Sunday, March 1, 2015

Baseball In February: Who Thinks This Is A Good Idea?

Sitting here at the computer on March 1 and looking out the window at the snow and ice still covering the front yard, it’s no surprise the first two weeks of the 2015 college baseball season have been marred by an epidemic of changed venues and cancelled games.

Even moving games hundreds of miles to the south has not kept the weather from wreaking havoc. With the Notre Dame Invitational in Cary, N.C., cancelled the weekend of Feb. 27-March 1, NC State jumped on a bus and traveled to Savannah, Ga., 322 miles away, to play two games each against Charlotte and UNC Greensboro. It wasn’t far enough. The Wolfpack’s Sunday doubleheader was washed out by heavy rain along the Georgia coast, sending the three teams home early after playing just two games apiece.

Much noise has been made in recent years about moving the start of the college baseball season back to coincide with warmer weather. The carnage Mother Nature has caused the last two weeks has only intensified that talk. Several years ago, West Virginia coach Randy Mazey proposed moving the start of the season to late March or even early April. Under Mazey’s plan, the regular season would end in July, with the NCAA tournament and College World Series stretching into late July or early August. No doubt, many coaches agree with Mazey’s proposal, and the intent of that proposal is good. The proposal itself, however, is wrong. At least by a few weeks.

On each and every campus in this country, the baseball program is part of the department of athletics, which is part of the greater university. And the greater university is there for the student body, first and foremost. No one working on any college campus — especially those working in athletics — should ever lose sight of that. Moving the start of the baseball season back to late March or early April could mean playing up to two-thirds of the regular season after the school year has ended and the students have gone home for the summer. That is not acceptable.

Students lack the financial sway (and the accompanying sense of entitlement) of wealthy boosters, and they don’t attend baseball games in significant numbers the way they attend football and basketball games. Doesn’t matter. They’re still the single most important constituency group in any college team’s fan base, including the baseball team’s. Denying students, no matter how few of them actually show up, the opportunity to see a significant portion of a team’s home schedule is wrong.

So what to do instead? Well, just because we shouldn’t move the start of the season all the way back to April doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move it back at all. And there are several other changes to the calendar we can and should make while dealing with the start of the season.

Instead of late March or April, let’s move opening day to the second full weekend of March, meaning no sooner than March 8 and no later than March 14. This would enable most schools to play the bulk of the regular season before exams and the end of the spring semester. Yes, there still would be a number of games played after students have gone home, but not nearly as many as if the season started in April and only a handful more than we’re currently playing.

Coaches from cold-weather schools will complain that a mid-March start to the season does nothing to help them, and that’s true. Unfortunately, there’s no reasonable solution to that problem. Anyone who’s ever been to a series at Boston College —  even a series in mid-May — knows that the only way schools in that part of the world can play in warm weather is to move the start of the season to mid-June. That definitely will never happen. You can’t change geography. Northern schools have a big advantage in ice hockey. Southern schools have a big advantage in baseball. Nothing can change that. So deal with it.

Moving the start of the season back to mid-March gives us the opportunity to expand preseason practice to a full month, starting the second weekend in February. Fall and winter sports get at least four weeks of full-squad practices before their seasons begin. College football players report to campus the first week of August and practice for a month before the season kicks off. College basketball begins practice on Oct. 15, with the regular season cranking up about a week before Thanksgiving.

College baseball teams report to campus after Christmas break and go through about a week of conditioning, followed by two weeks of “skill work,” which is drills in groups of four or fewer players for up to eight hours per week and not more than two hours per day. That’s not practice. Full-squad practices begin about two weeks prior to the first game of the season, which is not enough time to prepare a team for anything, especially when the weather conditions those two weeks are often miserable. So move the college baseball season back a month and let teams have a full month to get ready for opening day. Just like every other sport on campus.

With the regular season moved back a month and four full weeks of preseason practices allowed, the next move should be to cut the length of the regular season to 50 games and 11 weeks. Most coaches will scream bloody murder at this one. Get over it, already. We’re talking about six games, not six weeks of games. Thanks to the weather, most of you will play closer to 50 than 56 games this season anyway, and many of you will be damned lucky to play 50. The postseason is what really matters, and shortening the regular season dovetails with a corresponding idea to improve the NCAA Tournament.

The regular-season schedule centers around three-game weekend series, both for non-conference and conference games. Coaches build their pitching staffs accordingly, centered around a three-man starting rotation. Then they get into the NCAA regionals and everything changes. The regionals are four-team, double-elimination tournaments. Go through a regional unbeaten and you’ll only need three starting pitchers. Fall into the losers bracket and you may need five starters in a span of four days. Clearly, the moral of the story is not to fall into the losers bracket at all, but the punishment for losing, especially early in the tournament, does not fit the crime.

The rest of the NCAA Tournament is pretty much like the regular season and fits a three-man rotation. The super regional, in fact, is a best-of-3 weekend series. The College World Series is two brackets of four teams each, double elimination, just like the regionals, but with one huge difference. Because of TV scheduling, teams in the CWS get a day off between games, sometimes two days off between games. Three starting pitchers is more than enough through bracket play, even if you lose early. The two bracket winners then advance to the CWS championship series, which is another best-of-3 series.

So the entire college baseball season is built around a three-man pitching rotation, except for the NCAA regionals, a rather glaring and important exception to the rule. This makes no sense at all. Let’s change the “Road To Omaha” and make it three consecutive weekends of three-game series. The first weekend will be 64 teams and 32 series. The winners of those 32 series will advance the following weekend to the second round, which will be 16 series. Those 16 winners will move on to the next round of eight best-of-3 series, with the final eight series winners advancing to the College World Series. This format was proposed several years ago and went nowhere. It only lasts one week longer than the current postseason format, hence the logic behind cutting the regular season by six games. It makes perfect sense, so of course the NCAA never seriously considered it.

The best thing about making these changes is that in future seasons these early-season blog posts will be about baseball games and not about bad weather. The fact that college baseball will stand to benefit from the changes, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

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