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January 15, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

Changes

by Bryan Smith

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Last week, we saw that numerous factors--such as an increase of television time--has college baseball geared for an upcoming surge in visibility. The problem, as many coaches have pointed out, is that the NCAA's misguided focus on academics will handicap the ability for college coaches to reach an optimum quality level. In 2005, the NCAA implemented the measurement of an Academic Progress Rate into collegiate athletics in an attempt to gauge how different sports were succeeding in their attempt to create student-athletes. College baseball quickly became the focus of the NCAA after it received a bad score, later blamed both on a low rate of progression toward degrees and a high transfer rate.

While the NCAA was investigating ways to fix baseball's academic "problems," college baseball had created its own task force. First and foremost--and this was before Oregon State won two consecutive national titles--was evening the divide college baseball had seen between the North and the South. The task force returned with two proposals: first, begin the season on a uniform start date, and second, push the season back.

In the end, the task force's first proposal was accepted, and will begin this season, with games beginning across the country on February 22. The second proposal was rejected, condensing the season for many teams in the nation that had previously started 2-4 weeks earlier. To fill their schedules with the same number of games, teams across the nation have scheduled more midweek games than ever before for the spring. "It's hard to have tremendous credibility with your sport without a common start date," LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said. "I think it's great to have Tuesday and Wednesday night games, because the more frequently they play, the more comfortable they feel."

However, I've yet to talk to a coach who doesn't like the idea of the season extending deeper into the summer. Last year, Ohio State head coach Bob Todd explained that he believed the Buckeyes would draw significantly better numbers--in addition to the better conditions--if the team had home games stacked in June rather than March. Other coaches see the summer as primetime for baseball because it comes between the window of the two giant collegiate sports. "I think the lifespan [for college baseball] in a year is small," Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. "There's not enough momentum gained for the average college fan." The college basketball season doesn't end until early April, giving baseball under eight weeks before its postseason begins.

But the idea of extending the college baseball season conflicts with one area the NCAA is unlikely to forget: summer school. Forget the Cape Cod League. Forget Team USA. For one of the NCAA's bottom three sports--in terms of APR--a system in which fewer players would attend summer school is impossible. In fact, under rule changes that will begin this spring and go into complete effect in 2009, summer school will be home to more college baseball players than ever before.

Typically, the summers are a time for college baseball players to find a wood bat league and showcase their talents in front of pro scouts. For scouts, summer ball is the best opportunity to see a player on a regular professional schedule, and with professional equipment. Many players every summer see their draft stock change dramatically between June and August. In the future, however, scouts may see top players miss out on summer leagues if they are simultaneously battling rough grades. In just one aspect of many rule changes designed to bring the college baseball student-athlete's focus back on the classroom, the NCAA has ruled a college baseball player must be eligible for athletic competition in the fall to participate the following spring.

However, if summer ball has ever had a bad rap, it's that the league proved stomping grounds for tampering, as players would often be persuaded to transfer schools. In the past, including this offseason, transferring schools has come without a penalty to college baseball players. Yankees prospect Alan Horne, for instance, played at three different locales during his four-year college career. From last season to this season, Rivals.com has created a substantial list of transfers. However, the aforementioned APR subtracted points from college baseball for transfers even though a player could transfer freely. This is the same APR that subtracted points from baseball for every college junior who signed in the Major League Baseball draft, an important employment opportunity, to say the least.

But no more. Designed to aid baseball's APR, the NCAA will now force any baseball transfer to sit out of competition for one season. Under the new rules, powerful slugger Matt Hague would not be eligible to participate this spring for Oklahoma State, since he is transferring there after attending Washington. While this would do nothing to affect his MLB Draft eligibility, Hague would lose out on a spring of baseball experience. Why? Because the APR doesn't account for the unique situation Major League Baseball forces on college baseball.

However, at this point, we have not reached the areas of a coach's real contention. These are not the reasons that Mississippi State head coach Ron Polk sent a long letter to the media and school presidents. These are not what have drawn the ire of numerous respected college coaches, like Clemson head coach Jack Leggett. Rather, the combination of two rules is what many coaches have called hand-cuffing: college baseball will now have a minimum scholarship of 25% and a maximum roster size of 27 (35 in 2008, 30 in 2009) to go along with their designated 11.7 scholarships.

Gone will be the days of deep pitching staffs. Gone will be the days of fun walk-on stories. In the past, a team like the University of North Carolina has given smaller scholarships to in-state baseball players because of the tuition breaks they receive, saving bigger scholarships for out-of-state players, like top freshman Matt Harvey. Now, recruiting in-state doesn't offer the same advantage. While this won't do much at private institutions--like Vanderbilt, whose large tuitions already forced bigger scholarships--the changes will make a difference at every public institution. If nothing else, college baseball coaches feel as if they are being told how to do their jobs.

College baseball, as we know it, is going to change. I'll conclude with a few tidbits from the Ron Polk letter that best summarize the contentions coaches have with the new rule changes in college baseball. Simply, inconsistencies between college baseball and other sports are not fair, and do not give the sport a fair opportunity to reach its popularity potential. Here are the challenges faced by college baseball:

  1. College baseball will soon be the only sport under NCAA rules with a roster cap.
  2. College baseball will soon be the only sport in which men must be eligible a semester before the semester of competition.
  3. College baseball will soon be the only sport that will combine a partial scholarship with a strict no-transfer rule.
  4. Finally, college baseball has the lowest scholarship percentage based on average roster size for any sport in the NCAA.

With visibility on the upswing, the only thing that can hold college baseball from an increased fan base might be itself or, more specifically, the NCAA.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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