If you think respect and appreciation come automatically with playing at the highest level of college baseball, think again. Here’s what I observed at last week’s Big Ten Tourney.
As an ex-Buckeye baseball I was, of course, pleased to see Greg Beals’ hustling young Ohio State program take last weekend’s Big Ten Tourney title by storm, and do it the hard way, for good measure.
When you fall into the loser’s bracket you have to play your way back into contention at considerable effort and long odds. Put it is this way…it is a real character builder, as Beals is fond of saying.
But I learned something else about baseball in the Big Ten and the NCAA last weekend, something that I had previously considered a slight reserved for high schoolers forced to play on 35-degree days, or play six games in five days later in the season to make up the games you lost in April.
I’ve written liberally about how baseball is the stepchild, or afterthought, of high school athletics consideration; of how there’s little or no attempt to find ways to make it more competitively fair by extending the season into better playing conditions, even to receiving contemptuous responses from school administrators who say they’re doing the best they can.
And I don’t doubt that, except, if you’re doing the best you can under the present set of rules set forth by the calendar, why not change the rules? Again I ask…if we’re doing this for the benefit of the kids why are we putting vacation schedules, busing, staffing, and questions about kids dipping Grizzly out of school ahead of playing baseball in better conditions?
But here’s what I learned at the Big Ten Tourney. The NCAA and the Big Ten have about as much concern and respect for baseball as there is in high school. That’s right.
I witnessed first-hand how Ohio State had to play four nine-inning games in a span of 24 hours from Saturday to Sunday and wondered….why? Why would anyone take such a physical risk as to ask that much from an athlete in any sport?
In the first place, there was a day lost to rain, and I get that. But in a town (Omaha) that has two professional facilities available why not make arrangements to use both as a contingency so eight teams trying to play aren’t stacked up at one?
Two, who in the world would ask a basketball team to play four games in 24 hours at the Big Ten basketball tournament? To be fair, basketball is single-elimination and with baseball you can lose twice before being eliminated. But why not make baseball a lose-once-and-you’re-out like basketball?
Three, more than one Big Ten coach admitted that 20-year-old players have the stamina to play that much baseball, but a number of the Ohio State players mentioned having leg cramps by Sunday afternoon – of being literally worn out from playing six games in four days…and four in one. Now you tell me. Do you think anyone would take that kind of physical risk with a basketball or football player, and at that level? The words…whiskey, tango, foxtrot come to mind.
And ever try playing baseball at that level at 9 am? They did in Omaha, which made more than one of us laugh in the press box over the thought of asking Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh to roll out of bed that early and strap on the pads.
From a pitching standpoint I observed a number of high draft prospects for the upcoming major league draft in Omaha. And almost without exception those arms were one and done, meaning Michigan’s Brett Adcock pitched on Wednesday night and was done for the weekend to protect his future against excessive work load and injury.
Ohio State, on the other hand, was forced to use Tanner Tully for three innings of relief in Sunday’s championship game after pitching seven innings against Adcock on Wednesday. Tully requested the opportunity because his draft status is not as clear as Adcock’s, and winning the Big Ten title was of paramount of importance to him, regardless of risk.
But the rest of Ohio State’s bullpen, Seth Kinker, Kyle Michalik, Mike Horejsei, and Yianni Pavlopoulos, pitched until their tongues hung out…and will brag about it for the rest of their lives because that’s what happens with young deeds when you grow old.
In the Big Ten’s case you can’t control the weather, but you can plan better. Start the tourney a day earlier. Or, schedule it for a city that has a domed stadium, like Miller Park in Milwaukee. Of course games would have to be scheduled around the Milwaukee Brewers, which is no guarantee. And ironically, the University of Wisconsin doesn’t play baseball because the sport became a Title IX casualty back in 1990. The university, lacking funds for a women’s softball team, was forced to cut baseball as a means of gender equality.
Bottom line, you want to believe that something as big, and prestigious, as the Big Ten Conference could do better for the sake of its baseball players…the very kids about which commissioner Jim Delaney went on air with the Big Ten Network to express pride in the numerous major league prospects taking part in the tournament. We rolled our eyes over that in the press box, too.
“If baseball made as much money as football you can bet we wouldn’t be here at 9 am,” said a writer from Iowa. “And no one would have to play four times in twenty four hours, either.”
And when those prospects do get to the big leagues someday, who can blame them if they should look back at college baseball, and Jim Delaney, and wonder why they were treated like intramural pack mules?