s mind is to make college baseball available to anyone, an approach he has emulated since his time with Corbin at Vanderbilt.

“We're very white inside the sport,” Corbin said this week.

The College Sport Racial and Gender Report Card (CSRGRC) produced by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida breaks down minorities in a number of sports, including Division I athletics in terms of coaching, administration and athletes. In 2017, 80.8 percent of college baseball players were white. In data for the 2015-2016 seasons, 3.3 percent were African-American and 6.5 percent were Latino.

Of Michigan’s 35 baseball players, seven are minorities. That’s 20 percent of the roster, well above the national norm.

“You look at the faces of the players on the team, they are very diverse,” said former Michigan great and MLB Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, who played on the ’83 and ’84 UM World Series teams. “I don’t know if they have more minorities, but when I saw those guys, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I can’t tell you how many people have commented to me about that. I think it’s absolutely fantastic.”

Bakich said that with the 11.7 scholarships that can, per NCAA rules, be divided among a maximum 27 players with each receiving a minimum of a 25-percent scholarship, it is his responsibility to maximize those opportunities.

“Scour the country for the very best players who also happen to be good students and uncover every lead, turn over every stone to find the very best fit for your program,” he said. “We’re fortunate we have some need-based financial aid at Michigan. Not quite like what a private school has with an endowment, but it’s helpful. We have leveraged that as best we could to target as many players that come from needy families as we can.

“It’s not just the inner cities. It’s out in the middle of the country. It’s all races. It’s not just African-American kids. It’s Latin-American kids. It’s anyone. Doesn’t matter. We don’t care what color. We just want the very best players possible and a lot of times will qualify for more need-based aid than we could ever provide in a partial scholarship.

“It’s the one limitation of 11.7 scholarships. Nobody is on a full ride. Most of our players – a good scholarship for us is 50 percent. Very rarely do we go above 50 percent.”

More opportunities

Building a diverse roster while splitting up those 11.7 scholarships is Bakich’s ultimate goal.

“We’re very proud of that, we don’t apologize for it. We want our roster to look like that right there,” Bakich said, pointing to an American flag on the back of his Michigan baseball hat. “I’m passionate about it because I learned it from Coach Corbin. The game of college baseball and the game of baseball, in general, is too white. It needs more opportunities.”

Former Michigan and MLB pitcher Jim Abbott remains actively involved in the sport and knows how costly it is to send young players to camps across the country so they can be scouted by college coaches.

“That is the dirty little secret of baseball,” Abbott said. “It is somewhat financially exclusive because it’s such a costly thing. College baseball only gets 11.7 scholarships. An expensive university like Michigan, out of state, that’s a big number for a lot of families who may get a partial scholarship but still have $50,000 to try to cover. It becomes a little bit socioeconomically exclusive. Not to say inner-city kids can’t afford that, but it would be nice to think that kids from any background would have a little better chance to play college baseball, because it does seem more and more the path to professional baseball.”

That is exactly Bakich’s point.

“I’m not trying to spark any debates. It’s how I feel and I’m just going to be honest,” he said. “It’s what we do. If other programs don’t want to do that, there’s a lot of ways to be successful. I’m not saying this is the way it has to be. I’m saying if you’re a school that has additional opportunities to stretch your 11.7, then there’s a lot of players out there that if they could qualify for ways to reduce the cost of attendance, there’s good players out there. Just got to find ways.”

With Bakich’s program building at UM and his focus on diversity, this postseason run – which might include Michigan’s third national championship in baseball, and first since 1962 – should influence recruiting in a strong way.

“That Michigan offers means something,” Abbott said. “One of my best friends coaches a real powerhouse in San Diego, Torrey Pines High School, and there’s so much talent down in that area, and he tells me, ‘Oh, this kid just got a Michigan offer,’ and, ‘Michigan’s looking at him.’ That really goes a long way. It means something. Those kids don’t always go to Michigan, but they’re looking. They’ve really put themselves in the discussion.

“It seems like if you’re going to go play baseball in college, Michigan is becoming part of the discussion.”