ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
The recent travails of the Minnesota Twins amount to an object lesson for state policymakers on the crucial importance of investing in our own homegrown potential, specifically when it comes to the young talent pool that will determine how economically competitive we are moving forward.
There’s consensus now that our beloved Twins somehow lost track of their successful do-it-yourself formula. Our young players aren’t as good at the fundamentals as their predecessors. And the decline of our team’s once highly rated farm system is often blamed for its recent slide from perennial contender in the American League Central to worst record in the league two years running.
Jim Souhan, the perceptive Star Tribune sports columnist, wrote recently that “the Twins’ problems can’t be pinned on a scapegoat or a symbol, even one as simplistic as Joe Mauer’s contract. The Twins’ problems are systemic. This franchise wins when quality young players emerge as a group. Problem is, the Twins’ current Class AAA team offers little promise.”
Quality young people emerging as a group, for the rest of our population off the field, happens to be exactly what Minnesota most needs to succeed, according to just about everybody who has analyzed our economic prospects. The latest finding to that effect comes from a study by the Itasca Project, a prestigious alliance of business and higher education leaders, entitled “Higher Education Partnerships for Prosperity.”
The Itasca report noted the 35 percent reduction in public funds for higher education (the equivalent of our Class AAA team) over the last decade, a much bigger reduction than the national average and larger than in all but three states. (The U.S. disinvestment in higher education has been accompanied by skyrocketing tuition costs and a fall from 1st to 10th among the world’s nations in the percentage of those age 25-34 with an associate’s degree or higher.)
The report identifies postsecondary completion as “critical for the health and prosperity of our Minnesota communities” and it calls for “a next level of excellence,” investing strategically to align higher-ed coursework to workforce needs and increasing the percentage of young adults in Minnesota who complete a postsecondary certificate or degree.
The Star Tribune recently editorialized that the Itasca report “puts more business heft into a call several years ago by the progressive think tank Growth & Justice for a 50 percent boost in the share of Minnesota young adults who have attained a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2020.” And we as leaders of that group will continue to press that case, particularly for postsecondary completion for students of color and from low-income families.
Focusing on race reminds us also that the recent Minnesota Twins story isn’t even the best teachable moment in the history of our national pastime. Lessons from further back, when baseball integrated and began to accept and develop foreign talent, also are instructive for our other huge opportunity: helping our immigrant kids and students of color close those disturbing achievement and attainment gaps.
The Twins — starting in the late 1950s, when they were still the Washington Senators — got out in front of other teams in recruiting Latin American talent, particularly Cubans of African descent. All-stars Camilo Pascual, Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles, and Cesar Tovar were crucial to the team’s success in the 1960s.
More than a decade earlier, baseball was transformed and provided a model for the national civil rights movement when Branch Rickey put future Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson on the field and integrated the Brooklyn Dodgers. Other teams that were aggressive in finding and developing black and Latino and Asian prospects did better over the next couple of decades than those that resisted breaking the color line.
The National League’s jump on the American League in integration helped it dominate in Hall of Fame entries for the next generation, according to an analysis by Mark Armour of the Society for American Baseball Research. And by the mid-1960s, the once stubbornly all-white Yankees had been toppled, and every team knew it had to recruit and accept players of color in order to compete. The new way, the winning way, was inclusive, and the sport adapted to its newest players.
This is an important lesson, because Minnesota is in a state of rapid transition toward the sort of racial diversity reflected in the world’s population. In the last census, about 30 percent of Minnesota children under the age of 5 were kids of color, twice the non-white percentage in the general population and 10 times the percentage in our population over the age of 85.
Currently, African-American, Latino and Native American children lag far behind in math and reading proficiency scores and postsecondary completion rates. If we do not equalize the rate of academic success, all our grandchildren will pay a price.
It’s not too late for Minnesota or the Twins to vigorously attack its farm-team problem. Recent analyses of farm club strength on the websites www.minorleagueball.com and www.fangraphs.com put the Twins squarely in the middle on assessments of farm system quality, not the worst. And although our state has slipped to mediocrity in some important areas, Minnesota’s educational infrastructure for developing human capital is in good condition.
We just need to get after it. And with more and smarter investments in workforce development, we can move this state economy forward. We can build a team that exceeds expectations and beats a lot of richer, less efficient teams through hard work and teamwork — a team, in short, that looks a lot like the ’87 and ’91 World Champions.
Let’s play ball.
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, July 26, 2012.
Dane Smith is the president and Maureen Ramirez is the policy and research director for Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization focused on a broader and more inclusive economic prosperity for Minnesota. Ramirez also is a member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.