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August 12, 2015

Field Generals

The Climate of Cold Weather Baseball

by Ian Frazer

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In the upper Midwest, late January to early February is an inhospitable time, one of freezing temperatures, biting winds, snowdrifts big enough to bury a car, and college baseball.

The fourth of that list doesn’t seem the least bit compatible with the first three, but that’s how it is. In Division I, official practices start in late January, and teams are playing by the second week of February. In a sport filled with inequalities, the weather is the most obvious.

Proposals have long been floated to move the season back, with West Virginia head coach Randy Mazey recently authoring a proposal addressing the issue. It’s not a polarizing issue, but one that includes numerous logistical roadblocks: Some schools would suddenly be competing with Major League Baseball for attendance, and the growing number of for-profit summer collegiate leagues would surely cause a huge stink. In fact, the very existence of summer collegiate wood bat leagues would likely be threatened, which is a difficult reality to imagine.

For now, college baseball is a half-winter, half-spring sport, and only in the most favorable climates is that split really accurate. Northern schools still have to compete, however, and recent results show that they’re doing a pretty good job.

The Big Ten, a conference whose southernmost school is in Maryland, recently had a banner year for baseball. It broke a conference record by putting five schools in the NCAA tournament, and two of them—Maryland and Illinois—advanced to the super regional phase.

Michigan head coach Erik Bakich and Iowa head coach Rick Heller are two of those coaches who brought their programs to the postseason, and what they emphasized about their current situations has likely played a huge role in bringing the Big Ten back to prominence on the college baseball scene.

“We can get anything done in those buildings that we could do outdoors,” Heller said.

The buildings Heller is talking about are the massive indoor practice facilities constructed for the schools’ football teams. Iowa has one, and Michigan has two. With turf, ample sideline room and netting on the walls, the only limitation the facilities pose is the ceilings. Unfortunately, sky-high pop flies are something that can only be replicated outdoors.

“You talk about a situation here where we come out of our winter training not feeling disadvantaged at all,” Bakich said.

And when the weather is nice enough, Heller and Bakich can go outside to their artificial turf fields, which require minimal maintenance. Bakich has gradually worked his way north in his coaching career, from Clemson to Vanderbilt to Maryland to Michigan, and his situation in Ann Arbor is as good as, if not better, than those of his jobs further south.

Heller, however, has lived the combination of brutal weather and an athletic program without the bountiful resources to spend on an indoor football complex. He has lived and worked in Iowa the majority of his life, breaking only for a four-year stint as head coach at Indiana State before taking the helm of the Hawkeyes.

With Heller’s jobs at ISU, Northern Iowa and Division III school Upper Iowa, unplayable conditions outdoors meant practice happened in the gym. And while there were certainly limitations—base running, for example—Heller made do, studying the philosophies and strategies of coaches like former Maine head coach John Winkin to help form a plan.

It may not be perfect, but there’s always something you can do indoors: Simulated games in the batting cages; drop-step drills with outfielders; full-fledged bullpens with pitchers; footwork and grounders with infielders. Space could be limited, so Heller would split his team into three groups—pitchers/catchers, infielders and outfielders—and conduct a practice with each.

Some skills, like tracking a fly ball off the bat, had an inevitable adjustment period when beginning the season. But others actually seemed to benefit from the indoor environment. Infielders would realize that the ball skipped a bit faster off the gym floor and focus a bit harder on their footwork so that they were in the best position to receive it. And on hardwood or FieldTurf, there’s no such thing as a bad hop, to fielders could just put that fear out of their minds.

“If you’re hitting a ground ball to a guy on a rough field and he knows that one out of five it going to come up and possibly hit him in the face or hit him in the chest, he’s not going to get into good fielding position,” Heller said. “So by having turf or doing the indoor work, you eliminate that fear mentally, and when they get in the game, they just go out and do it.”

In recruiting, coaches have to broach the reality that 1) it’s going to be cold when the season starts, and 2) you’re going to have to play outside. Nicer weather is undeniably an advantage for some schools. But Heller and Bakich have their own pitches to make, whether it be the superior education offered at Big Ten schools, or the expansive indoor facilities, or the trips down south early in the season that every school makes.

“What weather issues do we have?” Bakich said. “We open the season in great climates…being able to travel and experience new parts of the country the first few weeks of the season. And during the week, we’re training in great indoor facilities.”

Coaches find also find their own recruiting niches, like Heller mining Iowa’s high-quality junior college landscape and working the relationships he’s established to get overlooked players in California and Florida. Division III is largely dominated by northern schools that succeed by nabbing the talented players that slip away from bigger programs.

Weather isn’t something coaches really complain about, because there’s nothing they can do to change it. They do, however, their best to stay ahead of it. Bakich has three weather apps on his phone and Heller has four programs on his computer, as well as a number of working relationships he’s formed with TV weathermen.

They have to be connected, because practice plans and game times depend on it. If a team is scheduled to fly into a city for a series and an ice storm is forecast to hit a day later, a coach has to be proactive and find another series.

Two things generally bond college baseball coaches: Love of the game, and an obsession with the weather.

“If I ever get out of baseball, I think I’m going to go into weather predicting,” Heller said with a laugh.

It’s simply not acceptable to complain and throw your hands up, even in the most dire of situations; it’s the sport’s “blue-collar” ethos speaking.

In early February 2010, a massive snowstorm hit the Washington, D.C. area, right where Bakich was set to begin his first season as head coach at Maryland. He didn’t have the type of indoor facilities he has now at Michigan, just a “bubble” about half the size of a football field.

So with more than a foot of snow on the field, Bakich and his team dug out the mound, the home plate area and a small tunnel from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. Then they scrimmaged, pitcher versus hitter.

“That was a lot of fun that year, just coming out of the snowdrifts and figuring out a way, and that’s just what we did,” Bakich said.

“We found a way.”

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