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Baseball United an opportunity for Black players and ownership in the game

The upstart pro baseball league is the first one focused on the Middle East and Indian subcontinent

Baseball United’s player draft Tuesday is another step in Barry Larkin’s dream becoming realized. 

Last summer, when Baseball Hall of Famers Larkin and Mariano Rivera became founding stakeholders in the league, Larkin discussed creating opportunities that would also include people of color.

“One of the frustrating things has been the lack of opportunity because of the existing structure that exists in [Major League] Baseball,” said Larkin, the first MLB shortstop to steal 30 bases and hit 30 homers in a season. “My hope is that all people are encouraged to be involved [in Baseball United]. To be able to pursue a dream is the goal of anyone. And we at Baseball United will be able to provide that opportunity for people from all walks of life.”

Baseball United is the first pro baseball league focused on the Middle East and Indian subcontinent. It will not only provide baseball in a nontraditional region, but the new league also hopes to provide opportunities that have been limited in other leagues.

“There’s opportunities to buy into the league,” Larkin said. “There’s opportunities to play and opportunities to coach. There’s a lot of different opportunities for everyone throughout this league and that’s very exciting.”

Mariano Rivera (right), a native of Panama, talks with Team Brazil manager Barry Larkin (left) before Game 1 of the 2013 World Baseball Classic qualifier against at Rod Carew National Stadium on Nov. 15, 2012, in Panama City, Panama.

Tito Herrera/WBCI/MLB via Getty Images

Larkin’s excitement began a decade ago when he visited India as a baseball ambassador. That’s when he became inspired to develop and market a league across several regions (South Asia, Pakistan and Middle East) with more than a billion fans of cricket, a sport similar to baseball.

“When I traveled to India for camps, I saw there was a lot of support for baseball in a cricket country,” Larkin said. “There was great participation in some of those camps. There’s so many life skills developed by participating in baseball. This will give us a chance to pass that on.” 

The four teams currently in the league (Mumbai Cobras, Karachi Monarchs, Abu Dhabi Falcons and Dubai Wolves) will begin with a showcase from Nov. 10-12 at Dubai International Stadium, a cricket pitch that will be transformed into a baseball diamond.

The Karachi Monarchs were named after the Kansas City Monarchs, a legendary team from the Negro Leagues. 

“One of the most inspiring parts about the name is that we get to honor one of baseball’s historic franchises,” said Kash Shaikh, lead investor and majority owner of Baseball United. “It gave us the opportunity to talk about the importance of the name and the history and lineage of baseball.”

The showcase will include a concert after each game and a fan fest outside the stadium, where fans can participate in baseball-related activities. 

Tuesday’s draft will determine the players in the league’s debut. The draft starts at 11 a.m. ET from the league office in Cincinnati and the first two rounds will be livestreamed on baseballunited.com. It’s an eight-round draft with eight players selected per round.

Earlier this year, Baseball United created a pool of 200 players from about 30 countries with MLB experience. Experienced players from the Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan), Mexican League, Dominican Professional Baseball League and Korea Baseball Organization will also participate.

Sixteen prospects from Pakistan, India and the Middle East will join the 64 drafted players. Baseball United will name those prospects later this month. Thirteen position players and seven pitchers will make up each team in the showcase.

Once the draft is completed, many of those rosters will include Black players, which pleases Shaikh.

“We’ve got a good group of African American ballplayers that are going to be in our league and that’s exciting to us because the representation of Black players in Major League Baseball is at one of its lowest points in history,” Shaikh said. “And that’s concerning for anybody that loves the game.”

From left to right: the Baseball United ownership group of Barry Larkin, Adrian Beltre, Kash Shaikh, Elvis Andrus and Felix Hernandez

Baseball United

Black players numbered only 6.2% of players on MLB Opening Day rosters, down from last year’s previous record low of 7.2%, according to a recent study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, led by Richard Lapchick. These figures are the lowest recorded in the study since it began in 1991, when 18% of MLB players were Black.

The percentage of Black players on Major League rosters may have also contributed to a younger generation’s waning interest in the game. The average age of a Major League fan is 57.

“We believe the data speaks to this because young people aren’t connecting to baseball because of the lack of diversity,” Shaikh said. “The buying habits of many Millennials and Gen Z’s are based on diversity and representation. It’s an important business driver for us to make sure that we have a diverse league that can connect with young people from around the world.”

And it just doesn’t stop with diversity on the field. Baseball United will offer opportunities in on- and off-field positions in each organization. Shaikh said women will also have opportunities, including in coaching.

Baseball United will not compete with MLB, at least not right away. Player salaries will run between $2,000 and $18,000 per month over the course of the league’s three-month season (November to January) in 2024.

Baseball United will also develop youth academies, merchandise and clothing. Games will be streamed on baseballunited.com.

Larkin and Rivera will serve on Baseball United’s board of directors. Larkin will also serve as honorary general manager of the Mumbai team. Along with Larkin and Rivera, the ownership group includes several former and current Latino baseball stars, Adrian Beltre, Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Robinson Chirinos and Bartolo Colon.

Ryan Howard, a Rookie of the Year, MVP and World Series champion, recently invested in the league’s ownership group. Howard will also promote the league in an ambassador’s role.

“You don’t have any minority owners in Major League Baseball,” Shaikh said. “The majority of our board is Black and brown, and these guys have decision-making power, and they can make an impact on the game. This is exciting for us because we can export America’s pastime to this new part of the world with a different makeup in leadership and in our ownership group.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.