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HBCU Baseball

Grambling’s Tanner Raiburn getting his MLB shot with the Boston Red Sox

Tigers pitcher, selected in the 33rd round, is living a family dream

Many are called, but few are chosen.

Over the course of three days in June, 30 Major League Baseball teams selected more than 1,000 players to join in the pursuit of making it to “The Show.”

Out of 1,215 players drafted in 2017, only eight men came from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Left-handed pitcher Tanner Raiburn was one of them.

The 22-year-old from Grambling State University was selected in the 33rd round by the Boston Red Sox. Only 7 percent of players selected after the 21st round of the draft make it to the league. Conversely, over 80 percent of players drafted in the first round make it to the major leagues. After players spend five years playing on a minor league team, the chances go down for making it to the majors. Raiburn is playing for GCL Red Sox in the rookie Gulf Coast League in Lee County, Florida.

This is great news for Grambling and HBCUs generally, since so few HBCU undergraduate baseball players make it to the big leagues. According to Jonathan Costa, senior researcher at ESPN Stats & Information, 371 players have been drafted from the 20 HBCU schools that currently sponsor baseball. Of those players, only 40 have gone on to reach the major league level.

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Raiburn is biracial. He says his father is Scottish and Irish; his mother is Mexican. He categorizes himself as both, and he’s not the only Latino player on Grambling’s team. Latino players on an HBCU team is a common trend that still surprises some. MLB team rosters are more diverse than ever, with the number of Latino players climbing and African-Americans declining.

Blacks made up 27 percent of the league in 1975. Costa said that six years later, 19 athletes were drafted from HBCUs, the highest number of historically black college players selected in a single draft. Today, blacks make up less than 8 percent of MLB players, while Latino players constitute nearly 32 percent of the league.

An official number of biracial players, like Raiburn, has not been officially documented. However, only 14 players in the league identified as Mexican in 2013. In 2017, there are 13.

Like many sports organizations, major league baseball’s beginning in 1869 was not racially inclusive. The first Latinos to enter the league played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1911.

Raiburn joined his first baseball team in 1999, at the age of 4. Over time, his interest grew and he played more, and he even competed in a travel tournament.

“I played outfielder in high school, but I always knew I was going to be a pitcher. … I like getting up there and throwing hard, striking people out,” said Raiburn.

His interest in baseball is no surprise to anyone in his family. The Raiburns are a baseball family. Raiburn’s uncle played baseball in college and on a minor league team in Michigan, the Kalamazoo Kings.

His father, Jeremy Raiburn, played second base at Pratt Community College. He started coaching his son’s team when Tanner turned 6. This father-son, coach-player arrangement lasted for 15 years, spanning Tanner’s little league and high school baseball career.

When it came time to choose a college, Raiburn chose Grambling because he would be able to play against larger NCAA schools such as Louisiana State University and the University of Arkansas. The $3,500 baseball scholarship he received also helped confirm the decision.

Raiburn’s teammate and fellow pitcher Devin Washington, 19, describes Raiburn as a leader who is strong, feisty and cocky. Washington recalled a conference game the team was losing and remembers Raiburn wanting to go out with a bang his senior year.

“He called us all together and told us that we needed to do better as a team because he takes this game to heart,” said Washington.

Raiburn proved that by posting the fourth-leading ERA in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). He finished the season 4-2 with 84 strikeouts and earned second-team All-SWAC honors.

GSU baseball coach James Cooper, who worked with Raiburn for two years, described him as the team’s ace last season and a good competitor.

“He came into the season being a No. 2 starter, but he did so well and he earned the right to be our Friday night guy,” said Cooper.

Raiburn’s favorite Friday nights happened in the February of his junior and senior years at Grambling. The MLB Network aired those games.

“All my friends and family got to watch the game … [thousands of] people I didn’t even know,” said Raiburn.

Joining the Red Sox organization is a high point so far for Raiburn, but if he doesn’t make it to the major leagues, he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and coach on the collegiate level.

“I want to help kids become better … so they get a chance to play professional baseball,” said Raiburn.

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Raiburn’s father couldn’t be prouder of his son’s accomplishments. He says surpassing the achievements of the previous generation is a family tradition.

“I knew as long as he stayed on course, he would have the potential to eventually play professionally sometime. But there’s a lot of pitfalls along the process. It’s probably 20 percent talent and 80 percent figuring it out mentally,” said Jeremy Raiburn.

The junior Raiburn first knew he had a chance to play professional baseball after a talent scout noticed him when the Tigers played Dallas Baptist University in mid-March. He played well in that game and got more attention. But nothing is guaranteed, so he took a summer job doing construction work on a baseball field. Pouring concrete left him with some painful blisters. But that didn’t stop him from picking up the phone when the Red Sox called.

Raiburn has already begun his pro career. He’s pitched four innings in two games with the GCL Red Sox and is 1-0.

Almost every MLB player starts on a minor league team. For example, in 2016, none of the top 20 draft picks started on a major league team. If and how quickly Raiburn will advance depends on skill and opportunity.

“We play every day. We get to the facilities at 6:30 a.m. I train, throw, get treatment, run and condition myself, lift, then play a game. We usually get done around 3 every day,” said Raiburn.

He carries the aspirations and dreams of his father, family, teammates and coach, all hoping for his success and a spot in the major leagues.

Miniya Shabazz is a Rhoden Fellow and a junior mass communication major from Laurel, MD. She attends Grambling State University and is a staff writer for The Gramblinite.