Etheridge: College Baseball Will Look Different After COVID

Etheridge: College Baseball Will Look Different After COVID

  • Etheridge: College Baseball Will Look Different After COVID
    Mark Etheridge - May 14, 2020

    The calendar says it is mid-May. I’m not going to argue with it. It can’t be true though because we aren’t talking about a soft bubble or stolen bids or asking if Mississippi State is going to host.
    Some of us are kind of lost. However, the eternal optimist inside me reminds that there have been a few upsides to having a spring without baseball. My yard has never looked better. I’ve replaced my fence, my deck and even laid new tile in the bathroom. I made plans for a Memorial Day weekend party, which in normal years is not happening due to conference tournaments.
    But I do miss the pop of the mitt and the coach giving the signal as the runner rounds third. I miss the smells and sounds of the ballpark. I miss hitting refresh on the scoreboard page or watching a livestats feed from some random game because of how it impacts the regional picture. I miss the conference races, the emerging stars and (most of) the people inside the sport.

    At some point, our game will return. But like the kid who goes off to college, the sport will look different when it returns.
    Financially, some programs are in trouble. Athletic department budgets are tighter. Will every baseball program survive? There are 301 Division I programs in 2020. What will that number look like moving forward? And if programs do continue, will they still operate at their current scholarship levels. As a reminder, while the power programs gripe about being limited to 11.7 scholarships, many programs outside the spotlight cannot afford to offer all that is allowed. More than 40% of programs are still under the 11.7 threshold.
    Now, with seniors being granted an extra year and the draft whittled away to five rounds, there will be extra competition for however many scholarships are awarded.

    You could also see significant changes in scheduling. Will we have more games versus local opponents? More doubleheaders to save hotel costs? Midweek rainouts not made up because teams can’t travel twice for one game? The MAC and SoCon have already announced changes to their scheduling tactics, along with either a canceled or reduced conference tournament.
    A reduction in cross-sectional play may be necessary but it will impact how programs are evaluated for the postseason. The sport, while regional in many aspects, has sprawled into more of a national landscape recently. There’s a risk that changes.

    I would expect to see more scheduling alliances among geographic boundaries like the one discussed here. Just because football lost its realignment mind and has West Virginia playing conference games nearly 1,500 miles away in Lubbock, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. This could, and frankly should, be the beginning of discussions to change the scheduling model. There are many ways to do it – perhaps future column material – but now there is a downhill rolling boulder to seriously pursue a common-sense approach to baseball schedules.

    Speaking of common sense, has it ever bothered any of you that teams play 7-10 weeks of conference games and then decide who advances to the postseason based on who is best in the last handful of games? If you aren’t a perennial multi-bid juggernaut conference, this is counterproductive. Sure, tournaments are fun and if you are going to have them, there needs to be something on the line. And sure, it is nice to get to see a whole bunch of teams in the marathon style setting. That said, if you want the best team to represent your conference with an automatic bid, this is a horrible way to accomplish it. It’s why coaches such as Kent State’s Jeff Duncan are OK with the conference tourney being axed.

    This is baseball, where teams are as good as they are on the mound that day, After going 22-8 in your league and winning your league by five games, should your season come down to bringing your ace back on two days’ rest or rolling out a freshman with 10 innings pitched all year?
    This is our system and we just blindly accept it. Should we? Is this really the system we want?

    I like tradition as much as the next guy. But is say, the MAAC better served with a tournament than by awarding the auto bid another way? Last season, top-seed Canisius went two-and-cue while second-seed Quinnipiac beat third-seed Fairfield 6-5 in 13 innings on a bases-loaded wild pitch. That had to be an incredible, thrilling finish. The listed attendance was 436 in Staten Island, NY.
    Tournament viability has to be consideration moving forward. Especially since most conference tournament attendance is solely driven by the performance of local teams. If the local team(s) bow out early, the six-feet apart jokes in the stands tell themselves.

    This week, the Mid-American Conference killed their postseason tournaments in eight sports, baseball included. Last season, the MAC Baseball Tournament final in Avon, Ohio (suburban Cleveland) drew over a thousand fans as Central Michigan beat Ball State, 6-0. Those were the two best teams in the MAC last season, with CMU going 22-5 and Ball State going 20-5 (with a pair of games canceled against third place team Kent State).

    Would the league be better served with an Ivy League style playoff series between the two top teams? Or should the conference champion be awarded the automatic bid, even if it comes via tie-breaker. Or perhaps a smaller, NCAA Regional style four-team tournament would be preferred. There’s no obvious one-size-fits-all answer for each situation. But for leagues wondering how they are going to subsidize a conference tournament going forward, they have some interesting decisions to make in the post-COVID world.
    But while they do that, we sit back and wait. Where’s my paint brush?

  • Discussion
  • There have been much criticism over the years of the Big West being a bus league. It may finally pay off in 2021 with the reduced expenses.