By Skip Bayless
Page 2

The other night I dreamed ESPN sent me to baseball heaven to interview the wisest man in the game's history, Dizzy Dean.

I asked Dizzy all the questions that torment me about life on Earth, beginning with where the universe ends.

Diz's answers astonished and enlightened me. Now I understand.

Finally, I asked the one question about baseball I've never been able to answer. Readers of this column know I have an inarguable explanation for every development in sports history -- except this one. Diz would know.

I said: "Mr. Dean, if baseball has always been our national pastime, why have high school and college baseball never been much more important to America than wrestling or field hockey? I mean, the NHL draft gets more attention than the baseball draft -- yet Major League Baseball continues to set attendance records. I'm not sure I want to go on living if I can't explain this."

Ol' Diz looked at me for a long, hard time. He spat out some tobacco juice, some of which hit my right shoe.

And, finally, he said: "Son, you're not long for the world. I got no idea."

The roar of engines woke me in a cold sweat. I had fallen asleep on my couch. It was late Sunday night.

My TV was still on ESPN2, which was showing the NHRA O'Reilly Midwest Nationals. I remembered that, before dozing, I had watched North Carolina and Oregon State playing for the championship of the College World Series.

Andrew Miller
Nati Harnik/AP Photo
UNC pitcher Andrew Miller could be a future MLB star, so why don't people want to watch him play college ball?

From college baseball's national championship to the National Hot Rod Association? Nothing against ESPN2, for which I do a show. But can you imagine college football's or basketball's national championship game on ESPN2 followed by drag racing? What, this event doesn't even rate a postgame show?

Good God, the College World Series can't even compete in the ratings with the Little League World Series! Last summer, "Baseball Tonight" sent its A team -- Peter Gammons, John Kruk, Harold Reynolds -- to analyze the 11- and 12-year-olds! That was one reason the biggest stars of last year's Little League World Series -- Dante Bichette Jr.! Kalen Pimental! -- remain bigger stars than the two North Carolina pitchers recently drafted in the first round.

Odds are you've never heard of left-hander Andrew Miller, who went No. 6 to Detroit, or of right-hander Daniel Bard, taken 28th by Boston. If either of these guys had been taken in the equivalent spots in the NFL or NBA drafts, you'd know the 40 times and verticals of their grandmothers.

True story: I recently saw a guy wearing a Pimental jersey walking down Seventh Avenue in New York City. After all, last summer, a Little League World Series game on ESPN did a bigger ratings number than "Sunday Night Baseball."

So I ask the question that haunts my dreams on summer nights: What happens to the popularity of baseball stars between Little League and the big leagues? Why do they fall into minor-sport obscurity in high school and college? Why, Dizzy, why?

Why, when I played high school baseball in the late '60s, were we lucky to get our parents to show up at games? Why did my high school basketball team routinely sell out a gym that held 3,000? Why did my high school football game occasionally draw 10,000 fans?

Why has the same bizarre caste system always held true in college? Sure, baseball is pretty big at lots of warm-weather schools, especially Miami, Texas, Arizona State and USC. But even at those schools, basketball is still bigger than baseball, and football, of course, is king.

Why?

I mean, this is baseball. This is "Field of Dreams." Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Why has America's sports media, which usually fall all over themselves to make premature, overhyped mountains out of molehills, relatively ignore the developmental stages of our potential baseball stars?

Thanks to ESPN.com's Chad Ford, I can already tell you more about Andrea Bargnani, the 20-year-old from Italy who could go No. 1 in the NBA draft, than I can about Miller and Bard combined.

You know, the two North Carolina pitchers.

Can somebody out there on some planet please explain this? I'm pretty sure I've heard every theory, and I'm very sure I can shoot a hole the size of a black hole in each of them.

High School and College Draftees Take Forever To Make It To The Majors, If They Ever Do.

Yet college pitchers picked in the first round often spend only a year or two in the minors, which isn't much different than how long it takes most first-round quarterbacks to play. Barry Zito (USC) and Mark Mulder (Michigan State) were in the A's rotation after just one minor league season, and Huston Street moved up to be the A's closer just a year out of Texas.

