Minoring in E-learning

When the New York Mets drafted pitching prospect Dan Murray in 1995, he had yet to finish his college degree at San Diego State University. Living the baseball dream, as minor leaguers call it, he pitched his way up from rookie league to AAA and, for parts of the 1999 and 2000 seasons, even earned a spot on the Major League rosters of the Mets and the Kansas City Royals.

But he never earned his degree. Now a pitching coach for the Mets' rookie league team in Kingsport, Tenn., Murray is closing in on that other dream-his bachelor's degree-through a program jointly organized two years ago by the New York Mets and Drexel University that puts a new swing on E-learning. "I don't want any future opportunities closed off to me," in or out of baseball, for lack of a college degree, Murray explains.

Finding off-the-field time for a traditional in-classroom curriculum would have been trickier than stealing home for Murray and other players in the program. For one thing, the long baseball season-which keeps players and coaches on the road from spring training through summer and into early fall-doesn't mesh with the traditional academic calendar. Fall classes already have started by the time the stadium gates close for the winter, and just as spring semester gets going, so does spring training. And then, in the short off-season, minor-league players-who may earn as little as $1,100 for each month they play-usually need to juggle the demands of a second job, especially if they also have a family to support.

A natural fit. Enter Richard Astro, the Drexel University English professor who proposed the online option as a way for players to continue an education even as they pursue their lives in baseball. With their tight schedules, players' ability to structure their own virtual classroom time was essential, Astro perceived. Murray, married and the father of a young daughter, couldn't agree more. "This is a blessing," he says from his off-season home in Prairie Village, Kan. "It's going to benefit me and my family for the future, and that's a huge, huge deal."

So far, more than 20 players have taken courses or are signed up to begin soon. About a dozen will get degrees from Drexel; others will apply the credits to schools where they've already done coursework.

Astro-who also serves as the chief academic officer of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, an organization that promotes education and service programs by athletes-teaches two classes, one in baseball and literature (the reading list features Bernard Malamud's The Natural and W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe), the other on sports and social issues (online discussions will focus on Jackie Robinson's legacy, the Berlin and Munich Olympics, and the role of the contemporary sports hero, among other topics). Boston Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione is slated to teach a course in sports broadcasting next year.

Six additional courses in what Drexel President Constantine Papadakis calls "the sports learning curriculum" are in the planning stages and will address sports and media, sports technology, the economics of sports, and minorities and sports. Although the courses will be designed and scheduled specifically for Mets players, who will get priority in registering for them, they will also be open to other Drexel E-learning students, he said. He also hopes the Mets program will serve as a model for other teams and universities to help players further their education. "The Mets have been pioneering in this," he said.

Ten percent. "What we're really trying to do is prepare professional baseball players for careers that are open to them after they're finished playing," Astro says. "Minor leaguers may play professional baseball for one year or 10 years, but less than 10 percent make it to the big leagues, and even if they do it's uncertain how long they'll last there"

That reality motivates aspiring catcher Sean McCraw, 20, who put in one year at San Jacinto Junior College in Texas before being drafted by the Mets in 2005. "No matter where baseball takes me, whether I make millions or never get to the Majors, I want to have an education to fall back on," he says. Nineteen-year-old Josh Thole, also a catcher and McCraw's teammate on the rookie league Kingsport Mets, agrees: "Your career is so short, and you never know what can happen. One injury could end it." Thole had just graduated from high school in Breese, Ill., when the Mets drafted him in 2005, and he is taking his very first college courses through the program.

Most of the E-learning takes place during the off-season, but during the regular season, player-students take part in community programs such as speaking to students at local schools and clubs.

As a result of Kingsport Mets players speaking to the local Junior Achievement group, says Kingsport General Manager Roman Stout, "the kids in the community are now identifying and getting to know our team, and that helps popularize the game on the local level." Major or minor, that sounds like a big league, winning strategy, all around.

By Diane Cole