Effects of global warming seen in Rosenblatt Stadium
OMAHA, Neb. -- This College World Series is for the teams in the long underwear leagues, where spring pop-ups come down coated in ice. This is for the guys who fight off frostbite in February while practicing how to turn two. This is for the ballplayers who own coats, and actually wear them a few months a year.
Those guys rarely get to Rosenblatt Stadium -- and they never get to the final weekend of the CWS. But they can watch this year and feel a little warmth in their chilly souls, knowing that the flip-flop crowd has been sent home to sulk.
The ongoing championship series between CWS title virgins Oregon State and North Carolina shows that global warming has come to college baseball. There's no need to dispatch Al Gore and a film crew to Omaha, but let it be known that this is no longer a sunshine-only sport.
Ask Carolina hero Chad Flack, whose 4-for-4 night in Game 1 was capped by scoring the winning run in a 4-3 thriller off a triple and a passed ball. What do you say to the folks who insist that titles are only won in the year-round sunshine states?
"We're gonna prove 'em wrong tomorrow," Flack said in a syrupy Carolina drawl.
The northernmost team in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference (Kentucky) won that league's regular-season title for the first time. Now the national title will be won by another team that actually experiences a change of seasons.
If the Beavers win, they will be the northernmost national champion in 42 years. Among the list of all-time champs, only Minnesota, which won it all in 1956, '60 and '64, hails from higher latitude than the boys from Corvallis. Oregon State's home base is, on average, warmer than only three towns that own championship trophies in the 59-year history of this event: Ann Arbor (Michigan, 1953 and '62 winner); Worcester, Mass. (Holy Cross, 1952); and Minneapolis.
Even the Tar Heels, situated well below the Mason-Dixon Line, would be the northernmost champ in 17 years. Chapel Hill gets an average of 5 inches of snow a year -- and, in a direct challenge to Oregon's gloomy image, gets more rain on average than Corvallis. Believe it or not, Carolina would be one of the 10 coldest homes to a baseball national title, based on average high temperatures.
Among men's college sports, only water polo historically skews more heavily in favor of the warm-weather schools than baseball. Even golf has seen cold-weather Big Ten schools win team and individual titles within the last decade.
Meanwhile, the Bikini Belt states of California, Arizona, Texas and Florida have produced 40 CWS champions, including 22 straight from 1967-88. Some other states broke in on the party for a while, but this had reverted to an SPF 30 event of late. The last five champions all were from California, Texas or Florida.
Now come the Beavers and Tar Heels, perhaps auguring a new era of geographic diversity. They certainly share a new upward mobility in the sport.
Oregon State has been a historical pauper. Until the Beavers beat Georgia last Monday, they had never won a CWS game, trailing powerhouses like Tufts, Ithaca and Harvard in all-time victories.
For decades, OSU was relegated to what amounted to the Pacific-10 minor league: the northern division, which consisted of the Beavers, Washington State, Washington and a rotation of interlopers such as Portland State, Gonzaga and Willamette. (Rival Oregon does not field a varsity baseball team.) The Pac-10's serious ball was played among the six Arizona-California schools.
When the Pac-10 finally abolished the divisional system and consolidated the conference in 1999, Oregon State took an annual beating. It recorded six straight losing league records, never finishing better than sixth, until the Beavers broke through last year.
They won the league title and advanced to the CWS for the first time since 1951. This year, in another sign of the leveling playing field nationally, OSU is the only repeater in the 2006 CWS field.
North Carolina has a more established baseball tradition than the Beavers, but still has never done enough to be considered an elite program. It remained well in arrears of the four Atlantic Coast Conference programs to its south -- Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami -- until now. The Tar Heels' second-place finish in the ACC this season was their best in 16 years, in a league that has oddly underachieved throughout its history.
Both Oregon State and North Carolina are home-grown teams, having convinced the best local players that they don't need to flee further south to win big in this sport.
The Beavers have 24 in-state players on their roster -- including a stellar pitching core that has carried the team to this point. They fill in the rest not by raiding the warmer states, but by sticking to their backyard: The four non-Oregonians to play Saturday were from Washington, Nevada or Montana.
"Our goal was to get players from the state first, then branch out," Fox said. "We should be able to get our share of kids in state. I knew there was really good talent in North Carolina, and hopefully they'll listen when Carolina calls."
The Tar Heels coaches were preparing to work their thumbs on the cell phones Saturday night, text-messaging recruits on the bus back to the hotel. It was time to strike while the team is red hot, and time to spread a most convenient truth: Global warming has come to college baseball.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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