For redshirt junior right-hander Isaiah Paige, his playing career has already seen a plethora of highlights. During the 2019 campaign, the Michigan baseball team made it to the College World Series final, falling to Vanderbilt in three games. Paige started and lost game two, but he only allowed one run on three hits in four innings. More importantly though, he and his opponent, potential 2021 number one overall pick Kumar Rocker, made history that night for more than their on-field production, becoming the first two Black Americans pitchers to start in a College World Series final.
Despite his achievement, Paige knows it was just the first step of many.
“That’s a little bit of history that I was glad to be a part of,” Paige said in a discussion with the University of Michigan’s School of Kinesiology on Tuesday. “But, my view of baseball hasn’t changed at all. It doesn’t matter who I’m playing against or who I’m playing with, it’s all for the love of the game. I just want to give back to the game in any way I can.”
That is a sentiment that Wolverines’ coach Erik Bakich has emphasized, too.
“There’s a lot of people that talk and they don’t do jack squat,” Bakich said. “They just like to complain or to post. Isaiah is about action. We actually get out in the community; when we are allowed to have camps, we do bring underprivileged kids in here.”
For Bakich, success is predicated on far more than just wins and losses. He leads a program that prides itself on its off-field abilities as much as its on-field ones. He tries to produce young men who will make an impact for years to come, particularly in their communities. The team is a family that looks after one another and seems to genuinely care about making a difference.
The baseball program hopes to imbue those attributes in its athletes for life, creating a tight-knit community focused on making those differences. And for Bakich, opening up those opportunities to people of color is something always on his mind.
From Bakich’s perspective, with all that baseball has to offer kids, it is unfortunate that so many children will never pick up a bat. For many lower-income families, little league is but a pipe dream.
“I think baseball is missing a huge opportunity to target some of the best future players,” Bakich said. “Kids that don’t even know that you could be making millions in baseball, because they’re forced to pick a different sport.
Baseball, like many sports in the United States, has fallen victim to the ever-growing funds of travel leagues. Many parents find themselves paying thousands of dollars so their kids can play. For some, this is nothing more than a mere hindrance. For others, it can alter their athletic courses forever.
“I think it’s ridiculous the cost of travel ball and some of these showcases,” Bakich said. “It negates opportunities for a lot of kids. We want to have a diverse roster and we want to provide as many opportunities for kids all over the country that we can.”
Diversity is probably not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about baseball. However, for many kids, seeing an inclusive roster could be the start of a career. Younger players must find role models to stimulate their love for the sport — just as Paige did when he was first starting.
“As an outfielder at a younger age, I was always attracted to guys like Torii Hunter and Curtis Granderson,” Paige said. “How do you combat that when you look around the game and you don’t see anybody who looks like you?”
As Paige continues to succeed in Ann Arbor, he serves as a role model for other children who will one day want to be Paige the same way he once wanted to be Hunter or Granderson.
With Bakich’s vision for his program, those dreams may become realities sooner rather than later.