Justin Verlander is 9-4 for the Tigers in just his second year out of Old Dominion. Hear much about him in college? Not unless you attended Old Dominion. Scouts say Miller has good enough stuff to break into the Tigers' rotation next season -- though it's tough to figure which starter he could replace.

You know, Miller, the North Carolina guy.

Yet I know all about Philip Rivers, even though he has barely played in his first two seasons as a quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and his North Carolina State teams didn't exactly contend for national championships. I watched lots of Rivers' college games. If any of this year's North Carolina baseball games were available on my cable system in New York, I missed 'em.

It's tough to find any college baseball on TV, even on cable. From week to week, it's tough for the average fan to keep up with who's No. 1, because you won't hear about it on "SportsCenter" or see it in the ESPN.com headlines.

Except for LeBron James, many high school kids picked in the first round of the NBA draft sit for three or four years before getting a chance to prove they're not a bust. Many are. Now, some play in the developmental league. Jermaine O'Neal was lost on the bench for four years in Portland before getting his shot to start -- and star -- in Indiana.

But I knew all about Jermaine when he was in high school in South Carolina, because he would soon be drafted 17th overall.

Everybody knows Michael Jordan didn't go until No. 3 in the 1984 draft. But besides get-a-life seam heads, who remembers Barry Bonds lasted until No. 6 in the '85 draft? Who remembers (or cares) that the Brewers took B.J. Surhoff No. 1 (out of North Carolina), the Giants passed on Bonds in favor of Will Clark at No. 2, the Rangers took Bobby Witt No. 3 out of the University of Oklahoma, the Reds took Barry Larkin No. 4 out of the University of Michigan, and the White Sox took a Glendora, Calif., high school kid named Kurt Brown (who never made it to the big leagues) ahead of the Pirates, who took Bonds.

I care. Very few other humans do. How come?

College Baseball is Pretty Much a Southern Game, so New York Isn't Interested.

The New York area isn't much of a college football hotbed, either. But that doesn't seem to hurt college football's northern exposure.

And lots of kids from the Northeast head south to play college baseball, or they get drafted out of high school. High school kids from New Hampshire and New Jersey went in this year's second round -- and Adam Ottavino, a right-handed pitcher out of Northeastern, was the last pick in the first round.

Bill Rowe
Nati Harnik/AP Photo
In case you didn't know, the College World Series is tied up 1-1 -- Oregon State's Bill Rowe helped make that happen by smacking a 3-run home run on Sunday.

No, baseball is as much the North's as the South's game. Holy Cross won college baseball's national title in 1952, Michigan in '53 and '62 and Minnesota in '56, '60 and '64.

Yet most Yankees and Mets fans have no more interest in high school or college baseball than most Dodgers or Angels fans do.

Why?

Aluminum bats? Who likes that annoying ping or the absurd advantage these rocket launchers give high school and college hitters? But high school and college baseball were considered minor sports long before aluminum bats.

Just about every male kid in America plays some Little League baseball, which explains the ratings fascination with the Little League World Series. So many kids -- and parents -- can imagine themselves at Williamsport. So many baseball fans are captivated by how tall and strong these Little Leaguers are getting at 11 and 12 and how some of the homers they hit look as if they could reach the big league seats.

But why doesn't that fascination last into high school?

High school kids -- especially African-American kids -- aren't playing baseball as much as they once did. Too many teenagers find the game too slow and boring. But high school and college baseball bored most American fans long before the football and basketball booms.

Sure, people are going nuts about baseball right now at North Carolina and Oregon State. But that will fade once football, then basketball, begins.

In the end, maybe it's the media's fault. Maybe the media could build interest by promoting and televising college baseball more. But how can you justify promoting and televising a sport that so few fans attend? We're chicken to try to hatch that egg.

Americans decided a long, long time ago that they love only big league baseball.

But I can no more explain that than why my right shoe was stained with tobacco juice after I woke up.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.




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